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Sunday, July 8, 2012

The box the Basilica came in

When you sail through St. John's Narrows, the first thing you see is the beautiful, historic St. John the Baptist Basilica surrounded by colourful row houses.

Then you spot this monstrosity to the left of it (depending which way you're looking). It's The Rooms.
One time I was on a tour boat in the harbour enjoying the accordion music and a day on the sea with a bunch of tourists. Someone pointed out the Basilica. She recognized it from a painting she saw in a gallery earlier. "What's that big building to the left of it?" she asked. Quick as a wink the captain said, "That's the box the Basilica came in." Now that's what I think of when I see The Rooms.

I've only been in The Rooms a handful of times. Each time I was disappointed. It's a beautiful building, don't get me wrong. It's just not what I thought it was going to be.
When the Rooms was first proposed, I thought it was a fabulous idea to have a new building dedicated to our history and culture. The old museum on Duckworth Street had the same stuff in it since I was in kindergarten. It would be nice to have a modern facility.

A few years ago, I decided to "Vacation at Home" as the advertisements tell us to do. I felt my kids were developing a love for the mainland and mostly the United States due to our vacations there. They were starting to see the world and they loved it. All winter they couldn't wait to leave this Island for one that had hot weather, sandy beaches and roller coasters.
I felt it was my duty to make sure they had a love of Newfoundland and Labrador culture and history too. So I brought them to The Rooms.  It was very disappointing with very little about our culture or heritage. I know art is in the eye of the beholder, but there was a stack of books up to the ceiling and art work from New York. It wasn't my taste.

I asked people who worked there, "I want to teach my kids about Newfoundland culture and history. Where's that section." There was very little there to see. The Archives were there if you wanted to read all day. Another mother standing close by told me to go to the Geo Center. That was the best place to find out about our province and she was right.
The Geo Center had a great video hosted by Gordon Pinsent that the kids and I enjoyed very much. The Titanic exhibition was excellent and the kids loved walking through it. The place was exciting and kid friendly. When I first walked in to The Rooms the first thing I thought about was "Do they even allow kids in here?"  It doesn't seem like a kid friendly building when you're in the lobby.

When I think about The Rooms, I envisioned our vast culture and heritage on display not only for tourists but for our own children to be able to see it, touch it and hear it.
Recently myself and some friends went to see "Nunsense" a Spirit of Newfoundland production. We don't miss any shows put off by this extremely talented crowd. Each time we go, we are astounded by the quality of the talent. From Sheila Williams' brilliant comedic timing that puts you in mind of Lucille Ball, to Shelley Neville's beautiful opera voice. Any of these performers could easily hold their own against the best from Broadway.

How can such a small island produce so much talent? There must be something in the salt meat!

I think of the music from Great Big Sea to The Wonderful Grand Band. How many kids in this province know the WGB's Living in a Fog CD has been selling strong since 1981?
This is where The Rooms comes in. If I were in charge of this building here's what I would do...

Create "Rooms" for the following...
The Musical History of Newfoundland and Labrador Room: This area will feature an accordion owned by Harry Hibbs, awards won by Great Big Seat, the fiddle of Emile Benoit, a mannequin dressed in a Joan Morrissey dress, the original hand written lyrics to "Sonny's Dream" by Ron Hynes and that's just off the top of my head. Each display will have a button you press and it plays the music and tells you the history of each artist. This room wouldn't be long filling up with historical items. Some of the artists featured in the room will be invited in to talk to children about how important our musical history is and encourage them to listen and love it. Imagine Alan Doyle talking to a junior high show choir about performing on stage!

The Broadcasting history of Newfoundland and Labrador: This room will feature a display on Geoff Stirling and how he and Don Jamison brought television to this province. It will have a section on the "Art Andrew's Dance Party." A Marconi display (don't forget broadcasting started in NL). A room for The Wonderful Grand Band's CBC show featuring Marg at the Mental's costumes, Nanny Hynes' bandana and other memorable items. Don't forget the entire CBC network today is held together by artists and shows from Newfoundland and Labrador: The Republic of Doyle, This Hour has 22 Minutes and the Rick Mercer Report. There will be a theatre featuring all of these new shows as well as the old. How many young adults in this province have seen The Rowdy Man? I recently sat with Ron Pumphrey and his lovely wife Marilynn at a dinner. Age hasn't dulled his ability to tell you fantastic story after story about our history. How many kids know who he is? His stories need a place to live.
The Sports history of Newfoundland and Labrador: The crowning glory to this room will be the Olympic Gold Medals won by Team Gushue. Next to it will be the Stanley Cup Ring won by Daniel Cleary. Displays will feature personal items and the story of many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have gone on to become world athletes. Can you imagine a class of grade four students sitting in this room listening to Brad Gushue tell his Olympic story? Talk about leaving an impression on a kid!

The Political history of Newfoundland and Labrador: No other province has our colourful political history! This room will feature a bust of each elected premier and their history. Other personal items will be on display like Joey Smallwood's suit and glasses. Each past premier will be asked to donate something of historical importance to be featured in their display. I imagine a class of high school students sitting in this room talking one on one with Danny Williams about Muskrat Falls. Wouldn't that light a fire under our future leaders?
Now that's just off the top of my head. I know each of you can add to these displays and add more rooms. Can you imagine taking your kids to this building?

Parents shouldn't have to wonder if this is a "Kid friendly" building. Kids should be ignited when they come through the doors.
This is where our children will see our past and become part of our future. This facility will inspire our future leaders, broadcasters and sports stars.

The Rooms should be known for being more than the box the Basilica came in. The Rooms should have room for us!