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Strangers and Swan’s Down

New interpretive exhibit opens in the Fort St. James National Historic Site
A visitor to the Fort St. James National Historic Site checks out the new interpretive display at the site: Strangers and Swan’s Down.

Some things improve as they age, but historical exhibits from the 1970s are not one of them.

The interpretive centre at the Fort St. James National Historic Site was overdue for a rebuild, and it was in a large part thanks to Site Manager Bob Grill’s ability to stretch funding and streamline the process, the upgrade finally happened.

“Bob’s the real magic-man behind it,” said Frieda Esau Klippenstein, the Parks Canada historian who also helped create the new exhibit.

She said the old exhibit was “like an academic book on a wall” and the goal was to create something which would connect more with the local people.

Updating the exhibit had been a goal at the historic site since the 1990s, according to Klippenstein, but the funds just had not been there to make it happen.

Grill worked hard to obtain at least some of the necessary funding, then leveraged the first initial amounts to get more, according to Klippenstein.

But even still, Klippenstein called their budget “ridiculously low” and said it was only with Grill’s ingenuity the exhibit was able to be completed because he did so much of the work himself, including completing the design work. This was after cuts to Parks Canada meant Jan Beringer, the exhibit designer who started the project, was let go this spring.

Klippenstein also said the timeline was very short, with most projects of this scale and scope taking much longer.

The initial go ahead for the project came in November of 2010, and construction on the actual display itself began in November of 2011.

But because Grill helped arrange meetings so historians Klippenstein and Karen Routledge could simply fly in from Winnipeg and consult with groups such as the Nak’azdli elders and Metis groups, everything was done much faster than normally possible.

There was a shorter timeline in the construction phase as well, because Grill did much of the work himself, and he used some of the materials from the previous exhibit to help keep the costs down.

But Klippenstein has to have some of the credit for making the new exhibit what it is, because she was key in uncovering a piece of film from 1928 documenting a centenary (100th anniversary) celebration of Governor Simpson’s visit to the Fort in 1828.

The 1928 “pageant” on film captures some amazing footage of the events, including First Nations dancing in a very different style, traditional games, and the arrival of a group by canoe, walking up from the shores of Stuart Lake.

A featured piece of the exhibit, the film replays on a loop displayed on a large screen above specially built displays created by Grill.

Kllippenstein found out about the film when another film was being showcased in Winnipeg, which led to her hearing about an enormous collection of films from the Hudson’s Bay Company which had recently been brought back to Winnipeg after being stored in London, where a film archive had been kept by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

A man named Peter Geller did an inventory of the films, and Klippenstein then found out about the film on Fort St. James.

The recently digitized version of the film excited her because it related to so many of the stories told at the historic site and may even include some local First Nation faces recognized by living elders as their relatives.

“It’s so cool to find that video had been captured,” said Klippenstein.