My (Ukrainian) dad had always wanted to visit the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, and this week he got his wish–we were passing through that part of the province with just enough time to get a good look at the place before it closed for the evening, and I’m so glad we did.
For anyone with Ukrainian-Canadian roots (or anyone interested in pioneer Prairie communities), this heritage village (interpreted for the period between 1900 and 1930) is an absolute gem. Costumed role-players “inhabit” the buildings, welcoming visitors into their homes and businesses and making informative conversation in (nearly) flawless Ukrainian accents, and the buildings and farmsteads are authentic down to the last mud puddle and runaway chicken.
As I child of the Saskatchewan, I am not unfamiliar with heritage villages (the Western Development Museum in North Battleford is not too far from where I grew up, and the Prairies are dotted with old churches, schoolhouses, and railway stations preserved as small-town museums) and I’ve always enjoyed them, but the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is something truly special. Unlike many heritage villages I’ve seen, the buildings at the Ukrainian Village were not cluttered with antiques, instead furnished only with those tools and dishes the families actually would have used and owned. The costumed interpreters, rather than launching into a set “spiel” every time a visitor entered their “zone”, simply welcomed us into their home or business and then made pleasant conversation, providing historical/cultural information only when asked (and always as if they were truly the owner of their home and never from the perspective of a person living after the time period of the building). The interpreters were so thorough I felt uncomfortable wandering into their bedrooms and back porches, feeling as though I was actually trespassing in somebody’s house.
The most impressive details, of course, are always the really basic ones, and ones that other heritage museums often miss in their efforts to keep their sites prim and tidy. For example, many of the farmsteads smelled–there were pigs in the pen and piles of horseshit in the barn and actual slop pails in the houses (sour milk and all–I pity the poor interpreters who sat in hot stinky kitchens all day). The large grassy expanses between the farmsteads were either obviously cut by hand, or not at all, and the roads between the “rural” zones of the heritage village and the town site showed only the narrow wheel tracks of horse-drawn carts and antique trucks. In sights, sounds, and smells, visiting the Ukrainian Village is an incredibly immersive experience, and one my father said brought him back not only to his own childhood farmhouse, but to the farmsteads of his aunts and uncles as well.
My only complaint about the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is that we had only given ourselves an hour to see it, and it is a place I could easily spend the better part of a day.