Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Changing Meaning of Symbols

One of the many problems with small town museums is that the collections are often so similar to others that they become redundant, with nothing to separate one museum from another for visitors. Every museum, of course, has something unique, but every North American museum seems to have a spinning wheel, a butter churn, wool cards and a plethora of military uniforms. Narrowing the local museum’s mandate has become the norm since the early days of every community having a museum that collected everything. While I have written about my amazement at finding sawfish snouts and 500 year old English oak, there are some interesting things that can emerge from the hodgepodge. Disparate and dissociated artefacts can begin to have some relationship between them, and Gananoque's museum collection can quietly speak about larger things.

Take for example this quilt and this serving dish. Many North Americans and Europeans would be shocked to find a swastika quilt under their tree at Christmas, and the serving dish, if manufactured today, would likely be used as proof the makers were some sort of potter-neo-Nazis. In fact these scattered and unrelated objects tell us a great deal about the changing meaning of symbols in the west. Before the Nazis came to power and killed countless millions under the banner of the swastika, it was a sign of good luck. To this day billions of people in Eastern cultures continue to revere it. Although we in the west associate violence and evil with the swastika, it is also one the most revered icons of the Jain religion, one built on ultra-pacifism and respect for life. It is one of the oldest symbols of the world, one found from India to England, Africa to Japan; a common religious or folkloric icon at home in hundreds of cultures and thousands of places, often used to ward off evil or bring good fortune. The savage events of the 20th century changed that benign symbol into one immediately identifiable with the worst of human nature, at least to westerners. So these once treasured belongings now appear to us as oddities from, perhaps, a more innocent past.

In other news, work has begun again after the holiday break. To date we have surpassed 1000 artefacts inventoried, or getting close to 25% complete. Queen’s University Archives has taken an interest, and has kindly offered to take in our collection of Joel Stone papers and account books on loan to be copied and professionally treated. My thanks to Paul Banfield and the staff of the Archives for doing such a great service for our town and museum collection.

Finally, having received a number of inquiries and comments on the Gananoque Citizen’s Band, next week I will discuss that proud and venerable institution that entertained Gananoqueans for over a hundred years. A point of nostalgia for many, the Citizens Band was part of a tight-knit and proud community. It was more than just a band; it was a major part of any town event and added a richness to small town life. It died out with the advent of Television and the changing tastes in leisure. People were drawn away from the town park bandstand and regular communal entertainment into the solitary comfort of their living rooms.

For Further reading on the changing meaning of the swastika see: W. G. V. Balchin "The Swastika" Folklore, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Dec., 1944), pp. 167-168

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