Exhibit’s cutting edge technology allows guests to explore Woonsocket’s past

Exhibit’s cutting edge technology allows guests to explore Woonsocket’s past

Sarah Carr, left, the assistant director of the Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket, explains the interactive digital map for the new “Mills Along the Blackstone” exhibit at the museum. Listening are City Council President Dan Gendron, right, with his wife, Ann Marie. The new space was unveiled at the museum’s 20th Anniversary Gala last Saturday night. (Breeze photos by Tom Ward)
Exhibit’s cutting edge technology allows guests to explore Woonsocket’s past

WOONSOCKET – Paul Bourget, president of the Museum of Work & Culture's Preservation Foundation, recognizes that the city museum is at a unique moment in history.

Thanks to new technology, the museum now has the ability to offer interactive exhibits that allow guests to explore the city's past like never before.

Meanwhile, those who understand and remember pieces of the story the museum aims to tell – that of the French Canadian immigrant who came to Woonsocket for a better life working in the city's mills – are rapidly disappearing.

Bourget's mission to take advantage of the moment has led to a new exhibit that not only gives guests a hands-on opportunity to explore the city's industrial past, but also gives life to the museum's history lesson through the stories of the people who lived through it.

The new permanent exhibit, "The Mills Along the Blackstone: Locally Made, Internationally Known," was unveiled at the museum's 20th anniversary gala last Saturday, Nov. 4. Situated in the back of the second floor of the Market Square building, the exhibit includes a large touch-screen table where guests can learn about the mills themselves, and a "Memory Bank," which documents and tells the stories of the workers.

Bourget said the cutting-edge exhibit brings a needed opportunity to interact with features in the now 20-year-old museum.

"This is the story of the emigration of French Canadians," Bourget said, while walking through the facility this week. "It's the mills that attracted them."

The story of the city's cultural heritage begins with a replica of a farmhouse in Canada, followed by a miniature version of the Woonsocket's first French Catholic church, Precious Blood. Guests enter a replica mill, a classroom in a Catholic school, and a union hall, and can look at pictures and school yearbooks from the period. An audio overview tells visitors of the city's place in the industrial revolution and knowledgeable museum docents bring character to the story.

But the exhibits, Bourget noted, were all static.

"We can describe what the Americanization process was and continues to be," said Bourget. "But there was something missing."

"It's a great, great museum, but there was nothing really to play with. That was an issue for me," said Bourget.

Museum Director Anne Conway agreed.

"The museum tells a really broad story of immigration and the industrial revolution, but there really was a missing piece," Conway said.

The piece, the museum organizers say, needed to document the mills themselves, while also highlighting the workers. Bourget pointed out that while there were once more than 100 mills in Woonsocket, many have been demolished or have burnt down. And the generation that remembers what it was like to work in them is rapidly aging.

"I said this is going to disappear," Bourget said. "This is like a train coming by the station, and then it moves on."

The museum hired the firm Content Design of Scituate, Mass., to design the exhibit and Trivium Interactive, of Boston, developed the software and graphics.

"We have worked with them to come up with a storyline," Conway said.

The new feature would also require extensive research, and museum staff dug through old maps and records at City Hall, library books and old news stories.

Now, "We've created a central place where you'll really be able to discover and understand the impact the mills have had," Conway said. "It's a fascinating story."

At the center of Mills Along the Blackstone is a large table, and as guests approach, they'll get an animated look at the buildings that once made up the city landscape. Museum-goers can stand at one of four stations surrounding the screen and when a visitor touches the table, a current map of the city unfolds. From there, users can choose one of five eras in Woonsocket's past, starting in 1810 and ending with the current day, to see how the city looked at the time.

"You'll see the city change from basically a very rustic agrarian town, to what it is now," said Bourget. "You'll see the rise of the mills and the fall of the mills."

By touching a hot spot on the map, guests can highlight a specific mill and see photos and history of the buildings.

After four years of research, 25 of the city's largest and most significant mills have been documented and added to the system. Another 50 are currently in development, and Bourget said he hopes the exhibit will include at least 100 by the time it's complete.

"Most of the people you're going to find in the city will have worked at the 100," Bourget said.

The foundation president said he also hopes to add churches and businesses as the exhibit continues to expand.

At the back of the updated room in the museum is also the new Mill Memory Bank, a feature that allows guests to search an ever-growing database of mill workers. The museum has been working on building the database for more than a year, and it now contains biographies and photos of some 200 former mill employees. It also shows video of people discussing their mill experience, taken from interviews.

"It's a virtual time machine," said Bourget. "This is what I envisioned: an exhibit that would make the museum come alive through its people."

Soon, the "memory" database will be linked to table, so that the employees become part the mill overview.

"We have come, finally, to an interactive museum that is the culmination of what this museum is about," said Bourget. "While they started in a small farm in Canada, they ended up here."

The museum is still seeking more people to provide biographies and pictures of the old mills, which they will scan and return. To learn about contributing a biography, contact the museum at 401-769-9675.

"The exhibit is about the people," said Bourget. "It's not about brick and mortar. I can keep adding people forever."

Conway noted that the area was designed to serve the individual that wants to explore and play.

For Bourget, its launch in the city has come none too soon.

"It's no longer a mill town," he said.

Guests take a look at the new “Mills Along The Blackstone” digital interactive exhibit, a first for the Museum of Work & Culture, at the museum’s 20th Anniversary Gala last Saturday night.
Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt speaks to the gathering at the Museum of Work & Culture’s 20th Anniversary Gala Saturday. Listening are, from left, C. Morgan Grefe, executive director of the R.I. Historial Society; Paul Bourget, president of the museum’s foundation board; museum Executive Director Anne Conway, and her husband, Peter.
A gathering of guests from Navigant Credit Union enjoy cocktails as the Museum of Work & Culture’s anniversary gala begins last Saturday. They are, from left, Tim and Deb Draper; David and Jamie DeCubellis; Fred and Alice Reinhardt, with son Fred and his wife, Ellen; and Jon and Melissa Roberts. Navigant has been a longtime and leading supporter of the Woonsocket museum.