Jenna Klassen is the Assistant Curator at the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach. She
spends her days unearthing little-known treasures, learning more about them, and then telling their
story to the world. When she’s not working on her Master’s thesis or curating the collection at the MHV, she’s curating ideas for her upcoming wedding.
1. Which museums have you worked at, before coming to the MHV? I’m guessing I haven’t been to any of them (there are so many I want to check out! next summer!) — which ones should I start with?
I’ve worked at quite a range of museums over the years! I first started at the St. Vital Museum, which
is housed in an old fire hall—very cool! It’s a quaint, tiny little place that’s mostly run by volunteers
who are very passionate about the history of the Old St. Vital area. I’ve also done internships at the
Buhler Gallery, which is located in St. Boniface Hospital, and at the Manitoba Crafts Museum and
Library, located in the Exchange District. The Crafts Museum is really neat—it’s also quite small,
but they have a pretty serious collection of historical and contemporary craft from Manitoba. I’d
recommend checking it out for their exhibits, but they also host and put on really interesting
workshops that teach you how to make things with your hands! Neat! I also worked in the
collections department at the Manitoba Museum one summer. I spent hours and hours in the history
department’s artifact storage room (*heart eyes emoji*). They have everything you could think of…
and some things you’d never think of! I’m looking forward to checking out the renovated Nonsuch
gallery in the near future!
2. Why is Mennonite material culture such a passion for you?
It certainly hasn’t always been a passion for me! I never thought much of my family history, or
Mennonite history in general, until the last year of my undergraduate degree. I was taking a seminar
on Immigration and Ethnicity with Royden Loewen and Hans Werner—the big kahunas of
Mennonite history—and we had to come up with a topic for the final paper. I’ve always been into
artifacts and material culture, and somehow I got the idea to look at the artifact collection at the
Mennonite Heritage Village (this was long before I started working there). I have one quarter
Russlander background, and that whole migration story made me think: after all they’d gone through
(WWI, the Russian Revolution, civil war, famine…), and as many were refugees, they must not have
been able to take many of their belongings with them… so what did they take, and why? So that
turned into my paper for that class, and has now turned into my Master’s thesis, and the subject of
our upcoming temporary exhibit at MHV!
Since that first paper, I’ve become much more interested in Mennonite material culture and
Mennonite history in general. My interest was also piqued after I realized there’s so much more to
Mennonite history than the theology, or institutional history. I’m really into the social history, or the
day-to-day of how Mennonites lived, and cultural aspects of the Mennonite community. If you’re
looking for (more) reading material, I love Marlene Epp’s book Mennonite Women in Canada and
Norma Jost Voth’s Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia, volumes one and two.
3./4. You’re working on the upcoming temporary exhibit, exploring the items the Russlanders
brought with them when they immigrated. Please tell us about one item that has reduced
you to tears… and another item that has perhaps elicited much laughter.
(part A) I don’t think there’s anything that made me cry… but there is one artifact that is incredibly
emotionally moving. It’s a pair of slippers that belonged to Katharina Dick in New Russia (today
Ukraine). She and her husband had a large estate and were very wealthy, which made them the
targets of anarchists around the time of the Russian Revolution, and they were both killed.
According the donor of the slippers, Katharina was wearing them when she was killed, and they are
still encrusted with the soil of their estate. It’s a very heart-wrenching story, and just reminds you
that objects can hold such strong emotions and memories.
(part B) I also don’t think I’ve had an “lol” moment, but there are some interesting things that I’ve
come across! One is an old-timey wool bathing costume. I really like the idea that the young girl who
it belonged to liked it so much that she brought it from Russia to Canada. Also, did you know that at
one of the hot springs in Banff, you can rent “vintage” bathing suits like these to wear? I was very
excited about that this last summer.
5. Ammonia cookies: potentially deadly, or deadly-delicious?
I just had some at Christmas and I’m not dead yet… so deadly delicious!
Bonus question for all us nosy nellies: Is your fiancé also into historical stuff?
Absolutely not! That would make for a very boring relationship (I’m kidding… historians aren’t
boring… I promise!).