BY TREVOR NICHOLS
The last things one could expect to see in an exhibit about the New England Planters are Japanese cartoons.
At the Kings County Museum there they are: Planter Pete and Planter Sophie greet patrons with stylized, extra-big eyes.
The two Planter ‘toons were conceived and drawn by Elise Vermeulen, one of the students working at the museum this summer. She studies graphic arts in Toronto, and wanted to use her talents to draw more kids to the museum.
“I wanted to create something that would catch their eyes,” she says.
Vermeulen, originally from Canning, remembers coming to the museum with her mom as a kid and being fascinated. She thinks getting kids interested in history is important.
Brent Sweeny, another museum summer student, agrees kids should be learning about the history of their community.
“A lot of kids nowadays are interested in pop culture, but history can be just as interesting, and it happened right here where we live,” he says.
Vermeulen hopes the museum's two new anime “employees” will help. They appear on quizzes the museum gives to visiting kids, which take them on a kind of scavenger hunt through Planter past. Kids seem to be enjoying them.
Museum curator Bria Stokesbury likes Vermeulen's “fresh and different” approach. She says museum staff were scratching their heads, trying to find a way to appeal to children.
“The idea was, how do you make a static exhibit relevant to today's youth?”
Stokesbury likes Verneulen's idea because it takes something most kids will be familiar with, something that is a big part of their world, and fuses it with something historical that will help them learn.
Although the idea of mashing together early English history with something as foreign as Japanese animation might seem jarring, Stokesbury says Vermeulen did a great job blending the two worlds.
“She managed to make what could be a foreign concept familiar,” she explains, “and that's the sign of a good graphic artist.”
Kids who see Planters Pete and Sophie will recognize in them the pioneer themes they learned in school, but Vermeulen gave them a modern touch, which pulls them into today's world. That’s something museums often struggle with, Stokesbury says, gesturing to her desk, upon which is a glossy book about exploiting social media.
“It's a challenge to keep museums relevant.”
History never changes, she says, so it is often hard to compete for people's interest with pop culture and current events. It is important to have young people come in every summer and bring their “fresh and energetic” viewpoint, unique ideas and diverse skills. The relationship goes both ways as well, as Stokesbusy says she tries to give the students real life experience that they can use in the real world.
For her part, Vermeulen says she enjoys seeing something she created have a practical application.
“It feels good, it's good practice and it shows people that I have other skills,” she says.