CNCounty News

Craft-makers bring history to life at county museum

YesterWays participants knits mittens and wristlets at the Monroe County, Mich. Museum. Photo courtesy of JJ Przeowzniak

Key Takeaways

The Monroe County Museum is weaving the Michigan county’s history into the present through its YesterWays program, which brings objects the museum has on display to life through craft activities. 

“I think a lot of folks out there might think that history is something kind of boring … they think it’s just books on a shelf, it’s a static collection of data from years gone past,” said JJ Przewozniak, the musuem’s deputy director. “And in museum education, one of the challenges, but it’s a good challenge, is to get people inspired by history, to have the past resonate with your visitors somehow. 

“Doing hands-on stuff, making something, whether it’s purely an artistic creation or if it’s a replica of something that somebody did using a method from 200, 300 years ago, when you’re using your hands dedicated to something, there’s a lot of retention, there’s a lot of enjoyment that goes along with it.”

The program’s first workshop in January was centered on a 105-year-old sweater the museum has on display that was made in Monroe County and sent over to Erwin Wagner, who served with the U.S. Navy in France during World War I. YesterWays participants were taught basic knitting techniques by museum staff and given yarn and knitting needles to create a fingerless mitten or wristlet. 

“We look at the significance of the craft and how it related to our community at large and that’s how we prioritize what YesterWays does,” Przewozniak said. “… [Millions] of knit goods went over to the Doughboys (a nickname for American servicemen during World War I). If you’re in 1918 living in Monroe, there were knitting circles, men and women both, and the Red Cross encouraged people to knit off the clock, like when they did their breaks at work. That was a very important part of life for people in 1918, or an aspect of it.” 

Today, the free workshops have engaged people of all ages and become a way for families in the community to bond over multiple generations, according to Przewozniak.

“That’s one of the most special things, when a grandpa or grandma is there with their grandkids and they have a memory of this craft from the past,” Przewozniak said. “Maybe their parents practiced it or maybe they did, and they get to show it to the little ones in the family in a special way. It’s very heartwarming.”

Monroe County resident Jody Egan regularly attends the YesterWays program with her child. Egan said she views the program as an “invaluable classroom for the next generation,” and together, they’ve crafted a paper American lotus (Monroe County claims to be the “Lotus Capital of the World”)  and created watercolor painting in a session inspired by Monroe County artist Robert S. Duncanson’s work, among other activities. 

“Attending the Monroe County Museum’s YesterWays program is like unlocking a time capsule with the key to our past,” Egen said. “… These workshops instill a deep appreciation for our local roots, cultivating a generation that understands the importance of preserving and learning from history … Sharing these time-honored skills of the past serves as a touchstone to our ancestors, introducing skills that carry on as an investment into our future.”

While most of the YesterWays workshops are centered on a certain object the museum has on display, the staff will sometimes look for inspiration elsewhere if there’s something monumental in the county’s history that the museum doesn’t house, Przewozniak said. The museum doesn’t have any paintings by Robert S. Duncanson, who was raised in Monroe County and is considered to be the first internationally known African-American artist as well as the greatest landscape painter in the West. However, the staff knew it wanted to highlight his work and memory through the program. 

The museum works to make the activities as accessible and beginner-friendly as possible, so while Duncanson worked with oil paints, the participants painted with watercolors. Przewozniak said that a participant told him that she enjoyed the session so much that she devoted a room in her own home to her newfound love for watercolor painting. 

“Apparently, she had developed a condition that limited the use of her hands, so rediscovering painting at the museum was the inspiration she needed,” Przewozniak said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The museum offers YesterWays each Saturday during what Przewozniak refers to as the museum’s “off-season,” which is December through April, and the activity changes monthly. Starting the program back up again this month, the museum hosted a workshop to create a pomander, which is a ball made of perfumes that was a popular gift during the Victorian-era and thought to protect against infection. 

“We wanted to create an atmosphere where there was always something going on. On any given Saturday, during the cold months, you can pop into the museum and see what’s happening and have a fun, hands-on experience,” Przewozniak said. “… There may have been a 10-year gap between the last time they set foot in this building, and if YesterWays was something that brought them back, we’re very happy for that.”

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