Wetaskiwin museum curator took chisel to Berlin Wall

Wetaskiwin Heritage Museum’s Karen Aberle begins new column

What are your plans for the upcoming long weekend? Do they include celebrating your heritage? In 1974 the Government of Alberta declared the first Monday in August Heritage Day, an annual holiday aimed at recognizing and celebrating our story, the very thing that makes us who we are. I cherish this holiday because I can’t remember a time when heritage was not important to me, even if I didn’t always understand it the way I do now.

Growing up in Calgary, my family visited every historic site, monument, and museum we could. Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, Writing on Stone, the Frank Slide, and the Cave and Basin in Banff are some of the places that stand out as captivating me as a child. It is not the history of the places as much as the connection to the people who came before me and their stories that I loved, and this helped shape my identity as a proud Albertan.

Then, when I was 16 I had the opportunity to participate in a student exchange with West Germany. Isabel lived with us in the fall of 1989. On November 9th she and my family sat in our living room and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV. The images of all those people on the Brandenburg Gate and the Wall itself had a different meaning for each of us. My parents remember when the wall went up, they were about our age. Isabel and I didn’t know a world without it. History happened that day, but the most impactful part for me was seeing these images through my friend’s eyes, watching it shape her story. Each image brought with it emotions not only of past pains and current triumph for her country, but also of future uncertainty and struggles for her and her kin.

Months later it was my turn to live in Germany and we spent a week in Berlin. History says the official demolition of the Wall began on 13 June 1990, the journal I wrote confirms we arrived three days later. That week I was a part of history. I physically took a chisel to the Berlin Wall and literally participated in its destruction. A piece of it has been on display in every house I have lived in since. This is more than a piece of painted concrete that represents an historic event. It is a part of my story, my heritage, and it embodies these defining moments in my life that changed how I view the world and my place in it. It is also a symbol of when I first understood the emotional connections we have with our built environment and material culture, how objects can symbolize something greater than their three-dimensional form, how they can bring us together and cultivate our identity, and how they can have different meaning for different people.

Subsequently, I have been fortunate to spend my adult life immersed in history, heritage, and culture. I have studied Plains Archaeology, Ancient History, and European Cultural Heritage. I have lived, worked, and studied abroad. I spent years researching and writing a 500-page dissertation on Cross Cultural Exchange in the Mediterranean (it’s not as riveting as it may sound).

Today, I have come full circle, back to those places, monuments, and stories I loved as a child, which are just as important as anything I have mentioned up to this point. I moved to this amazing community to work at the Heritage Museum, to share the rich heritage of Wetaskiwin City, County, and Maskwacis. I am thankful to Stu Salkeld and the Pipestone Flyer for giving me the opportunity and space to share some of this rich heritage with you, my community, on a regular basis in the weeks, months, and years to come. Enjoy your well-deserved long weekend, and while you do take a moment to reflect on your own story and to celebrate aspects of your own heritage. What are your defining moments? Perhaps you will also take the time to visit a heritage site within our community, I know I will.

Dr. Karen Aberle is the executive director and chief curator at the Wetaskiwin & District Heritage Museum. She can be reached at wdhm@persona.ca.

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