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Images, stories, oral histories…Oh my!

Hello again ladies and gentlemen, it has been a while since my last post and I have some big changes to report. Recently I took on the new role of Collection Manager at the Museum. Since then, there have been many new and exciting things taking place deep inside the land of the collections.

Some of you may think of this department as dry and boring; a place which is the refuge of professional hoarders. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I am happy to say that this is most certainly not the case. The Collection Department at the Museum is dynamic and vibrant. It is a sphere in which curiosity and the quest for knowledge are paired together with a keen sense of responsibility to preserve and properly steward our nation’s immigration history.

Museum collections matter. And I am quite sure that many of you can relate to us collections professionals. Think about your own life, do you have one thing that you love to collect? Perhaps it is baseball cards, or maybe it is chicken ornaments that you use to decorate your kitchen. While you may collect action figures, I personally collect shoes, and as you can see I have a small but strong collection.

Very tall shoe rack holding a large collection of shoes for all seasons.

My shoe rack is my pride and joy. It is nine feet tall and holds the majority of my collection. There are not many more pairs, I swear!

The satisfaction that I receive from cultivating my shoe collection is much like the satisfaction you experience when you work to perfect your own collections. As a collector, you know where the gaps in your collection are and you work to try to fill them. You like to show your collections to visitors, like friends and family. Perhaps you have a piece which has a great story behind it: ‘I found this at a flea market and paid a dollar for it. I didn’t even know what it was until I got it home and cleaned it up!’ You also know that you cannot take everything into your collection; I know that I am most certainly restricted in my abilities to acquire many more pairs of shoes!

All of the ways in which you care for your own collections, our department works to care for the Permanent Collection of the Museum. We collect, preserve, and develop our collections to be a strong foundation upon which the Museum can actively interpret its mandate through research, exhibitions, and a variety of other programs. We have an internal mandate, a staff, and five sub-collections that we administer.

As a collecting institution, we differ from many museums. Currently we have a tangible collection of artifacts and archival materials that were collected throughout the lifespan of the organization, before we were designated a national museum. While the Museum values the importance of preserving artifacts and archival material, we have chosen to focus our collecting efforts on preserving intangibles, the memories of newcomers to Canada. We want to know the stories of the people who came to Canada; we want to know why they left their homelands and how they came to be here. What was the immigration experience like for them? Some were welcomed with open arms; others faced challenges which made settling into new communities difficult.

Two men and a lady standing on the deck of a ship and pointing towards something.

Mr. and Mrs. Reinmaa enjoying the sight of land on board the M/S Gripsholm with an unknown companion. Estonian in origin, the couple immigrated to Canada from Sweden where they had been living since the early years of the Second World War. Credit: Arrival of Arnold and Alice Reinmaa in Canada aboard M/S Gripsholm, 1949. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (DI2013.901.1)

Museums have become quite adept at preserving the physical remainders of our past, and it is only within the past couple of decades that they have actively begun to explore the world of digital cultural heritage. Some museum collections are home to the earliest traces of human culture, such as the tools and equipment used by people to survive. Others have digitized and published recordings from wax cylinders, so that all can enjoy music recorded in the time of Edison, such as Hot Stuff Patrol, a banjo solo recorded by Vess L. Ossman around the year 1902.

Within our Collection Department, we work to capture and preserve the more elusive remembrances of our nation. We do this through actively seeking to collect stories, oral histories and digital images that relate to the Canadian immigration experience. Our histories are personal; they come from many different people who have had many different types of experiences. Some people who share with us are new to Canada while others have lived here for decades, perhaps even landing at Pier 21 when they arrived.

So, now you know a little about what we collect here at the Museum, what do you collect? What do you love about your collection? I would love to hear from you.