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.

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