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”

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