Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Themes and Storylines -- Museum Exhibit Musings

I have been told it’s time I start thinking of “themes” and the storyline of the exhibit – to start fleshing things out. So, then, what would they be? Do you see the same areas in the exhibit as I do? Do I have too many themes? Not enough?
I see the introductory panel with that Sage quote (see June 21 blog). Then something about how much of Lethbridge today developed during the boom period of 1906-1913. What is the same? What is different? What do we think of Lethbridge in 1906-1913 and what do we think of Lethbridge today?

To understand how much Lethbridge (and Canada) changed 1906-1913, there must be a small section of background on the years prior. Some pictures of Lethbridge in the 1880s and 1890s, some population stats, descriptions from early arrivals – that sort of thing.

An area with highlights of why these years are important – population stats, list of developments, photos of before and afters, firsts of the time period. Should I include something in this area about why I personally find this such a fascinating time period?

Would it be too cliché to set this up as a classroom from that period? With information provided on the blackboard? A copy of a class schedule. The rules/behaviours of students. A copy of a report card. Picture of the king. A union jack. Copies of readers and text books of the period.

I really do think I will interview people about buildings built during this time and have them tell me what (from their own point of view) they like about that building. Lots of pictures here but also audio. Links or directions for the downtown podcast. Reminder that one of the buildings from this time period is our own Galt Hospital. Also the suggestion to have a map with layers where you can overlap the maps and see the changes.

A lot was happening politically in Lethbridge during this time period. We became a city, adopted the commissioner form of government, and took over Staffordville . What were the effects of these?

The more I think about it, the more I like using some of the Brower editorials. Will have to use some statistics. This is one area where, while the exhibit is looking at Lethbridge, should the story of southern Alberta be more included here? I was surprised to find last week that Barons was settled by Estonian immigrants. And there’s many more such stories. Perhaps a chance to tell some of those lesser known stories?

Boosterism/Dry Farming Congress
I must have an area on how the people who lived during 1906-1913 both viewed their own time period and how they saw the future development of Lethbridge and area. What came true and what didn’t? I might want to end the exhibit with this area because it would give the opportunity for people to make predictions on how they see Lethbridge and area developing.
This area must also include a section on the Dry Farming Congress which was one of the most incredible weeks ever in Lethbridge history (and, of course, helped lead to our 16 year debt).

So, this is what I’m thinking to date will be the themes of the exhibit.
But, as soon as I’ve said that, I’m already questioning myself. Should the real estate boom and economy be a theme or included in one of the others? Are there other themes I’m missing? Under what theme, or in what place, to include just some of the errata and fun stories of the time period? Does this fully capture what makes this time period unique and stand out? How to capture the ephemeral “identity” of a time in a list of themes?

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Immigrant Experiences -- Museum Exhibit Musings

One of our staff recently attended a presentation on supporting volunteerism among, and having volunteer programs designed for, people who are new to Canada. While at the presentation she felt it important to point out to the group that it would benefit the discussion if they all had a historical overview of immigration to Lethbridge as well as the opportunity to see how various immigrant groups have been treated in Lethbridge in the past. Studying history (when it’s studied well and not allowed to become mythology where “truth” is never contested) encourages people to see an issue in a broader, more complete context.

As she told me about what she had learned at the presentation it reminded me again of the importance of deciding how to present immigration in the exhibit. Immigration and the growth and change of Lethbridge from 1906-1913 must be in the exhibit but there are many ways I could present it. As statistics? As photographs? As recollections and stories from people living today of their family’s arrival in southern Alberta? The medium chosen is just as important in telling the story as the facts and figure and material presented.

One of the difficulties in telling the complete truth of immigration is that immigrant stories from certain groups from 100 years ago are often missing from our historic (written) record. For a wide variety of reasons, these stories were often not collected in the past. (And I know our Archives, and many other Archives across the province, would like to help change this so if you have or know of such documents contact the Galt Archives.)

So it was a pleasant surprise to find in the newspaper a series of letters to the editor written by L.D. Brower, a recent Black immigrant to southern Alberta. Unfortunately, Mr. Brower found it necessary to write the letters as a way of speaking out against the racism he and others were facing. But his letters are a powerful reminder that during the early part of the 20th century people of all colours, religions, and ethnic backgrounds were moving to Lethbridge, southern Alberta and western Canada and that many “pioneers” do not fit the stereotypical image that many people still hold.

And, the more I read Mr. Brower’s letters, I realize that whatever labels and information I write for the exhibit I can not more clearly and succinctly as he explain the issues of that day and that perhaps using his letters, and others like them if I can find them, would be a good way to present some of the information in the area of the exhibit related to immigration.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Do you read exhibit labels? Museum Exhibit Musings

Do you read labels when you visit a museum exhibit?
Yesterday afternoon, during a volunteer function here at the museum, I went into an exhibit we had on 3-dimensional art and sculptures. When I walked in (knowing most of the people in the room), I made the comment that one thing I liked to do was try to decide for myself what the artist was saying and then read the label to see what the artist intended to say. This got the group talking. I mentioned that for one of the statues in the room I had a very different perspective of it when I first looked at it and then started to see it in a completely different light when I read the label.

This started a fascinating discussion. No one in the room had read any of the labels. And each person had a different perspective on that piece of art. Some were a little offended by it until I explained the artist’s intended meaning. Others, from a different generation, saw a pop culture reference in the work that others hadn’t seen (and which was not intended by the artist). But what, again, struck me most of all was that no one had read the label. Not reading the label had led to them creating their own opinions that were created from a great deal of misinformation. After a discussion around the labels their opinion of the object completely changed.

Knowing the amount of time curators spend researching and writing labels (and the amount of important information on them), this gave me a lot of pause for thought. What makes people want to read labels? What stops them from reading labels? What would you like to see on the labels?

This discussion also got me thinking about intended and perceived meaning. Is one of these stronger? Which one has more relevance? Is the most important thing what a curator WANTS an exhibit to say or is it more important what visitors BELIEVE an exhibit says?

Oh, and just for the record, I do read museum labels. But I often wish there was a second label (or more) that was erasable where the visitor (okay, me) could create their own personal label about how they interact with that object or topic.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Theoretical History or Brick Building 101 -- Museum Exhibit Musings

I have been in the mood lately for a little discussion and contemplation. So I decided to see what other museum blogs have been discussing. I came across a blog called ExhibiTricks that looks at museums, exhibits and design.

I got quite caught up in reading some of their blogs. The one that suggested that museums stop funding huge projects and mega-museums and instead “fund small ‘risky’ projects instead of ‘safe’ big projects” reminded me that the most fun I ever have and when I learn the most is when I do projects that get me in trouble with the “powers that be” or the arbiters of what’s right and wrong. But in the end they usually turn out to be the ones most worth the risk. Also, I’ve always found that organizations that live by their wits are required to be much more in tune with their community and their fans (I prefer that to visitors right now) because they have to be.

There were also a blog that questioned if you were designing an exhibit what one feature would you absolutely include and which would you absolutely not. The WOULD include was something that got the wheels in my head absolutely churning.

The idea was to have a Fablab or, as the writer described it, computerized or non-computerized designs tools to create objects to take home because, as the blog continued, exhibits usually show the end projects (the historical artefact, the art object, the building or whatever) without helping people appreciate the process.

This really spoke to me. The other day I described myself as a theoretical historian (I did once consider becoming a theoretical physicist but that’s a story for another day). A fablab would help me and many other people gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of how things were achieved. I have absolutely no idea if it would actually be possible to do any of these (whether in the exhibit or not) but how hard would it be to make a brick? Could we bring in sandstone and see if we could shape it into something useful? If we set out the math needed for one area of the bridge, how many of us could accurately work it out? If we found a nursing textbook from that time period, could we attempt some of the things that nurses learned during their training? I don’t know about you but I would sure be game to try.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Museum Exhibit Musing -- Lethbridge's political leanings

I was having difficulty last night thinking of something to write so I decided to do a search on the internet just to see what I might find. So I went onto Google Scholar and put in Lethbridge 1906 1913.

I came across two rather interesting articles: The Rise and Fall of the Labour Party in Alberta and Socialists and Workers in the Western Canadian Coal Mines 1900-1921.

Rather than trying to explain the information, I thought it would be easiest to start with two quotes:

“Lethbridge elected Donald McNabb, a coal miner and moderate socialist, in a provincial by-election in January 1909. McNabb, however, had won by acclamation and proved unable even to keep his deposit in the general election.”

Lethbridge was the first Alberta constituency in which a self-styled Labour candidate had run for provincial office. Though no Labour candidates were in the running in Alberta’s first provincial election in 1905, an independent Labourite ran in a by-election in Lethbridge in April 1906, and receive[d] 463 votes against 543 for the victorious Liberal and 231 for the Conservative.”

To say that Lethbridge was a coal mining town in 1906-1913 is like saying that Fort McMurray is an oil town. While Lethbridge was working to diversify and was slowly becoming the agricultural centre of the area, coal was still the major industry. Over time the role of coal mining in Lethbridge’s economy diminished and agriculture became more and more important.

Could a moderate socialist win in a by-election in Lethbridge today? Can the fact that the first Labour candidate in the province came from Lethbridge be directly linked to Lethbridge’s coal mining past? Would it then follow that there is a link between Lethbridge becoming more conservative as coal mining (labour) decreased in importance? What is different about the identity of Lethbridge in the early 20th century and today? Can we see this difference reflected in voting patterns? How is identity (the underlying beliefs of a community) to be reflected in an exhibit? Certainly it is going to be important to look a great deal more into the labour activities going on in Lethbridge and southern Alberta in the early 20th century.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Museum Exhibit Musings -- Changing of the Old Guard

One of the other documents that Kelti located was the Rent Rolls for The Alberta Railway and Coal Company for the month of 15 May 1908. Strangely for a form calling itself a rent roll, there is no record of what people paid in rent. Instead, this form seems to be a summary of who rented each property as well as what had happened to certain properties. For example, items 7 and 8 burned while 9 and 10 were sold to Iron Works. Some were vacant. At least one property was lost in the 1902 flood. And Lady Galt House was sold to E.H. Wilson (I’m not certain exactly to which property this refers but I’m going to try and track it down.).

But for most of the properties there is a name associated with each. If we combine this document with information from the 3 September posting, it is interesting to note that none of the men listed on this document as tenants would have been able to vote in municipal elections.

It is premature to speculate from only one document but this rent roll intrigues me, especially given that it is from 1908. Could this document have been something prepared for the sale of the company to the Canadian Pacific Railway? The CPR slowly acquired the Galt companies, starting with the Dunmore line in the 1890s. With negotiations started in 1907 and completed in 1908, the CPR gained controlling interest in the Galt Companies and then purchased all assets of the company in 1912. This transfer from the Galts to the CPR had to have had a profound effect on Lethbridge.

Up until the early 20th century, Lethbridge (and southern Alberta) and the Galt family were incredibly linked. Elliott Galt, while he kept a low profile, was influential in local politics and economics. In 1890, Galt successfully blocked the incorporation of the Town of Lethbridge until the Galt Companies were declared exempt from local taxes (excepting the school levy). It was Elliott Galt and his assistant (and future brother-in-law) Charles Magrath who made an arrangement with the Mormon Church for the development of the irrigation system. Elliott Galt and Charles Magrath worked with Jesse Knight to develop the Knight Sugar Company. Elliott Galt donated land near Lethbridge for the model farm which eventually developed into the Research Centre. He also contributed half the money for the new Galt Hospital in 1910. Galt Gardens, Lethbridge’s oldest park, was donated to the city by Elliott Galt (he was convinced to do so by Charles Magrath). And the list could continue related to what the company and the Galts built, contributed to and influenced. (The Stafford family even named one of their sons, Elliott Torrance Stafford, in honour of Elliott Torrance Galt.)

In 1905, ill health caused Elliott Galt to withdraw from the daily operations of the company. A few years later he left Lethbridge for retirement in Montreal and Vancouver.
During a time of massive growth and change, the old guard, the “father of Lethbridge,” moved away. Did the identity of Lethbridge change with the end of the Galt era and the purchase of The Alberta Railway and Coal Company by the CPR and, if so, how and in what ways? How does an exhibit capture this sort of change in the identity of a community (or should it even try)?

Monday, 7 September 2009

Museum Exhibit Musings -- Document Stories

Kelti Boissoneault, who worked with us here at the museum this summer, was kind enough to go through the Archives and pull out some documents from this time period and review them for me. Kelti not only gave me a description of each document beyond what was available in the catalogue information but rated each document on an interest scale as to whether or not she thought I should use it in the exhibit. I thought I would share some of the documents she thought were interesting and see how they relate to the overall themes I’m considering for this exhibit.

On 6 July I posted some information on White Man’s Cafe, one of the cafes in the early 20th century that would only hire white employees. The menu for the cafe is in the Archives. And, as an opportunity to compare today’s prices with those of 100 years ago, it lets us know, for example, that a Clubhouse Sandwich was $0.45.

Another item found was the souvenir booklet issued with Fleetwood School opened in 1911. This book provides a lot of information on what school was like 100 years ago. Would be very interesting for students and teachers today to see what they would have had to deal with back then. In the school realm, there is also a monthly report sheet for Dora Nimmons for high school in 1907. While Dora was not (of course) signed up for all of the classes, this is the list of classes for which she could have been enrolled:
  • reading,
  • literature,
  • grammar,
  • composition,
  • history,
  • geography,
  • arithmetic,
  • algebra,
  • geometry,
  • agriculture,
  • hygiene,
  • physics,
  • botany,
  • chemistry,
  • animal life,
  • book keeping,
  • Latin,
  • French and
  • drawing.

I also find it fascinating that the report also provides Dora’s standing in the class so every month she (and her parents) know how she compares with the other students. Considering that this was also a time when students marks and standing were publicly reported in the newspaper, this shouldn’t be too surprising.

If we combine these documents with the physical objects we have (cornerstones, things buried in the cornerstones) and photographs and books/textbooks such as the Alexandra Readers, I foresee an interesting section in the exhibit on changes in education and schools.

How to tell the story of immigration in the 1906-1913 time period? Certainly the statistics alone and the growth of Lethbridge and Alberta tell part of the story. But in the Archives are some incredible documents. One file has several documents related to a Lewis Stockwell including his steamer ticket, inspection card from the immigration officer, train ticket from Montreal to Lethbridge, and other documents. There are also homestead certificates, letters home and from the old country and much more. Would case studies be a good way to tell the immigration story?

These are only a few of the document Kelti came across. More later.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Museum Exhibit Musings -- Could you vote?

I was thinking the other day that during the time period of this exhibit (1906-1913) I, and many of you, would not have been permitted to vote in municipal elections in Lethbridge. First, you would have had to be 21 years of age. Secondly, most women would not have been able to vote (the first woman to vote in a Lethbridge municipal election was in the 1890s – a widow who was able to vote in the election on behalf of her family – but this was a very rare exception). And, third, if you were a renter you COULD NOT vote in municipal elections. Only male homeowners over the age of 21 could vote. Greg Ellis, the Archivist here, and I have been trying to find when women and tenants were permitted to vote in municipal elections. It appears that women could first vote in 1918 but we have two different dates (1913 and 1918) for renters. So more research definitely needs to be done.

There were two events in 1913 that most definitely had a profound effect on Lethbridge. First, in 1913 the City of Lethbridge annexed the Village of Stafford or Staffordville. In 1890 construction started on Galt Mine No. 3 and the mine was opened in 1892. A community, originally known simply as Number Three, developed around the mine shaft and achieved village status in 1900. Staffordville is north of Dave Elton ball park and east to Stafford Drive. Lethbridge’s take over of the village in 1913 made the North Ward (as it was called then) more prominent in the development of Lethbridge.

When Lethbridge initially developed in the 1880s, there was a small settlement in the river valley and two small areas on the north side, but the major development was south of the rail tracks from the top of the Old Man River valley east to 13th Street South. The addition of Staffordville provided Lethbridge an impetus to grow north (along with the coal mines and the construction of Galbraith School in the north ward in 1913).

I’ve been told that when the Village of Stafford stopped operations they never officially adjourned their last meeting. While the City of Lethbridge did not want to annex Staffordville, Staffordville had been requesting just such an annexation for years. The lack of adjournment may have been due to their excitement at this being the last meeting of the Village of Stafford.

The other major political development in 1913 was the adoption of the Commission form of government for the City of Lethbridge. A relatively new form of governance at that time (it first developed in Texas in 1900), voters elected three commissioners who were responsible for the operation of the city. Much of the control was in the hands of the Mayor who was also responsible for finance. This form of government remained in Lethbridge until 1928. Some day when I have more time, I definitely want to do more research into into the commission form of government and its effect on Lethbridge.