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The Italian Heritage Project, Guelph

The Italian Heritage Project is an initiative in collaboration with the Italian Canadian Archives Project (ICAP) and the University of Guelph, that was born of a fortunate convergence of events.

The principal aims of The Italian Heritage project are to collect and preserve the narratives and artifacts of Italian immigrants to Canada, and the Guelph-Wellington area specifically, while also instituting the participation of students at the University of Guelph and inviting the collaboration of members of the wider community.

The necessity of preserving the cultural heritage and artifacts of Italian-Canadian immigrants coincided with the acknowledged need of the language programs at the university of Guelph to institute an experiential learning component in the core language courses. Thus the impulse for increased community engagement and interest in preserving the Italian-Canadian experience resulted in the creation of the Italian Heritage Project.

Dr. Sandra Parmegiani, Head of both the European Studies and of Italian Studies departments in the School of Languages and Literatures (SOLAL) at U of G, recognized the opportunity to address these separate and yet mutually supportive objectives. In collaboration with SOLAL, Parmegiani launched a community engaged core course for the Italian Minor students, utilizing a guided, independent study approach for the Italian Minor. Sharon Findlay, student, began working with the U of G Library to build the website as a place to collect, curate, and ‘exhibit’ the material assembled during the experiential learning course on a locally hosted version of OMEKA (a web based platform designed for academic standard collections and virtual exhibits).

The website does not substitute a physical archive but rather allows for the expansion of the digital aspect while growing and developing a material archive which will ultimately be housed in the local community. Naturally, the formation of the website supports knowledge mobilization while increasing the ease of use and accessibility to other virtual exhibits in museums, libraries, and academic settings. Although the Italian Heritage Project website is still in the developmental stages, it is rapidly expanding and improving as more material is submitted and curated. Our proposal is to make collaborative virtual repository affiliated to ICAP and to the heritage work of individual communities.

On a human level, collecting the oral histories of often older contributors and glimpsing the reality of their lived experience is a deeply moving and validating exercise for both the student interviewer and the participants. Several students have been moved to research their own family histories, some tracing the stories of relatives who have passed, discovering fascinating details and even unraveling decades old mysteries about the lives of their own ancestors that otherwise might have been lost forever.

“The photographs represent layers of historical, social and personal meaning that affect how I choose to articulate the narratives of my grandparents’ lives.” “One of the most blatant issues that I must call attention to while pursuing this project is the fact that I am the descendent of the people I am studying. Because I am related to the subjects of my research, my maternal grandparents, I am innately emotionally tied to their individual stories.”

Alaina Osborne