Friday, September 29, 2006

The Basement...and a Brush with Celebrity

My job sends me in a cross-town triangle everyday. I usually start in my offices in the old rivet factory, then on to the Museum to check how things are going, and most fun of all, over to the Chamber of Commerce building to sift through the collections. This week while at the Chamber, I was reminded that there was a basement I had yet to explore. I remembered going down there when I was 19 and not staying too long in the ancient, creepy old room. This time was no different, but I was on a mission. You can see in these pictures the gravel floor and wooden supports of the 160 year-old building.

Amongst the rubble and spider-webs there was a wash basin and ringer, a plough and an antique copy press. Buried under grit, dust and a variety of other odds and ends sat an old chest, closed for decades. Now, this museum and old cases have been good to me, and I have come across some amazing stuff, and this one gave me that same excitement of a new find. Slowly and carefully I cleared it off, and braced myself to gaze upon what human eyes had not seen in a quarter century. There was a pathetic creek before the hinges broke and revealed... an empty, filthy old box…they can’t all be treasure chests.

Some of the most interesting discoveries this week were recoveries. Scores of military artefacts that I had thought lost, turned up in the piles, and most are still in alright shape. I’m amazed at how well many of these artefacts have stood up to the neglect and harsh conditions. I have seen no signs of mould and, to my astonishment, no signs of pests. In such an old building this is quite a surprise, although it is still early in the process.

This week I also had the chance to speak with Bill Beswetherick, the Public Relations coordinator at the Local Legion Branch, and we discussed their plans for the Remembrance Day celebrations and a scheduled, rare visit by the Victoria Cross (the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honour to my American friends) won by Gananoque’s Harry Brown in 1917. The military artefacts will thus become a priority over the next few weeks. The Legion has a tremendous collection of medals, not only from the World Wars but going back through Canada’s military past to the Boer War, the British Imperial Wars in Afghanistan, and the Fenian Raids. Searching through the town’s Museum collection of medals, I came across a number of interesting pieces, including a rare service star marking the period of August to November, 1914, and engraved with the name Pte. W. Hine. I’m going to investigate this name and figure out what relationship he has to Gananoque. Thanks to Bill at the Legion for letting me know this was in there.

On a different note, searching through the collections has revealed a trove of nineteenth and early twentieth century images. Many depict the rough factory workers that once made up the bulk of Gananoque’s population. These I appreciate far more than the formal, professionally choreographed images that make up so much of the collection: people in their Sunday best, sitting or standing in front of a drop cloth. DH Akenson, in his classic The Irish in Ontario, spoke of the “law of disappearing evidence” – the fact that mundane, everyday objects are usually not considered worth saving, and therefore our remnants of the past tend to be exceptional things – we have top-hats and gowns, but no work boots. These candid images of working people help provide that missing piece of the puzzle. Photographs are very often the backbone of a collection.

One image, which I at first skimmed over, turned out to be one of the most fascinating finds so far. The image is of a couple dozen men from around the area, including Charles Stone McDonald, (the old, weary looking man in the centre with white pants who was grandson of the town’s founder, Joel Stone), and other prominent men such as C.E. Britton and Senator Taylor (more on them later). If you look closely towards the left of the picture, you’ll see a white haired, satisfied looking man, posing confidently for the camera. He was the reason for this picture, as it wasn’t everyday that one of the premiere celebrities of the nineteenth century paid a visit to the Thousand Islands.

Mr. Samuel Clemens himself, Mark Twain, visited our area numerous times, giving a lecture in Ogdensburg in the winter of 1870 and another in Brockville in 1885. This picture, taken at the posh, Thousand Islands Country Club, is likely from the 1890s. Rummaging through an old, forgotten collection, who knows what you’ll find.

In other news, with the grant writing ever on my mind, the announcement of a 50% cut in the Museum Assistance Program by the Conservative government was troubling. With record government surpluses, the Harper government called this “trimming the fat.” I implore the Federal government to take a look at any community museum and they will see only skin and bones. History is worth preserving, and I can only hope the conservatives will reconsider. The funds are in reality a very small amount of money for the country, but they are a vital part of well-run, yet cash-strapped, small museums across Canada.

With that off my chest, I’ll end off by sending my thanks out to the Town, Bonnie and the staff of the Chamber of Commerce and residents who have taken an interest in the project, especially to the Legion and schools I have had a chance to speak with. Next week the focus will be on the Military artefacts of the Gananoque Museum Collection, and the challenges we face in making sure they survive for the next generation.

Friday, September 22, 2006

About the Project

As far as many Canadian towns go, Gananoque is quite old. The American Loyalist, Joel Stone, founded the settlement in 1791, but the area has been inhabited for ten thousand years, or more. The collection, therefore, contains artefacts dating from pre-history, through the Loyalist-era and up to the World Wars. It is a surprisingly large collection, containing a great deal of archival material, including antique books, local business and town records, perhaps thousands of photographs, as well as part of the correspondence and private papers of some of the original residents; the oldest document dates to 1767. The military collection is certainly worth note, and there are all the nineteenth century artefacts you’d need to furnish a museum. There are presently serious concerns for the collection’s well being, as will be shown.

As you can see in these pictures of former exhibits, The Gananoque Museum was your typical small town institution, replete with spinning wheels, war trophies, and grandma’s tea cups. It first opened its doors in 1964, under the direction of the Gananoque Historical Society, but was later turned over to the town. The building which housed the museum was originally built in the 1840s as the Albion Hotel and later the Victoria Hotel. The property was purchased by the Jones Shovel Factory in 1901 and operated as their front offices until 1960, after which it was bought by the town to serve as the Public Library (which it continues to do).

The museum’s days ended at the close of the 2000 season, when the building became the home of the Gananoque Chamber of Commerce. Why this happened is unclear, but the death of museums is something that has occurred in many communities, large and small. In the coming months I’ll hopefully uncover some more information that may shed light on this event, and help other small museums avoid the same fate.

You can see in these pictures the present and heartbreakingly critical state of the former museum’s collection. Although heated in the winter, there are no other environmental controls, nor is there any organization. The collection has been unceremoniously and roughly moved numerous times. Bathrooms were constructed for the Chamber, and many of the artefacts were left uncovered – the extent of the damage is not fully known. A card catalogue exists, as does a binder containing an accession ledger, but there is no knowing at this point what is actually in the collections as there are significant gaps in the records and there are no locations recorded.

You can make out a few artefacts in these pictures, and the serious task involved in saving this collection is obvious. There are a thousand museological nightmares here, as you can see artefacts haphazardly piled and sunlight blazing through. If you look closely you can make out a Link Trainer, the original flight simulator of the allies in WWII, among many other large artefacts. A brief walk through revealed safe conduct passes of German POWs, military medals, Loyalist pledges, century-old police files, Paleo-Indian spear points, militia papers from the 1820s - and that was in a quick scan without the joyous rummaging and exploring that will now ensue!

The process will have to be meticulous and slow if it is to succeed. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been busy drafting collections policies to determine what we will keep, organizing the scattered museum files into an archival fonds, and setting up a solid and efficient procedure. As there is no room to work in the collection’s present location, the town has generously provided more than ample work space in a nearby facility. The Arthur Child Heritage Museum has also come through with providing temporary office space, some equipment and endless amounts of moral support.

I will begin by going through the collection, item by item, and room by room, re-cataloguing, cross-referencing, photographing, and researching as I go. Following CCI guidelines, I’ll also endeavour to isolate problems such as mould etc. and figure out what actions I can take. Then, at the end of the project, we’ll find a safe and lasting location for it to be properly stored and set about digitizing as much as we can.

Tune in next week as I’ll hopefully have narrowed down a proper computerized catalogue system. I’ll also share some of the joys of grant writing, and best of all, reveal some of the lost treasures dug up in the Gananoque Museum Collection.


Welcome to Collection Resurrection!

Welcome to Collection Resurrection! This journal will follow the restoration and exploration of the Gananoque Museum Collection. The project is sponsored by the town of Gananoque and supported by the Arthur Child Heritage Museum of the Thousand Islands.

My name is Tim Compeau and I will be acting in the role of curator, registrar and when I can, conservator. I recently completed the Public History MA program at the University of Western Ontario, and it is my pleasure to begin this task.

This journal is intended for citizens of Gananoque as well as anyone interested or involved in the field of Public History, Museums and preservation of any sort.

Over the next twelve months I will showcase interesting finds and present some of the problems facing small museums. This will include the headaches of funding and grant writing, methodologies and museum procedures, and like all good Public History blogs, I will be reflecting on the process as a whole and present those events or artefacts that confuse, confound or amuse. In addition, I will also endeavour to present the history of the town and area, and even make the odd, humble plea for public support. This is the real, skin-of-your-teeth, front line of Public History, after all.

I’m hoping to update the journal every Friday.
The next entry will explain the project in more detail.