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!

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