Sunday, September 02, 2007

Collection Resurrected

After almost a year of working with the Gananoque Museum Collections, I leave them for now and head back to the University of Western Ontario to begin working on my PhD. The collections, although resurrected, still need years of work and I am confident that there are scores or volunteers and professionals ready to jump in and do the research and book work needed to restore as many of the personal histories that lay in the past of the artefacts. Sadly, the donor information for many objects were lost long ago, but we can still build up information on the artefacts themselves – where they were manufactured, what they were used for etc. I have included here a few before-and-after shots from the work to give some perspective on the amount of work completed. It’s not the Smithsonian, but it’s an excellent start. The before are on the left, the after on the right.

This summer was extremely busy as we finished off sorting through the collections. The final hurdle to get over was the immense collection of textiles – uniforms, dresses and other pieces of clothing. The sheer size of this collection was surprising once the old and decaying boxes were cracked open. This collection was poorly documented and I would like to thank Jordyn Thompson for her willingness to help take this one on. The collection will still need loads of research as many of the items look quite impressive, but again, like the china collection, it will need an expert to figure out what exactly they are.

Working through the collections was a personally rewarding experience as much as it was professional. I felt connected to the things I was searching through. My own family has deep roots in the community and I came across a good deal of evidence to prove it. I often think of my grandfather’s stories of his days in the citizens band when, in the bleak days of the Great Depression, little Gananoque produced an award winning band that was in demand across Ontario. To find the exact trophies he spoke of and to see pictures of them all in their smart uniforms produced that inescapable twinge of nostalgia. On another level, the collections reveal a great deal about life in Gananoque’s past. In the back of a police log book from 1916 were page after page of houses quarantined for contagious diseases like diphtheria, measles etc. Sometimes entire streets were shut down by order of the police. The prim ideal of carriages and bonnets quickly evaporated in light of these little discoveries.

On another level, the tale of the Gananoque Museum is a profoundly sad one. For thirty years it stood as a place where people donated items with the hope - with the assurance - that those items would be preserved, that they would be used to teach future generations about
who their
predecessors were and what things were like in the past. Yet, the actual closure of the Gananoque Museum in 2001 was merely the final event in a string of failures and the breaking of a public trust. A museum collection of such size can not be run by hobbyists. I often came across well-meaning, yet terribly damaging, results of amateur museum work. Green arrows glued to ancient documents, newspaper used to stuff rare flight suits, Bic pens used to affix accession numbers to leather pouches, sunlight pouring onto irreplaceable garments and objects. The remains of Gananoque’s past were rotting away. Now, the restoration of the public trust must continue by making these objects available for proper display and interpretation.

Many people have asked me why the Gananoque Museum closed in the first place. There were many reasons it seems. Money, of course, was a factor. But, in the end I think that the problem lay in the conflicts that arose amongst the people in charge towards the end of the museum’s life. From what I have read in newspaper clippings, in the files and elsewhere, basic museum ethical practices were not followed, there were severe personality clashes and there was a total lack of coherent procedures when items were brought in. Although there were periods of great work in the history of the museum and although there is always a backlog of paper work in a museum - the sheer amount of undocumented artefacts was inexcusable and is a result of not having professionally trained staff. In the late nineties, a new group came on board and sincerely worked to turn things around - but, it was too late. The community and council were tired of the constant infighting, and with such negative feelings in a small town, few people felt like getting involved. If the champions of history in a small town – or in any local community - cannot work together, then the chances of animating popular support and interest are minimal.

Now, the question is, with the collections stabilized can there ever be another Gananoque Museum? Before that question can truly be addressed, the various institutions in Gananoque need to be consolidated. The Heritage Committee, the Arthur Child Heritage Museum, the Gananoque Museum Collections and the Gananoque Historical Society have to start working together as one. Only then, with all the different collections consolidated and everyone following a similar path, can our resources be pooled and something new built. For now, the arrangement of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum rotating the artefacts through will have to suffice. In addition, the recent news that the Antique Boat Museum is ploughing ahead should give everyone time to pause and watch how a truly professional institution is built – slowly, deliberately, and cautiously. There is nothing worse than a failed museum. A museum (which is a public institution like a library or school) needs to be built on a sound foundation of long-term planning. The enthusiastic pushers of history always need to bear in mind the difference between what is possible to create and what is practical to sustain. I call upon all concerned parties in Gananoque to begin talking and working together.

With that said, I would like to offer a huge thank you to all the people and institutions that helped out. Without the many volunteers and help from town staff and officials this project could not have been accomplished.

My heartfelt thanks to Eileen Truesdell, John McDonald, David Wells, Marcia McRae, Kathy Karkut, Kathy and Aidan Baker, Erin Findlay and Jordyn Thompson whose enthusiasm for the work kept me energized and without whom the work could never have been completed. My thanks also to the staff of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum for all their support and help in this: Linda Mainse, director of the ACHM, Linda Davis, Educational Programmer, Mary Ford, financial officer and Marcia McRae, Visitor Services. Thanks also to Layne Larsen and the Board of Directors. Without the staff and board of directors, this project never could have gotten off the ground.

My thanks to Paul Banfield, director of the Queen’s University Archives, as well as to Conservator Margaret Bignell, assistant Heather Wolsey, and to Susan Office and Elaine Savor for their work in conserving and copying the Joel Stone papers. Thanks also to archivists Heather Home, Jeremy Heil and Deirdre Bryden for paying the project a much appreciated visit, and delivering the Archive’s loan of a computer – perhaps one of the most pressing needs of the collection. Queen’s University Archives provided a great deal of advice and vital equipment, without which the project could not have been completed.

Thanks also to Doug Mainse for all his help and creative solutions to many technical issues, Noel Bullock for his insightful ideas and help with conservation issues, Art Shaw for his help and interest in identifying many of the curious industrial and agricultural pieces, Linda Hocking and the staff of the Litchfield Historical Society, especially for her help with some of the head-scratching issues related to creating the archives. My appreciation also to Westley Cote for his much-needed help and artistic talents in the creation of the “Gananoque in the Gilded Age” displays. A sincere thank you to the Mayor, Council, and staff at the Town Hall for having the faith to let the project go ahead, but also for providing funding – without which nothing could have been done. I’d like to extend a special thank you to Councillor Frank O’Hearn and now-Mayor of Leeds Township Frank Kinsella, for their support of this project and their help in pushing ahead in the early, uncertain stages of the project. An additional thank you to Councillor O’Hearn for making the Heritage Committee a reality; to Kent Fitzhugh for his enthusiasm and help in many matters; to Steve Silver, the town CEO, for always having time to talk to me, even though I knew he really didn’t have the time; to Brenda Guy for her help and leadership in getting the heritage committee underway, and to Jim Guest and the board of works for lending some muscle in carting away 30 years of accumulated debris.

I was also very gratified to have so much support from other local institutions. Early on Bonnie Burke at the Brockville Museum and Ann Blake at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes were of enormous help setting me on the right path. Providence Continuing Care and the Museum of Health Care helped out with the donation of second-hand display cases. Bill Beswetherick from the Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 92 in Gananoque helped bring many of the military artefacts back to life, and included them in a set of very nice displays to accompany the visit of Victoria Cross won by Gananoque’s own Harry Brown in World War One. John Love at the Gananoque Public Library was also a great help in providing some much-needed shelving and always having some sort of humorous insight into the work. And finally, how could I not thank Bonnie, Rosanne and all the workers at the Chamber of Commerce over the past year who always made me feel welcome in their workspace and for putting on an interested face when I bounced out to show them something I had found.

So, with that, I finish. The computer catalogue is still being worked on, but should eventually be ready for public inspection. For those that may be curious on the ongoing creation of the Joel Stone comic, I will be beginning a new blog very shortly. This will be part of the Digital History Class at the University of Western Ontario. The blog will be more wide-ranging with the different areas of history I’ll examine, from Museums, and academia to theories and ideas about history in general. I’ll post again very shortly with the new URL.

It’s been a blast!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New Homes for Old Things

This week I’ll be showing you around the new storage area in the old Jones Shovel Factory; talk a little about what became of the old, tattered flight suit; show off a new display of a birch bark canoe, and finally reveal a few more of the historical figures turned into comic book characters, and brought to life by artist Westley Cote.

First of all, I’d like to welcome Jordyn Thompson to the team. Jordyn just graduated from Gananoque Secondary School and will be working with us for the summer. She’ll be helping us get the computer catalogue set up for the fall.

Storage Solutions

When I first began this project almost a year ago now, I originally pushed for the removal of everything from the Chamber of Commerce building (formerly the Gananoque Museum, which was formerly the Jones Shovel Company, which was formerly the Victoria Hotel, formerly known as the Albion Hotel…that gets us back to the 1840s) to some other, more suitable building. My concern was the fact that with so many artefacts and display cases taking up space, there was no way to fit everything in safely and efficiently. An additional problem was/is the fact that the attic storage space, about 4 rooms in total, is not really suitable for the what was up there as temperatures often soar in the summer to well over 100ºF with no way to control humidity.

My grand schemes quickly had to face up to the realities of small town museums – there is what is possible, then there is what is practical, and more importantly, there is what is affordable. A small museum must do the best it can with what it has. Also, there just weren’t any other buildings to take in the collection. So, I decided then to try and fit as much as I could into 750 sq. ft. of space on the main floor. With the display cases put into off-site storage, space was freed up to erect 5 rows of shelves, making a total of 75 3’ x 2’ shelves. The majority of 3D artefacts could then be moved to the main floor, where it is cooler and there is air circulating. The high ceilings pose a problem when it comes to maintaining a steady level of humidity, but, again, it’s better than the attic.

In addition to the shelves, space was left over to store most of the large pieces of furniture, the link trainer, the two huge safes, and room to set up more shelves for the books, textiles, archives and two cabinets for the photograph collection and the large framed portraits and photos.

The attic is still being used for storage of some items, but instead of 4 rooms, we’re down to 1.5. As a bonus, it turned out that one of the rooms actually had an air conditioning vent that was simply blocked. Now, with that uncovered, I have devoted the large attic room to house the extensive collection of tools. Pre-existing wooden shelves, usually a no-no in the museum business, have been resurrected and lined with acid-free tissue and poly-foam to store the china collection.


Many objects in the collection were brought in as props over the years, were reproductions, or were simply second-hand cleaning equipment used by former staff – the same way as if someone were to take their old vacuum to use at their cottage. For example, a stainless steel steam iron from 1964 looks quite old-fashioned by today’s standards, but is not an artefact. In 1998 and 1999, the museum staff of the time hired on some students to do a massive inventory. Thinking it better to err on the side of caution, they accessioned everything. Curtains, those steam irons, dinner plates made in Japan, plastic umbrellas from the courtesy bin etc. etc. Some old objects were also accessioned that really shouldn’t have been. For example, these film developing chemicals – I have no idea what happens to developing agents after 70 years and I don’t see the point of trying to find out – all these will have to be, what we call in the business – deaccessioned. This is, in my opinion, the trickiest problem involved in museum work. Items get deaccessioned because: 1) they don’t fit the collection mandate, 2) we have too many of a particular item, 3) they are in poor condition and could damage other objects, or, 4) like the curtain rods in the front room, never should have been accessioned in the first place.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do is find the original donors and see if they’ll take the items back. The problem with that is most donors have passed away, and their children moved away long ago. Of course, we’re not looking to give back the entire collection, but items that have no bearing on the history of Gananoque and the 1000 Islands are simply taking up room, and could be enjoyed elsewhere. For example, I had the pleasure to return an ink well, framed print and large framed plaque of the Lord’s Prayer to one family. To another I returned their grandparents Victrola Talking Machine and record collection, to another family I was able to return a portrait of their great-grandfather – all these items were interesting, but are more valuable as family heirlooms where they can be appreciated than stowed away in museum storage. Another option is throwing out damaged or fake items as a last resort, or, as we have done with three garbage bags of old clothes, transfer them to the education department. One of the best ways to deaccession is to transfer to other institutions that have the mandate to take the items in.

In the first few months I wrote about a “Forgotten Knight of the Air” – being a World War I flight suit and helmet. Both were in terrible condition and were quickly reaching the point of no return for conservation. It was my pleasure last week to transfer this very rare set – the jacket once belonged to Lt. Col. Eric Warwick, a Gananoque resident and artillery commander, (still unsure about the helmet’s provenance) – to Canada’s Aviation Museum in Ottawa. I was actually not aware of just how rare these objects were and I am very happy that the Gananoque Museum Collections could fill the gap at a national institution, while at the same time ensuring that Col. Warwick’s flight suit will be preserved. My thanks to Mr. Bill Manning and Dr. Renald Fortier for taking the time to consider the transfer and for their hospitality.

Finally, on the theme of new homes for old things, there was a birch bark canoe that sat in the rafters of the storage area. The jury is still out on where this came from and who made it, but it is now on display as part of the “Plying the River” exhibit which details the use of the St. Lawrence by the Native Peoples and the French Explorers. Just another example of how this old, forgotten collection is coming to life again.

Comic Book

This project really blurs the line between Canadian and American history. The story of Gananoque’s founder is both. Although it has been compartmentalized neatly into Canadian history, and until recently, written out of the American story, it is part of our shared past.

As far a title is concerned, the tentative title for the project is “Tory”…but I’m not yet 100% on that – there’s a lot of baggage with the term for a modern Canadian or British reader – but its short and to the point. It’ll probably stick. You can see here a few of the Patriots that will inhabit the pages: Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and leading citizen of Litchfield (the town where the events of the story take place) and Moses Seymour, another prominent figure in Litchfield, a little angry at having been duped by the scheming mayor of New York City. Finally, a Patriot Dragoon, who populates the story in background shots and lends his intimidating weight to cause of independence in Connecticut.

Next time I’ll discuss a few of the challenges and surprises involved in going through the huge collection of uniforms and clothing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Adopt a Collection: Archaeological Artefacts

Shoebox Archaeology

Growing up at my grandparent’s cottage on Gananoque Lake, I was often told stories of the native people who once lived in the area and hunted and fished on the Lake. We’d often explore what seemed like endless miles of woods in the hopes of coming across some ancient and forgotten piece of evidence from the times before the coming of Europeans. I can recall my brother finding a stone arrowhead while digging up the garden – a one in a million chance find that I remember being an almost mystical experience. There were no other artefacts anywhere around, so either the place had served as a brief camp, or more likely, an arrow had been shot and lost in the brush only to be uncovered by fluke circumstance centuries later. Native peoples, such as the Mississauga, Ojibwa, and other First Nations, used the Thousand Islands as a meeting and summering place and evidence of their occupation was obvious to arriving settlers. Early maps of Gananoque show “Indian Burying Places” on the rocky points jutting into the confluence of the Gananoque and St. Lawrence Rivers, and the thin soil of the Islands easily revealed the scattered remnants of former camps to the inquisitive newcomers. The First Peoples of the region sold their lands to the British government who then parcelled it out to the settlers and refugee Loyalists. The various native bands living in the area were slowly driven out as the landscape changed drastically. The trees were cleared, farms were established and the wildlife was decimated, taking away the native people’s traditional way of life. The place names, though, often remained in spite of the fact that the meanings were generally obscured by time. In Thaddeus Leavitt’s History of Leeds and Grenville (1879), he presents the then popular image of the “noble savage” and includes a poignant section of a poem from W.E. Guest:

“They have all passed away,
That noble race and brave,
Their light canoes have vanished,
From Oft the Crested Wave,
Their name is on your waters,
You may not wash it out.”

There is a certain truth to this, at least with regard to Gananoque. At one point Colonel Stone attempted to change the name to the Thames River, but it just didn’t catch on, even though the Gananoque is called the Thames on a number of early maps.

The romanticism of the period inspired people to souvenir hunt through the Thousand Islands and elsewhere before the sites were properly identified and protected as parks. There was nothing to stop people from poking around ancient campsites and filling up their packs with whatever they found. Some of these items found their way into the Gananoque Museum Collections. People should never disturb an archaeological site. It’s much like a crime scene with clues scattered all about. Seemingly random placement of items can tell a trained archaeologist a great deal of information. Often times, digging something up and throwing it in a box can destroy an entire site. So, if you do find things out there, don’t touch them.

Luckily, we can tell where some of the items in the collections came from, as an amateur historian, Frank Eames, attached labels to the various sherds of pottery he found. Most of them state that they came from Hay Island and were dug up in the late 1920s. Pottery, stone hatchets, spear and arrow points make up the collection, along with a few deer bone awls and other items. The problem of actually identifying them is made more difficult, however, in that the Hay Island items are mixed in with items from other sites as well as native crafts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2005, Dr. Beverly Smith from the University of Michigan, visited the Arthur Child Heritage Museum and identified a number of the objects that are on display there. The collection contains objects that date from just before the arrival of Europeans in North America to spear points that were made somewhere around 8000 BC – just a short time after the last ice age!

As you can see from these pictures we have many small artefacts that not only need to be researched and properly identified, but they also need to be stored so they don’t get lost. We are requesting the public to help out. You can adopt the entire collection for the price of a large, shallow drawer tool chest (approx. $189 – 300) to store them in or some generous person could adopt the collection by donating a used tool chest or map case. In return, your name or your business name will be clearly marked as a sponsor and supporter of our local heritage when the items are displayed. You will also receive a CD containing images of the artefacts.

To adopt this collection of artefacts or for more information contact me at


Gananoque Museum Collections
c/o The Arthur Child Heritage Museum
125 Water Street
Gananoque, Ontario

Joel Stone Comic Book

Although I still haven’t managed to come up with a satisfying title yet, Westley Cote has done some great work bringing Gananoque’s founder to life. Here is a little sneak peak at how the comic will look when it is finished in August. Working from the oil portrait of Colonel Stone, Wes has created the young Joel Stone that will be the main character in the story. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Thoughts on "Gananoque in the Gilded Age"

The exhibit, Gananoque in the Gilded Age, is now up at the Arthur Child Heritage Museum, at 125 Water St. in Gananoque. Also on display this summer is a very nice exhibit from the Clayton Antique Boat Museum which showcases a selection of Canadian made canoes from the early 20th century.

One of the most exciting parts of the Gananoque Museum Collections Project was exhibition, and it was actually a very difficult task to choose what to display. I felt it was important to show off both the collections’ potential and to simply display some of the items hidden away for so long. I could have chosen to exhibit Gananoque’s history in the World Wars or any aspect of military history that touched on our little town; I could have looked at schools, the electric company, angling and hunting, agriculture, sports and leisure from any period; there were enough artefacts to do a very thorough history of photography, woodworking, shoemaking or local native peoples; I could have high-lighted different industries and their products. By far the most interesting set of artefacts I came across were the photographs from the late 1800s – of factories, mansions, workers and streetscapes – and this is what I decided to build the exhibit around, and it didn’t take much to locate enough physical artefacts to fill five display cases. In fact, there were too many, and it was a tough chore to pare them down.

It's one thing to display the artefacts and photographs and let them tell their own story, but to really understand them one must have a sense of their historical context. What was going when someone made this Cowan and Britton lock? Who used this wrench or drank from this cup, and why should I care? In the attempt to flesh out a little history, you have to not only think about how you’re going make something concise yet complete, honest yet attractive; you also have to think about what perspective you will take. I chose to try and articulate the disparity between rich and poor, worker and owner during this period. This division in society was quite stark, and was something the people noticed and remarked upon themselves. So now, showing off an antique clock owned by the Britton family takes on two levels - showcasing an interesting, ornate clock on the one hand, and highlighting the wealth of one segment of the society.
Last year, when I was still working on my MA at Western, there was an ongoing debate regarding nostalgia and whether or not we as historians had any business stoking that emotion. Nostalgia shouldn't play a role in the study of history, but it often comes into play with exhibits and popular social memory. Most of the time nostalgia is harmless. But does nostalgia not have the potential to breed resentment at the present world and hamper the forward movement and change that is necessary for healthy growth – of a person or a town? It’s a common thing for people to be nostalgic and to long for simpler times when things seemed better, safer, and more secure. Nostalgia was once considered a medical condition for which doctors had a variety of remedies, but it is simply part of the human condition. Who in their later years has not thought back with longing to a time when they were young? Comparing our own times to the past is nearly unavoidable. I have heard people (usually while their computer is crashing or their cellphone is dying) run on about how great it must have been to live in the simpler times of horse and buggy. It’s easy to forget, however, that even though life certainly moved a bit slower, one also had to contend with the anguish of now easily treated infections running out of control, or the horror of smallpox or typhoid fever decimating the population of a neighbourhood. I, for one, believe that the era we live in now, for all its imperfections, is far preferable to any in the past. As the first line of the exhibit reads “few ages are golden, yet time has a way of obscuring the problems of the past, leaving an idyllic memory that bears little resemblance to history.”

As a class, the Public History MAs at Western in 05/06 worked on a similar subject with Museum London: the industrial zone known as the “Old East”. A reviewer described the exhibit, with no ill-meaning, as “nostalgia rich.” It was intended to be a celebration of the industries that thrived in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story, however, were not told, (this likely having to do with the fact that museums sometimes need to be family oriented). When compiling a dossier for a local industry, it was clear to me that the rosy picture the museum sought was not the whole story. Strikes, crime, poverty, brothels, racial strife – these were the realities in the town. Of course, it does no good to dwell on or to sensationalize these stories, but this was an area that was an industrial and railway hub, with no standing police force and no fire brigade – crime and danger were going to be factors of everyday life in London East. To ignore these stories is likely as bad as solely dwelling on them.

Finding that balance between being accurate and truthful without being overly dour, and highlighting the impressive aspects without being celebratory or nostalgic, were the main problems I found as I sat down to begin an exhibit on Gananoque’s industrial past. Gananoque’s manufacturing base has severely contracted over the last twenty years, and just over the last two years Gananoque lost two factories, Mahle and the auto-parts maker Collins and Aikman, and with them scores of jobs. With only four factories left in town (although between them they employ almost 600 people) the one thing I didn’t want to get caught in was making a wistful and nostalgic portrait of the good ol’ days when everyone had jobs and the world was a much happier place – because no such time existed. Even with 72 factories or small-shop enterprises buzzing away in town in the 1880s and 90s, life was not easy, money was not plentiful, and the workers then certainly did not feel they were living in a golden age.

When reading through George De Zwaan’s 1987 PhD thesis about Gananoque’s industrial history, the conflict between the factory owners and the local workers organized under the Knights of Labour struck me as the most interesting episode of the period. It was an event that really highlighted the growing discontent amongst people with the way things were and connected Gananoque with a wider national, or more exactly, North American story. While there are no artefacts from the Knights of Labour in the collections, the local newspaper recorded the events in letters to the editor which provide a voice for the workers of the period in the displays. I tried to make an exhibit that portrays the period without being nostalgic, that lets the visitor learn and experience a period as it was, instead of something idealized. If it stirs nostalgia in some, that’s fine, but it is not meant to. I wanted to show the growth of the town from the 1860s through to the 1890s, but I also wanted to highlight how far we’ve come and how much there is still left to do. Spending our time lamenting the passing of time and the inevitable consequences of change gets us nowhere. Gananoque has loads of potential for future growth and prosperity, and while we should remember the past and learn from it, we shouldn’t live in it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Adopt an Artefact: Photographs

This week we launch the Adopt an Artefact campaign. Each month from now until August, the Gananoque Reporter will run an advertisement highlighting a particular artefact or collection of artefacts that people can adopt. Adopters will receive a little package describing their artefact and its importance. When the items are displayed, the adopters will have their names presented alongside in recognition of their valuable contributions and assistance in preserving these objects for future generations. All adopters will be recognized here at Collection Resurrection. Our main groups of objects to be adopted will be the massive photograph collection, the archival collection (which includes the Loyalist era papers, Police court records and war diaries of the local artillery unit in World War II), the Link Trainer and Military Collection, as well as a wide variety of unique artefacts pertaining to local history.

Every object has unique needs. This week we begin with the Photograph Collection. As I have shown over the last few months, the Gananoque Museum Collections contain over 1000 photographs of all shapes and sizes, beginning with the early daguerreotypes and continuing through to the late 20th century. Photographs from the 19th century are often very robust and very well made. Keeping them in a cool, dark place free of acidic coverings or backings and also keeping them free of pests is often enough to preserve them. So far, we have managed to catalogue the majority of photos and are busy scanning the originals to make digital copies for display. Money generated from the Adopt an Artefact campaign will go towards digitization, purchasing acid-free containers and acquiring a cabinet to store the large framed pictures in.

Because of the sheer amount of photographs, adopting individual pictures wouldn’t work. Concerned residents or visitors can adopt a group of pictures, either 10 for 25.00 or 20 for 40.00. As an additional gift, adopters will receive a selection of photographs for personal use on CD.

Cheques can be made payable to: Gananoque Museum Collections
c/o The Arthur Child Heritage Museum
125 Water St.
Gananoque, Ontario
K7G 3E3

Feel free to contact me with any questions or to request specific artefacts to adopt from any previous post at

Exhibit Preparations

With the opening of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum fast approaching, we are busy setting up a variety of new exhibits. As you can see in these pictures, the space is slowly transforming. Books could, and have, been written on the industrial expansion of Gananoque in the 19th Century, so it is extremely hard to try and narrow down what to say. At Western, we learned to trim everything we want to say down to one statement, or one idea. For the this exhibit I have tried to present the period of booming industry without any nostalgia or pining for good old days. “The Gilded Age in Gananoque created the town we know today, yet it was a time of great inequality and hardship for many. The working class, influenced by labour movements in the United States, tried to stand up to the powerful elites and demanded fairness in the workplace.” So, in a nutshell, that’s the main idea of the exhibit. Rather than focus on the great mansions that still line some of Gananoque’s streets, I intended the exhibit to show both sides. Yet, it cannot be doubted that many people in the village deeply resented the small group of men who held absolute control over the money and politics in the town. It’s clear that many people felt there were serious abuses of power and the poor were tired of working to make others rich. One angry worker wrote a sarcastic prayer to the Reporter in January of 1885. He wrote:

“Let thy countenance shine upon them [the factory owners] that they may build fine houses and live sumptuously, even though it be necessary to reduce the wages of the working man that they be enabled to foot the bill”

Photographs, artefacts and maps from the period flesh-out the story and help describe the period from 1863-1890, when Gananoque grew to become a town.

The other rooms on the main floor of the Museum are filling up as well. The Clayton Antique Boat Museum is bringing in a collection of antique canoes from across the river to tell the story of this popular pastime and once vital form of transportation.

The room linking the Gilded Age exhibit and the canoes will make the transition from the Thousand Islands to Gananoque, displaying both our popular 3D model of the islands, a small vignette on the Loyalist founder Joel Stone, and displaying a set of “curiosities” from the Gananoque Museum Collections such as an antique dentist’s drill, a 3 foot sawfish snout and other interesting and unique artefacts.

Chris French, of Chris’ Creations has also built some great nature scenes to compliment the exhibits as you can see here. So, lots to do, back to work. Next time I'll share a little of what goes into creating the exhibit panels that tell the story.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Gananoque in the Gilded Age

Opening May 18th, the Arthur Child Heritage Museum along with the Gananoque Museum Collections are pleased to present: “Gananoque in the Gilded Age: 1863-1890.”

Making use of the many artefacts and archival photos from the collections, the exhibit will tell the story of the period when Gananoque grew from an industrial village into a town.

It is not a rosy tale of simpler times or a golden age; it is the period of history which Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age.” This was a term meant to signify that for all the rapid economic expansion and radical growth of technology and industry, the majority of people struggled to make ends meet and to make sense of a new and changing world. It was a gilded age – appearing like gold, but it was really just a thin layer covering a dark and heavy base.

This was the era of the robber barons and the captains of industry, who amassed immense wealth while the average workers toiled to eke out a living. Although Twain was referring to the United States, Gananoque in this period was a microcosm of the wider trends in North America. The National Policy of the Sir John A. Macdonald government, which slapped tariffs on American manufactured goods, ensured that factories could operate and produce goods in Gananoque, using the cheap water power of the river.

Did this benefit the factory owners or the factory workers?

There was something wrong with the system and in the late 1880s as nearly every worker in Gananoque, be they skilled or unskilled, joined the Knights of Labour: a pan-American, pan-industrial labour union. They fought for better working conditions, better wages and to be treated with dignity. The workers challenged the captains of industry for control of the Village council and for a say in their own destinies. But, the power of the owners was not easily challenged…

This is the display area in the main gallery of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum. Each week until the launch, I’ll be showing the little changes that take place as the exhibit takes shape.

Opens May 18th.

Many thanks to Lisa and Pam who assisted in the research for this project, and sincere thanks to Providence Continuing Care for the donation (and transportation) of some second-hand display cases.

HBC Local History Grants

In other news, the Hudson Bay Company’s Local History Grants programme along with Canada’s National History Society (Producers of The Beaver Magazine), have announced that they will provide funds to help produce a new resource for people to learn about the history of the town founder, Joel Stone. Together with Graphic Artist Wesley Cote, we will be producing a comic book based on the adventures of the Loyalist in the American Revolution. Most sincere thanks to the HBC and the National History Society for making this possible. The final product will be available in August. Check back here regularly for some snippets of the art work and story.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"From Your Soldier Patients..."

This week’s topic is a perfect example of why it’s important to restore meaning to the collections, and how people from all over North America are helping to do it. Every now and then I get an e-mail or phone call from someone with a particular connection to an artefact or event in Gananoque or the 1000 Islands. These little contacts do wonders for returning the stories to objects and photographs.

Back in November I posted a small piece about the military hospital on Leek Island in WWI and included this group photo of soldiers and nurses. Leek Island was a privately owned island volunteered to the Canadian government to be used as a convalescent hospital during the war. I was delighted to receive an e-mail from Pam Robertson, living in the United States near Detroit, who informed me that she was the great-granddaughter of Katherine Runyon, owner of Leek Island. Ms. Robertson's grandmother, Katherine Kip Brenneman, was a nurse at the hospital and this group photo was in fact her wedding picture. You can see Mrs. Brenneman in towards the centre in the white veil, with her new husband lying down in front.

Leek Island must have been a very special hospital and was certainly appreciated by the soldiers who recovered there. After being injured in one of the worst conflicts in human history, the Canadian soldiers surely thought themselves lucky to have been sent to Leek Island.

After Ms. Robertson’s e-mail, I took another look through a file of old and curled photographs marked “Leek Island” and I have included a few that show the wounded soldiers recovering amidst the splendour of the Thousand Islands in the summer. In one picture men clean freshly caught fish, in another, an amputee and others arrive at Leek Island. Perhaps they are arriving for the first time, perhaps they are returning from a simple boat ride – either way it would certainly have been therapeutic. In another shot, a contented looking soldier poses for the picture against a tree - happy, I’m sure, to be away from the carnage of the First World War. There are dozens more photographs which document the many soldiers recovering in the 1000 Islands.

One of the most poignant artefacts I have come across to date is this collection of pins. At the bottom is inscribed “From Your Soldier Patients, Leek Island, October 1st, 1917” Much as we would sign a card, the soldiers attached their regimental pins. Not all the pins explicitly state their units, but the ones represented are: The Royal Canadian Dragoons, The Kootenay Overseas Battalion, 1st Western Ontario, 2nd Eastern Ontario, Royal Canadian Artillery, Royal Montreal Regiment, Victoria Rifles, CMR Overseas, 8th Stationary Hospital Saskatchewan, Grenadiers (unsure which specific unit), 50th Cavalry, 10th Canadians, 4th Central Ontario, 20th Canadians, 3rd Toronto Regiment, 70th Canadian Battalion, 16th – perhaps Nova Scotia, a very impressive pin from the Black Watch – Royal Highlanders, Another Artillery, 18th Canadian, 28th North West, 75th, Canadian Engineers, Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, 27th Battalion Winnipeg, 5th Mounted Rifles, 38th Ottawa, Canadian Medical Corps, 21st Canadian, 73rd Royal Highlanders, 60th, 70th, The French Canadians, 5th Western Cavalry, 91st Elgin. Again there are a few others I cannot make out, but this certainly shows the number of men from all over Canada that called the Thousand Islands home for a brief time. This must have been a very touching gift to the nurses at Leek Island.

My thanks, again, to Pam Robertson for sending the information on the wedding picture.


With a software package on its way and a few other ducks in a row, we have begun work on this summer’s exhibit. “Gananoque in the Gilded Age” is the tentative title. The exhibit, which will be in the main gallery at the Arthur Child Heritage Museum beginning in May, will explore the period 1860-1890, when Gananoque’s industrial economy grew rapidly and transformed the sleepy village into a booming industrial town. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of the behind the scenes work that goes into creating this exhibit.

Also, coming soon, we’re launching an “adopt an artefact campaign.” The various artefacts and collections of artefacts will be displayed in the Gananoque Reporter and here at this site. My thanks to Anne Craig and the staff at the Reporter.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Returning Meaning to the Collections

This week I’ll be a little long-winded, but I figure it’s about time to really sum up what I am trying to do here, and why it’s a little more complicated, and much more important, than some people think. My title suggests a goal, but the first step to achieving it is not necessarily calling in Antiques Road Show or writing a history of Gananoque (although both are good ideas). The first step is getting down the basics of a solid, accessible, usable catalogue and a functional storage system.

I am sure that at one point there was someone in charge of the Gananoque Museum who when asked where some item was, knew immediately where to look, what its historical significance was, who donated it, and could bore anyone to tears remarking on its relationship to other objects in the collection. Once people like that move on or pass away, so much goes with them. The problems with the Gananoque Museum may stem from that quirk of local history. After so many years, the collections have been left in a state which does not allow them to tell their own story. Going through the collections over the past six months has been as much of an archaeological dig into the history of the museum itself and the people that ran it, as it was into the history of the artefacts it houses.

At one point, say 15 – 20 years ago, all three floors were filled with items on display. While most museums have 80-90% of their collections tucked safely away and rotate them out for visitors to see, the Gananoque Museum basically showed off everything at once. I don’t recall too many specifics of going through the museum as a child, but it must have been a bewildering hodgepodge of disjointed artefacts and stories. When I worked at the museum during its last open season in 2000 there was only one floor left open, but I remember that there was no stream or storyline to the exhibits. Rather, it was merely a venue for fine china and war trophies – the front parlours for the fancy dresses and furniture, the back rooms for the military items.

Since I began working through the collections it has become evident that perhaps the main problem with creating exhibits in the past was that the museum staff simply didn’t know what they had. Storage and cataloguing are vital to maintaining a museum. A museum must be able to live on and function after its creators or guardians have moved or passed away, otherwise the entire purpose of the museum is defeated. It simply isn’t enough to take an inventory, put it in a binder somewhere and say that it is done.

You can see here the card catalogue used by the museum from 1978 to 1995. (Now, before I go on I am not knocking card catalogues. I have used some, like at the Litchfield Historical Society, which were very well put together and cross-referenced. Small museums must do the best they can with what they have.) While sections of the Gananoque Museum’s catalogue were done well, after 1978 it was only added to in trickles, while there was a torrent of artefacts actually coming in. What stories people shared of this or that object as they donated their possessions for the greater good of the community were lost because they simply weren’t written down by staff, or if they were, the files were not kept.

The museum works on a basic trinomial numbering system. A set of three numbers is supposed to be attached somehow to every artefact. For example: 964.1.1 (ie. donated in 1964, from donor 1, item 1). Prior to 1978 it appears there was a different numbering system altogether, and the artefacts were then renumbered in the 1970s. This explains why some artefacts have a mysterious mark on them such as A-12, and then have a date of June 1978 on the card. But, while the card catalogue was added to until 1995, it is actually short nearly 2 000 artefacts that were never accessioned until 1999. These artefacts are recorded in a handwritten binder which uses a completely different method of classification. Then there are the mistakes: items with two numbers, items whose numbers have worn off, items such as dustpans and sheets which were accessioned, items that were just loaned but were accessioned into the permanent collections, items that were destroyed and thrown out during several moves, lost cards or even lost drawers of cards. (Remember you can click on pictures for a larger image).

Our digital age provides us with the means to correct or at least prevent anymore messy problems like these if proper safeguards are put in place. I am currently working on tracking down the best cataloguing system that will allow key-word searches and keep everything straight. No matter how good a system we have for recording WHAT we have, it is just as important to record WHERE we keep it. The most basic and fundamental need of a museum is to keep these things straight. Without that, we just have a pile of old stuff, and that’s exactly what happened to the Gananoque Museum Collections. For example, we knew that there was supposed to be a set of spurs from Dr. Hale in there somewhere, but it took 2 months to find them, and they were found by accident. The other artefacts pertaining to Dr. Hale, his moustache comb, his medals etc. are scattered all over. We had no idea what the full collection of Hale artefacts looked like, and to try and discern this from a card catalogue was a horribly inefficient task as many of the cards were missing.

This conundrum is easily remedied as soon as we apply a computer. Since January, I and the trusty band of volunteers have been going through the collections room by room, and recording the numbers and photographing each item we find. After recording the catalogue numbers and renaming the file names of each picture with the number, all of a sudden, a whole whack of 990.36.1a, b, c, q etc. from all around the museum line up neatly, and we can see all the artefacts pertaining to Dr. Hale. The next step of keeping these relations straight on a database is easy. Of course now we have to store everything in an orderly fashion so, when this is all done, someone can look up “spurs” on the computer database, go to the proper shelf, and find them there. In addition, and perhaps just as vital, the computer will show (ideally) that these are the spurs of Dr. Hale, tell us why he was important (see Lest We Forget Post from November) and point out the locations and significance of the rest of his kit and equipment. So, simple enough and we just need to do this 4500 more times.

What has also become clear to me is the value different administrations placed on artefacts of various sorts. When I worked at the Gananoque Museum in the summer of 2000,(I was a teenager then), one of the main problems I had, aside from not having washrooms for the public, was the fact that everyone who entered immediately thought they had come into an antique store. Hutches and Whatnots, Victrola’s and China greeted the visitors to the Thousand Islands. Slowly over the years, the range and variety of the museum collection seems to have been neglected for the sake of these artefacts which really do not tell much of a story, and what they do tell is only of a tiny minority of the people of Gananoque. What made the wealthy owners of these objects so wealthy were industries and the men and women who laboured in the factories.

Over the past couple of weeks, myself, John, Eileen, Marica, Kathy and Aidan, have uncovered a vast array of objects from Gananoque’s industrial past. While the shelves full of Victorian china and the other fancy possessions of the wealthy elite were proudly displayed, the remnants of the industries which made Gananoque were stored away in the tiny space in the attic. The often small, rusty bits of cast-iron embossed with a logo or patent date, (wrenches, machine parts, stamps, riveters etc.) are not much to look at, but tell us reams more than any fancy teacup or porcelain doll could ever say about the growth of this town. These were all carefully catalogued and accessioned at one point, their uses clearly marked on little tags which hang from them. Really, the section of rusty old tools was the only area that had any semblance of order when I found it, simply because it had never been touched. Fancy top hats were strewn everywhere, but the spoke shavers and cobbler’s moulds sat quietly undisturbed as they had for 20 years. Of course, a rusted clamp or seized-up threading machine needs to be interpreted, just as any artefact does; they need to be understood in relation to a bigger picture and to other objects. For example, I wrote the posting on the Gananoque Citizens Bands a few weeks back, and just the other day, found the very trophies they won in the 1930s, tucked away with a bunch of high school trophies from the 70s. Or these files, logo stamp, and shovels in various stages of production from the Jones Shovel Company, stored separately for good reason, but there is nothing to link them unless one takes the time (and it’s a lot of time) to carefully look through thousands of cards or thousands of objects. In other words these items may as well have been lost. In so many ways, these artefacts are valuable as a group of items that tell a story - they have much less value separated.

Of course we can’t actually store these items together, that wouldn’t work, but a computerized system would at least remind us that these associated objects exist and where we can find them. Again, this is something that could be easily accomplished by someone who knows these items and their significance - but we don’t have someone like that, and neither should we rely solely on someone like that if we did. This fact only makes it clearer that the whole point of a museum is not just to preserve artefacts - it is to preserve memory, to preserve knowledge and meaning after people are gone. Sadly, this is something that was not done properly. I think part of what compelled me to take on this task, to try and fix things before they got worse, is summed up in what a professor of mine, Dr. Alan MacEachern of the University of Western Ontario, once told us (albeit in a slightly different context). History, he wrote, “…holds a promise — and a threat — to people of today, that they won’t be forgotten either.” I think it’s an idea people should remember. [1]

[1]Quoted from Jan. 31, 2006 – “Old East London Blog”

Friday, February 16, 2007

Things are Coming Together!

Remember this?

We’ve come a long way since a few months ago when things were scattered all over and one could barely move in the “storage areas” of the former Gananoque Museum. Over the past two weeks we have pushed way ahead, and now the results of a finished project, although still far off, are becoming more and more easy to picture.

What has been most encouraging over the last little while is the strong support the project has received from a number of sources. Most importantly, the Town Council of Gananoque has pledged the needed funds to ensure that this valuable project can be completed. This will not only benefit residents and visitors now, but for generations to come. It is a real privilege to live in a town where those in power really appreciate and understand why our history is important and worth preserving. I cannot thank town staff enough for all their help in everything from providing workspace, to clearing away debris and of course, in financing the project, including the shelving (2/3 built) you see here.

I also had the pleasure last week to sit in on the first meeting of the Gananoque Heritage Committee. The committee is made up of some very enthusiastic and concerned citizens, who have brought a wide range of experience and expertise to the table. Many thanks to Councillor Frank O’Hearn and Town Planning Coordinator Brenda Guy for facilitating the meeting. I look forward to seeing all the great initiatives to preserve the historic structures and landmarks of our community.

Another important thank you I must send out is to Queen’s University Archives. Some time ago I was approached by archivist Paul Banfield, and happily loaned him our collection of Joel Stone papers and account books to be inspected and finally copied, so as to make these previously unknown 18th and early 19th century documents available. Last week, Heather, Deidre, and Jeremy, archivists at Queen’s, came to have a look at our collections here and provided the project, at long last, with a computer that will finally allow us to get a working, modern computerized catalogue system up and running. I cannot thank Queen’s Archives enough for the equipment, nor Heather, Deirdre and Jeremy for all their kind words and support. They are welcome here anytime!

Finally, the Arthur Child Heritage Museum was abuzz this week as we hosted the Ontario Senior Winter Games. The museum’s main gallery was transformed twice, first as the registration centre for the games, and then for an evening of dining and nostalgic entertainment, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The event was a huge success. Director Linda Mainse would like to thank Linda Davis, of Metro-Management Solutions, for organizing the event, and the staff of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum for all their assistance. MC Doug Revell, Paul Harding, Michelle Kazaboski and Dreams in Motion provided wonderful entertainment for the evening. And finally, many thanks to the Gananoque Secondary School’s Hospitality Students and the Canadian Academy of Travel and Tourism for all their hard work and excellent service.