Friday, October 27, 2006

Work, Work, Work...

This week was a busy one, but an interesting one. I’ll begin, though, with something that happened last week.

The foundations of any museum collection are its records. Without good records, items can be lost, stories forgotten, and it can create endless headaches for the people left to deal with the situation. As I have shown, the Gananoque Museum, like so many other small museums, is packed full of military artefacts, such as this Mark 1 grenade that I mentioned a couple weeks back. I was leery of the grenade from the beginning, as others I have seen had the been drilled out so all could see that they were no longer full of explosives. This grenade had the bottom screwed on tightly, and I was not about to pop it open and see if there was anything left. I checked the records, and sure enough, the description read: “1 Mk 1 Grenade, WWII” and then gave its dimensions. There was nothing in the catalogue, or the files, to say that the item had ever been deactivated. Even though I suspected it was probably ok, I knew that it would be a costly mistake if I were wrong. So, I called the ammo specialist at CFBK, and he told me to alert the GFPD, who needed to call LFAC for an EUD. What does all that mean? We no longer have a grenade, which is likely for the best.

On Tuesday I had the great pleasure of being given a tour of the Brockville Museum. I have never seen a small town museum, with only a couple of paid staff, run so well. The collection storage was immaculate, the records were all in order, the volunteers trained and operating as well as full-time, paid professionals. It was truly heartening to see what can be done with trained, dedicated staff and volunteers. The Brockville Museum should serve as a model for all community museums.

Bonnie Burke, the Curator/Director gave me a lot of wonderful advice. Many thanks to her, Brenda Foss, the Collections Manager, and Ruth MacFarlane, the Education Programmer, for all their time and interest in what we’re doing here in town. I am encouraged already by the many people in Gananoque who have come forward to volunteer their time to help preserve our town’s history. I am sure that in time Gananoque, too, can have a museum collection to be proud of.

The staff in Brockville also passed me a very interesting note from an Archival Curator in El Paso, Texas. It seems the land grant of one of our earliest Loyalist settlers, Oliver Landon, of Landon Bay fame, has ended up in Texas. Oliver Landon was one of many Loyalists who came to Leeds County from Litchfield, Connecticut, and how it ended up in Texas is a mystery. Luckily, the 200 year-old document will now find its way back home. More on this as information comes in.

One final note, that has to do with the problems of poor record keeping, is this item here: The Victrola Talking Machine. I remember this phonograph when I worked in the museum as a teenager. Time has taken its toll since then: the mechanism no longer seems to work, and the finish has seen better days. I was alerted to the item by a Gananoque resident who was eager to finally have it back – being that it was loaned to the museum decades ago. Never properly recorded, memory of it being loaned was lost, and the Victrola and all its individual record albums and parts were improperly accessioned into the permanent collections in 1999. This has now caused some interesting cataloguing issues. Luckily, the loaner retained her paperwork, and it can now be returned to its rightful owner.

In a fantastic coincidence, flipping through a pile of pre-WWI magazines, I came across this add from January, 1913. At $200.00 this phonograph would have been a treasured family possession, and I am very glad I was able to return it. This little instance shows the need to get these records in order, and the serious, yet unrealized potential for the collections.

For anyone who has offered to volunteer or would like to volunteer, there will be a meeting at the Arthur Child Museum at 7pm Monday October 30th. If you would like information and cannot attend please e-mail me at

Monday, October 16, 2006

Story-less Artefacts

I officially graduate from Western this week, and with a public meeting with the Gananoque Town Council Tuesday night I thought it best to get my post up early this week. Although off my running theme of exploring the military relics, I thought I’d talk about something that has been bothering me about the collection.

Around me everyday are thousands of little pieces of history. They speak with a language all their own; there are clues to their former use and value, sometimes obvious, other times quite obscure. The problem is that an artefact’s value is often not in their original functions, it’s in their stories. Good record keeping is the key to preserving the stories, and that is where I think part of the Gananoque Museum’s problems began.

When any object is donated, there is always a story to go with it. Yet, we have so many trinkets, so many photo albums for which the records merely state a donor and a lacklustre entry such as “one locket with photos, black.” Whoever those people were in that locket, and whatever value someone ascribed to the item is gone forever. What we have left is a soulless prop, and the tragedy of a story untold and lost to time. A museum should be a repository for our history, our story, not lifeless things. Those inanimate objects are meant merely to articulate part of the story, and act as a tangible proof that an event did occur or a person lived. An item shown for its monetary worth or rarity should be left to an antique dealer. The story-less artefact defeats the purpose of a museum. Yet, it is not a hopeless cause, much can be salvaged through research, but it takes time, and very often it takes considerable money. In the field of Public History, both are often in short supply.

I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone who knows of anything they or a relative donated to the Gananoque Museum to please write down or tell me the story of the item. There is a cost to storing every piece, and unfortunately those pieces without a story may be the first to find new homes. Stories can be e-mailed to me at If you can, please try and remember roughly what year you think the objects were donated. Also, I'm extremely encouraged by the large number of offers to volunteer. I’m attempting to get to each in turn, so if you’ve sent me an offer, I will be in touch soon.

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.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Faces of War...

These are two World War II gasmasks. The adult version is quite common, but the child’s mask is much rarer. Called a “Mickey Mouse” gas mask in the old catalogue, it was meant for children 5 and under. The accompanying box has a strap which would have been worn around the child’s neck, making the mask readily at hand in case of a Nazi gas attack.

This week, among many other things, I have been focussing on the extensive collection of military artefacts from the Gananoque Museum Collection. The local Legion branch is planning their annual Remembrance Day Ceremonies, and I hope some of these items may prove useful to them and their displays. I have only scratched the surface of what is actually there, focusing on the smaller things, hats, medals etc. before moving on to the many uniforms and larger pieces. Keeping track of all these small items will be one of the first considerations.

Being that the collection is housed in the back room and attic of the Gananoque Chamber of Commerce, I’ve had to take great care while removing theses pieces. Gananoque is very much reliant on our visitors having a pleasant stay, and emerging, dust coated from a back room carrying a Mark 1 hand grenade or an artillery sabre may give people the wrong idea. My exits usually coincide with a lull in traffic; timing is everything.

Other finds included this F-5 Wilkinson Sword fighting knife used by Canadian Forces in World War II, a trench periscope, an assortment of bayonets from both wars and an unorganized mess of medals, pins and ribbons of everything from Freemason lodges and fire departments to Canadian forces. There is an impressive variety of military medals, from both World Wars, and one from 1902, and although there is no inscription of the action or service it is rewarding, it would likely be in recognition of service in the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa.

One of the spaces in the collection area that has remained a mystery is a row of wooden cabinets in one of the attic rooms. Small glass windows provided tantalizing peaks, but with so much delicate material and a large display case piled in front, it was nearly inaccessible. Carefully moving a collection of antique typewriters, and a number of file boxes, allowed me to do some shuffling and move the display case only a couple of feet, giving me access to the hidden collection. The cupboards were filled with hundreds of items, from local ledgers and letter books of businesses, to 150 year old bibles, and all manner of knick-knacks.

One of the finds in this hidden cupboard that fit this week’s theme was a collection of paper money from France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, dating from 1923 to 1945. The money seems to follow the progression of Canadian troops in World War II, yet there is no record of where the money actually came from. It appears it was part of a collection, gifted to the museum, but the records fail to state by whom. At any rate it is fascinating, and a little history lesson unto itself. The 50 Million Mark bill is a clear testament to the horrible inflation that occurred in Germany after the First World War, and helped create a festering resentment amongst the German people at the perceived harshness of the peace terms. The German bills from the 1940s display the hallmarks of the Nazi regime, replete with swastikas and images of the Aryan ideal, even a young blonde girl with a sprig of edelweiss.

Finally, the issue of records has been somewhat troubling. The card catalogue is incomplete, and in 1998 a firm was hired to inventory the collection. The final report has proved quite valuable to me, finally giving me some quantifiable notion of the task ahead of me. In total, the firm counted 4358 artefacts, half of which were not accessioned. The amount of 998 and 999 accession numbers indicates that an attempt was made to fix that problem. Although the workers tried very hard to be consistent in their practices, there seem to be different cataloguing systems at work. The entire catalogue was redone in 1978, as well, marking a break with yet another numbering system employed from 1964. So, between the gaps in the records and the hit and miss nature of the procedures in the past, this will be a very large project indeed. In a year, I’ll hopefully have everything streamlined and consistent, and on a computer.

Next week will be a short one, as I’m away at a preservation workshop and with Thanksgiving holiday, my time in the storage area will be limited. Hopefully I’ll have some more items from Gananoque’s military past and also some personal stories of the men and women that fought overseas.