Friday, October 13, 2006

A Forgotten Knight of the Air...

This week’s business did not allow for much time in the storage area. I did, however, manage to accomplish one goal I have had since beginning this work. When I was a little kid, one of the things that caught my eye when the museum was open, was a brown, leather flight suit. This was the sort of gear worn in World War I by the “Knights of the Air” or the “Flyboys”; the very first men to take war to the air; the men that left us such legends as Billy Bishop and the Red Baron.

When I first started a few weeks ago, I spotted the suit, still on its display stand after all these years, trapped in between a number of display cases. On the one day I had free for working in the storage area this week, I spent most of the morning carefully slinking my way through the crevices to reach the trapped relic. I couldn’t leave it there any longer. Sunlight poured in from the large windows, and dust had collected on every part of artefact. As I neared it, I realized to my horror that it had been stuffed with newspaper. Of all the things to use, why newspaper? Everyone knows how quickly newspaper yellows and decays. My heart sunk as I envisioned the damage caused to the leather by the acidic paper on the inside and the sunlight on the exterior.

Just touching the leather jacket and helmet produced clouds of orange dust, and the decaying material coated everything in a rusty stain. Searching around, I found some clean, white linen and prepared to wrap the once proud flight-suit. What astonished me, as I slowly began to remove the suit from its stand, was the sheer amount of newspaper used. In every space it was packed tight. The date on the newspaper was 1994. Now, I have gotten used to being disappointed by how things have been stored, but this was too much. Someone broke every convention and basic tenet of museology with this artefact. The stand it was on was poor quality wood, splintered and stained, and then painted. I couldn’t guess at the monetary worth, but the historical value of this flight jacket and helmet are immense.

Finally, I was able to remove the pieces to my work area for further inspection. I have dedicated one room for photographs and have covered the windows to prevent any light getting in. This room will be the flight suit’s home until I can figure out what to do with it.

Closer inspection revealed more problems. Pins inserted have rusted, and at some point, someone used scotch tape on it. One piece of desiccated tape flaked off as I moved it, taking another chunk of leather with it. That part of the jacket not exposed to the sun revealed the full extent of the damage on this piece. The faded sickly tan-orange was once deep, rich, chocolate brown. On organic material such as leather, damage from sunlight is usually irreversible.

Different pieces of the flight-suit were originally donated by two separate Gananoque residents, Mrs. J. Acton and Maj. Col. E. Warwick, both, coincidentally, in 1978. We do not know who wore the suit. The original entries state the condition of both, and remark that the jacket was in bad shape even then, yet nothing was ever done. I would think that this piece will likely end up in Ottawa where it can be properly cared for. This whole issue is the perfect example of the problems that arise when small institutions take in things they have no capacity to properly care for.

In other news, I had the chance to attend a two day work shop put on by the Canadian Conservation Institute and hosted by the Mill of Kintail, part of the Lanark County Museum Association, in Almonte, Ontario. The information presented in the seminars (Storage Planning and preservation in seasonal museums) facilitated by Siegfried Rempel and Deborah Stewart will be vital in the coming months. Many thanks to all involved.

Next week, I am away once again, but I will try to get something online. I meant this week also to connect some of the military pieces with actually stories, but will have to get to that another time. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Molly MacDonald said...

Hi Tim, I've been enjoying your blog. I'm just getting into month two of Public History here at Western and it's encouraging to follow a long with someone who is working in the field.

This is the second time Gananoque has come up this week. Online I stumbled upon an old acquaintance from highschool who created an 'immersive' historical walking tour, or DVD or something of the kind for Gananoque. Do you know of it?

Anyway- good luck with the restoration.