A new exhibit at Bethune Memorial House in Gravenhurst is giving guests a glimpse of life in the trenches.
Opened earlier this month, the new exhibit is a roughly 50 square meters of winding wooden and sandbagged trench systems, designed to show visitors a child friendly snapshot of life during World War One. The area also contains climbing apparatus, a balance beam, bridge and tunnels.
“Responding to what visitors have asked for, we were looking for a way to offer more hands-on opportunities for younger visitors,” says Scott Davidson, the Manager of Bethune Memorial House. “At the same time, we had realized that the fascinating story of Norman Bethune’s three tours of duty in the First World War was under represented at the site.”
Norman Bethune is most frequently associated with his time spent as a battlefield surgeon during the Spanish Civil War and alongside communist forces in China, where he died in 1939. What is not as commonly known is that Bethune served three tours of duty for Canada during the First World War.
“He was reputedly the eighth Canadian in Toronto to volunteer to serve in the war. He then went on to do three tours of duty: The Army, the Navy and the Air Force,” says Davidson. “Beyond this story, this exhibit offers people a chance to ponder: What was life like in a trench? How did stretcher bearers carry
the wounded back to hospitals? You’re left wondering at the fortitude of our veterans.”
When they began planning the project the primary goal was to give younger guests a glimpse of the role a stretcher bearer played in the Great War, says Davidson.
“This activity area is designed to represent the type of environment experienced by Norman Bethune and many of the more than 400,000 other Canadians who served overseas in the First World War,” he says. “But it was also designed to be a place for active exploration, so historic accuracy wasn’t a main goal. While the display could never capture how it looked and felt to be in a real trenches, the activity area helps visitors to imagine what would it be like to help injured soldiers.”
The balance beams and obstacle courses are designed to test two of the skills essential to stretcher bearers: balance and speed.
“You can put on a replica medical uniform and practice and train like you are going to be a stretcher bearer, just as Norman Bethune did in 1915,” says Davidson.
This year Bethune Memorial House also features a new enhanced exhibit with personal belongings, instruments used in surgery, and family heirlooms. The site also boasts the historic childhood home of Bethune, a modern 350 square meter visitor centre, landscaped gardens, statues and panels.
For 2017, Bethune Memorial House – like all other national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas operated by Parks Canada – are offering free admission to celebrate Canada 150.
The majority of the guests to Bethune Memorial House are Chinese or of Chinese descent, but Davidson says they’re hoping to get the word out to Muskoka to visit the historic gem in their midst.
“I think many of us overlook the places close to home and see our local
heritage as something for visitors to appreciate. But I feel Bethune Memorial offers an inspiring message that anyone can make a difference,” says Davidson. “It can be a place for seasonal and year round residents of Muskoka to feel pride in a local boy who was inspired to provide good healthcare to all Canadians and then to others around the globe.”
The site is open until Oct. 31 and more information about Bethune Memorial House events and programs, can be found at www.pc.gc.ca/bethune .