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Traces of the Past

Everywhere you look there are traces of the past. Some, you pass by without a second thought. Others catch your eye and spark your curiosity. You are left to wonder: Where did this thing come from? Who cared enough for this piece to lovingly polish the finish to a high gleam? What stories lay beneath the layers of dust accumulated over the years as the object sat tucked away out of site? If this physical reminder of the past could talk, which stories would it share?

Have you ever encountered such a thing?

Archival image showing man in military uniform with a woman linking her arm through his.

My grandfather, Robert Barnett, in his RCAF uniform. I love this photograph and carry it with me daily.

As a young girl, I had the pleasure of coming across interesting reminders of the past all the time. My grandfather was a navigator in the RCAF Ferry Command, and after the Second World War he flew with the adventurous crews of the Wardair airline. Along with the best stories, which only grandfathers can tell, my grandparents’ house was filled with the great mysteries of the world that extended far beyond their living room. Be it a Buddha statue from Japan or Inuit prints from his time in Alert, Nunavut, each piece came with the memory of a moment in time that fascinated me as a youth.

Anyone who has ever looked at old family photos and wondered ‘who on earth is that guy?’ can relate when I say that sometimes the value of our mementoes comes not only from the object itself, but from the history that it holds. Preserving the memories surrounding an object, as well as the object itself, is a big part of what we do on a day-to-day basis in the Collection Department at the Museum.

We are investigators; we seek out everything there is to learn about an object and we document it, to ensure that once the time comes for us to leave the Museum, the knowledge we have discovered will live on with the Collection. This Museum is filled with interesting images, artifacts and stories.

Over time, relationships between the physical or digital traces of the past and the history behind them can become separated; this disconnect happens at all museums. That is why we have embarked on a multi-year cataloging project to enhance our existing records, to identify the pieces with personal stories attached to them, and to situate these collections objects within the greater historical context that led to their being brought to Canada. To do this, we have a team of hard-working Artifact, Archival and Digital Image Cataloguers. Supporting these inquisitive investigators is a dedicated Data Entry Clerk who is digitizing our records in preparation for the launch of the Museum’s new database: CollectiveAccess.

Two ladies sit on the floor of an exhibition room, working on some artifacts.

Two cataloguers hard at work in their natural habitat, registering artifacts which are currently on display here at the Museum.

Recently I had the pleasure of reading a blog entitled “The registrar: A strange, endangered breed of animal rarely spotted” by fellow collections specialist Angela Kipp. The blog is both amusing and informative; the picture that she paints of collections professionals as elusive and mysterious in the eyes of the world-at-large is apt. It is true that our collections team works the day away in a land of mysteries, one very much like that imagined in the tale Where the Wild Things Are. However, I myself would compare us to the shoemaker’s elves, in that you may not see us, but you know that we are there, working in the background to help the Museum achieve its programming and interpretation goals.

While I may have painted a picture of our collections staff (myself included) as the archetype of a nerdy shut-in, this is not the case. Where we work is much more like the Department of Mysteries[1] than the stereotypical dusty warehouses that are so often portrayed on TV. As a team, we work to reconnect the memories to their physical traces of the past, breathing life into these items, which will last as long as the generations care to learn from them.

What happens when we are done? We share the knowledge with you, your children and your grandchildren for years to come. We do this, so that the time never comes when the grandfathers and grandmothers of the world are not around in some way to tell the tales of their every day, and of their world adventures.

A woman in red and black stands in an artifact collections room and hold up a cracked plate.

Me in Collections Storage, one of my favourite rooms in the Museum!

  1. Harry Potter fans, you know what I’m talking about! I may have to admit to a certain level of personal nerdiness on this one.