Friday, 28 January 2011

How to make the future happy

Years of drought with record high summer temperatures and little snowmelt? A decade of farm crisis and debt? Families losing their farms and moving into the towns and cities? Farm life changed forever as farms changed from families to corporations?

To what decade am I referring? The 1980s, of course.

A few months ago I was speaking to a visitor following one of my tours and he said rather offhandedly that the largest drought and farm exodus was the Great Depression. I said that actually the 1980s drought was as fierce as the 1930s and that, combined with the high interest rates of the time, forced a large number of families from their farms.

This shocked the visitor and he asked why no one knew about it. And it got me thinking. Was he correct, do very few people know about it? And, if that’s true, why? So I decided to do some investigating.

There is quite a bit of information gathered on this decade from the American perspective. There is also some Canadian information available. And the Research Centre and researchers certainly have all of the meteorological and related data. But what I can’t easily find (and, no, I have not done an exhaustive search but have spoken to several people and organizations) was the social history – stories collected about how the lives of individuals and families changed in southern Alberta during this time (that’s the stuff that most interests me).

In my opinion, it is incredibly important that these stories be collected. These stories highlight the lives of individuals. But on a larger scale these stories help explain how many of our communities in southern Alberta changed over the past 30 years. These stories also give a personal element to the change in farming from family farms to companies. I really do want to get more stuff specifically related to southern Alberta in the 1980s.

But thinking about the types of documents and stories needed to better tell the story of the 1980s, got me thinking in general about the types of documents and information to be found when doing historical research. For example, I usually find it easier to research an older event than a more recent events. It is often difficult to find written information on recent events in museums and archives.

Many people don't believe that recent events are important. Or they don't want to offend (or even just give neutral information) people who are still alive. Or they can't see how their story could be part of a larger story. I encourage people to write down these sort of stories – of changes and moves and good times and bad and everyday remembrances – and to think about what documents may be useful in telling our individual stories and our community stories. And to be proactive about saving them and, someday, donating them.

People who research past events so often wish that someone had got around just a little sooner to collecting so that stories weren't lost. Wouldn't it be amazing if we had a community so aware that today's events are tomorrow's history that we carefully and methodically record and save things today? The future will thank us.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Scotch, haggis, haggis and Scotch...and firemen in kilts!

The Lethbridge Firefighters Pipes and Drums
with Senator Fairbairn and Alex Lawson in the background

Once again, our annual Robbie Burns celebration has come and gone! After months of planning the program and all the little extras - haggis tasting and Scotch tasting mainly - we were able to put our feet up and enjoy the event!

Haggis Tasting

Each year I wonder how many people will come, because before I worked here I sure didn't know much about this Robbie Burns fellow myself, but each year I am impressed by our record crowds - with over 350 people this year, and comments on twitter about parking being a challenge because of the crowd being so large! And not only does our event grow, but I hear of others celebrating Robbie Burns too, mainly at bars and lounges, but it is still wonderful to see the passion for Robbie Burns seem to grow, not die off!
The piping in of the haggis - Senator Fairbairn,
haggis bearer Gordon Campbell, and Ian McKenna (MC)

Being the longest running public Burns event in our area, I do get contacted each year by people looking for MCs, speakers, and most of all, bagpipers! I always share my contacts with them so that they too can celebrate this interesting Scot's life. And I remember that just 4 years ago, we couldn't hardly find a piper and this year we were blessed with TWO pipe and drum bands - the Lethbridge Legion Pipe and Drum Band and the newer Lethbridge Firefighters Pipes and Drums!

The Lethbridge Firefighters Pipes and Drums

The Legion band is wonderful - they have been around for a long time and have some very excellent musicians in their mix (if not all of their musicians!). The Firefighters band stole the show with a wonderful and fun version of Amazing Grace.

The Lethbridge Legion Pipe and Drum Band arriving

Lethbridge Legion Pipe and Drum Band warming up,
under the leadership of David Kaminski (facing the camera)

And of course, the Lethbridge Highland Dancers - those girls are just so fun and amazing to watch and the diversity of the experience makes it even more interesting as the newest dancers work on their footwork while the older dancers make it look so easy. It all really makes you appreciate the talents of these girls and their instructors.

The Lethbridge Highland Dancers perform

 We couldn't do any of it without our sponsors and donors....DBS Environmental for once again sponsoring our haggis (and all 18 lbs was gone by the end of the night!)........Andrew Hilton Wine and Spirits for putting together the Scotch Tasting and running it for us as a fundraiser for the museum......Park Meadows Safeway for water for the Scotch Tasting and crackers for the haggis.....LA Chefs for preparing our haggis and lending us their equipment for the evening.....the Enmax Centre for giving us 2 tickets to Riverdance to give away....the performers.....the committee members (Ian McKenna and Alex Lawson especially)....and the MANY volunteers who ensure that the event takes place!

Scotch Tasting with Andrew Hilton Wine and Spirits

THANK YOU to all of you and to those who attended! We promise more Scotch in 2012 and another night of fun so mark your calendar for Sat Jan 21st 2012!

Friday, 21 January 2011

Sorry If I Distract You

In just three months the Greatest Years You Never Knew: Lethbridge 1906-1913 exhibit must be completed and open to the public. There are so many things that need to get done (by many, many amazing people). I’m hoping that when people visit the exhibit there will be many layers to the exhibit so people will have lots to do and will be encouraged to visit several times in order to experience all of the aspects of the exhibit (seems like a great idea in my head and we’ll see how it works in real life).

We have the colouring pages, the brochures, the interactive parlour, the games and activities, the dug out, the zoo, the large architectural details to move, the music to work on with the Lethbridge Community Gold Band, and on and on and on. Labels need to be done ASAP and edited so the design of the panels can proceed. Object choices have to be finalized. Mailing list needs to be confirmed. Invitations need to go out.

So it’s probably not a good thing that I’m getting a little distracted by minor things. But they do say that a problem shared is a problem halved – I’m hoping the same thing applies to a distraction. Maybe if I tell you about what’s distracting me, that’ll get it out of my head and I can get back to serious work. I’ll apologize now if it does distract you from your work for the day.

To promote the exhibit we are creating a small display to go over the door in the Viewing Gallery. Look for it next time you visit (going up Monday). The display is based on photographs showing how Lethbridge was decorated for the 1911 coronation. This photograph (showing the Alberta Railways & Irrigation Office -- Galt Archives 19760209214).

The distraction? I was doing a tour the other night and I mentioned that Lethbridge had the highest per capita enrollment of any Canadian city in the First World War. The visitors were surprised and wanted to know why. At this time Lethbridge had an incredibly high percentage of residents with a British background. This surprised the visitors. They thought the majority of southern Albertans were Dutch or another European background. This led to an interesting discussion that night and it reminded me once again about how people perceive history.
In the 1906 to 1913 period many Lethbridgians saw themelves as British and not Canadian (the Canadian identity would develop over the next century). This got me thinking about how to show this identity and so I started looking on the internet (always a major distraction) and here’s some of what I found and quite enjoyed and thought I would share with you.

This is the Nelson Shield – it says on it “England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty” – In 1907 these were given out to Canadian schools including schools in Lethbridge. Nelson, the British admiral who was killed at Trafalgar in 1805, was presented as the embodiment of duty and honour.

The Alexandra Series of Readers, named after Queen Alexandra, consort to King Edward, were introduced to the Alberta School system in 1908. The readers, which remained in use for years and in some places remained the only grade 4 reader until the 1940s, were very British. The readers contained very little Canadian content and highlighted the importance of the Empire and the citizen’s role in the Empire. Think of the students (from all the various countries moving to Alberta at that time) entering a school with the Nelson Shield on the wall and the Alexandra Readers as the textbook?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Follow up to Aliens, US Air Force, Mormons and Atomic Bombs

The entrance to the Hill Aerospace Museum

After driving almost 6000 kms (the Interstate 15 from the north tip to the south tip, and then a return trip past Area 51/the Extraterrestrial Highway), I have been fortunate to have experienced many museums, as mentioned in my previous blog.

Aliens - We had hoped to go to the Alien Research Centre but sadly, we could not find it! In a ghost town with 10 houses, it amazed me we could not find a Quonset with a big alien out front but we couldn't! I had tried calling there numerous times in the days leading up to our drive through this area and no one ever answered the phone and there was no voicemail - hmmm maybe it is gone? Though we did get a picture of the sign pointing us there......

US Air Force - well the Hill Aerospace Museum was one of the largest museums I have been in, but it had to be considering how many planes were inside (probably at least 50 and some massive military transport planes). It was on a very large air force base near Salt Lake City Utah (which is also near Wendover, which has the largest no fly zone in the whole USA, according to a brochure I picked up when we were in Wendover). The volunteers at this museum are often retired military and enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience. The museum was excellent if you enjoy planes and military knowledge and experiences, therefore it was great for my sons but not a place that I, in particular, would chose to go to again. I'm sure I saw some amazing things however, not having a whole lot of knowledge in this area, I don't know what I should be bragging about seeing!! It is free though so definitely worth the stop to check out.

An explanation of the work they are doing on one of the exhibits - very well done and it also mentions the costs both financially and human resource wise of the upkeep, encouraging people gently to donate money or time. Donors were noted in this.

The education centre - the walls that you can't see were full of awards they had presented to educators in the schools who they felt deserved recognition.

A very small part of one of the exhibit spaces.

Mormons - so the Pioneer Museum is not open for the last 2 weeks of December! I was quite disappointed but also reminded myself that I need to look into these things a bit better before traveling and assuming that everything will be open on my time. However, I did get a chance to go to Temple Square in Salt Lake City and that was amazing - the Christmas displays were some of the best I have ever seen. They did have exhibits with stories from their scriptures, which were very well done, so I was able to enjoy that in place of the Pioneer Museum.

One of the exhibit spaces in the public buildings in Temple Square - Salt Lake City.

Atomic Bombs - the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas is one of the best museums I have ever been to! It is huge, has so much information, and really makes you aware of the shocking, sad, and frightening things that have gone on in that area of the world, in the name of war (or peace, depending on how you look at it). There is even a "bunker" where you get to experience a mock nuclear explosion - the light, the wind, the sound, the shaking - it was very scary and very much a wake up call to the reality of this weapon. Unfortunately they only allow cameras into one area of their museum, a piece of the twin towers, so that was the only image I got inside the museum. I highly recommend it AND the Korean taco stand across the street - it had the best food we had on our whole trip and it was very cheap!!

The entrance to the museum, the store is behind me.

A beam from the twin towers.

Some other things that we saw that I didn't expect to:

~ the museum in Dillon, Montana - we stayed overnight there so before we left town, we stopped by there. It is a fun little museum that actually encompasses quite a few buildings. They were very friendly and it was worth the stop! My favourite item on exhibit was a one eyed animal!

~ the Titanic Artifact exhibit at the Luxor - not to be confused with the one that has travelled to Victoria and is coming to Calgary as apparently this one is much bigger (it has a huge piece of the ship - the biggest piece ever recovered that is as big as a took 2 years to desalinate it..... for example). I highly recommend it to anyone - the admission is high but it is definitely worth it! It was a very emotional experience, with a lot of hands on in the exhibit, but due to the very fragile nature of the artifacts, pictures were not allowed inside again so I can't show you how worth it this is!

huge sign above entryway to exhibit

~the exhibit at the Hoover Dam is small but very hands on and has some games for kids to understand the whole idea of increasing and decreasing outputs with the dam. It truly was an amazing engineering feat (and did you know it has so much cement that they could make a 4' wide sidewalk that would go around the equator one time!? Crazy!)

I did, of course, pick up volunteer forms and event schedules for most of theses places so that I could peruse them for ideas for my own job, but have not had time to do so yet. I did see some neat ideas for interpreters at the Hill Aerospace Museum, and some wonderful volunteer acknowledgement displays (again the one at the Hill Museum was very well done).

A volunteer display at the Hill Aerospace Museum - it was in a hallway in the main area that you had to walk through to get to the display. It told not only the volunteer's name, but what year they started volunteering with the museum, plus, as you can somewhat see, photos of volunteer events, awards won by volunteers, etc.

These little stands were not really too noticeable but they were throughout the exhibits at the Aerospace Museum. When I took a closer look and read what was on there, it was information for the interpreters about the exhibit that this was nearest to, as well as some ideas for hands on activities etc that could be done with visitors of different ages at this point! Very cool! Obviously they were missing comment cards but they did have volunteer applications on each of these displays, too!

Now I have to absorb it all and take what I can from those experience to improve what I can. It is fun to share, learn, experience and explore with other museums and exhibits, especially ones as diverse as the ones I enjoyed in the last few weeks.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A History Detective

Earlier this week I was interviewed about my job by two people who work in another field. It’s very difficult sometimes to explain WHY history is so interesting and important and why those of us who study history love it so much. To truly understand, you have to come on a tour or come and hang out with us or work along-side us as we do our jobs. But that’s not very practical. So I thought with today’s blog I’d share with you some of the fun stuff.

A very kind person donated to us a large number of her family’s documents – wedding certificates, passports, photographs and more. Each document provides a small piece of a story about a family leaving Italy and making their home in southern Alberta. We are using these documents as part of an Archives kit where students, working as historians, go through the documents and use the documents to build this family’s history.

For some people this probably sounds like the worst kind of torture. For a historian – actually getting the opportunity to touch and go through these documents is FUN, CHALLENGING and EDUCATIONAL. It’s like being a history detective – you have to follow the clues to find the story. Through the document you can see how people’s names change, how families change and form, how people’s jobs and education change over their lifetime and you have a glimpse of whether or not their expectations of their new homeland were met – either in their generation or by their children.

That’s all I’m telling you about this family. Below are some of the documents. If you have questions or think you figured out the story and want to brag, get in touch with me.

Friday, 7 January 2011

It Takes a Village to Build an Exhibit

I’m sure that when most people walk into an exhibit they don’t think of all of the people who have worked to make it happen. But believe me that there’s a lot of people involved and there’s much to be done. Let me tell you a little about just this week and it’ll give you some sense of what I mean.

Of course our staff is involved. Brad Brown, our exhibit designer, is presently working on the time line that will go around the walls of the interactive parlour and then he has a zoo to build (it’ll all make sense when you visit the Greatest Years You Never Knew exhibit on Lethbridge 1906-1913 that opens in April).

Greg Ellis, our Archivist, came up with the title for the Archives Exposed exhibit that will run at the same time. We’re calling it – Coal Town to Boom City – and it looks at how Lethbridge looked before and after 1906-1913. Greg and Trish Purkis, the Archives’ Assistant, are busy scanning and printing the photos for this exhibit. The Archives is also printing copies of Christmas cards from 1906-1913 so we can have reproductions that people can look at and touch.

Bobbie Fox, who usually can be found at our front desk, is working on a case on the Travellers’ Aid Society (the Society started in the 1906-1913 period). Bobbie has also been helping with research on music from 1906-1913.

Michelle Christensen, our store manager, is trying to find products that people will love and which will tie into the 1906-1913 time period. I’ve been tossing all kinds of suggestions at her about products she could have but I’m sure she’ll have better luck finding great projects at the gift show in February than from my ideas.

And volunteers are also actively working on parts of the exhibit. Thursday morning, under the watchful eye of Kevin MacLean, our Collections Manager, volunteers pulled all of the artifacts we’re proposing to use in the upcoming exhibit. These artifacts will then have to be readied for the exhibit.

Shanell Papp, an incredible artist, is one of our volunteers transforming photographs of historic buildings constructed between 1906 and 1913 into fun and whimsical colouring sheets. These sheets, along with historic information, will be downloadable from our web-site just prior to the launch of the exhibit in April so kids (kids of all ages) can print them out before or after their visit (we’ll also have some here for people to take home).

Lindsay Van Dyk is finishing up some in-depth research because we’re hoping to develop cards where visitors can choose an identity and learn about what life was like for different people during this time period.

And any staff or volunteer might at any time be asked to review, edit or evaluate something. Evelyn Yackulic, who more often works with money than history, was kind enough to provide feedback on an activity where you have to decide whether statements taken from City Council Minutes are from the early 20th century or from the 21st century. Not easy to do (as she can attest).

And that doesn’t even begin to look at the people who have to help market this or create events and programs around this or all of the other myriad activities. And that’s just this past week. Can’t wait to see what next week holds.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Family Programs Year in Review

It’s no secret that I love my job, both the public part (putting on fun and educational programs) and the behind-the-scenes planning and organising (spreadsheets!).  This, of course, is not unique at the museum where everyone is very dedicated and passionate about their jobs. So, it’s not surprising that when I look back at 2010 that my main reflection is how much fun I have doing my job.

In reflecting on my year, however, I find that I am a little bit surprised at the sheer volume of fun that I had with our family programs. When I first started doing the Saturday at 1 program, and other assorted family programs (some special summer programs, family activities on community days etc.), my goal was to create hands-on programs that were educational and entertaining for the families who attend the program.  It was easy to create a list of the different historical topics I was interested in covering in the programs for the year.  It is the many different ways that we can approach the topics, and the many different kinds of interactive activities that we can create around each topic, that are the constant sources of surprise and joy for me at work.  In fact, I even find myself  thinking about family programs in my free time – talking to vendors at craft fairs about heritage arts, picking the brains of my friends and family, and exploring hobby and craft stores in every city I visit. 

Over the two-week winter school break I brought back ten of my favorite family programs from 2010.  It was a neat opportunity for me to reflect on the programs we offer for families, and to start planning in earnest for 2011.  These family programs are intended to take historical and cultural themes linked to our exhibits and bring them to life through an interactive program. We try to make the family programs inclusive for families with kids of different ages - usually approximately 3 years old up to about 12 years old. The parents or guardians attend with the children and they work together to complete the activities. Some of the activities are craft or project based, and some of the activities are interactive but not crafts – such as our history detective activity, or the lizards and things program:
Another program that we brought back over the holiday was the Napi Story Puppet program.  This program was originally brought together by Tanya Harnett and Doreen Williams-Freeman.  Over the break, we re-ran the program with Blanche Bruised Head, a Blackfoot interpreter from the museum, and with the help of some volunteers.  The idea behind this program is to learn about Blackfoot culture and heritage through stories about Napi, a Blackfoot trickster character.  These stories, passed down orally from generation to generation, teach life lessons through Napi’s misadventures.  In this program Blanche shared Napi stories with the families:
The children attending the program made puppets of different characters featured in the stories.  Here are three gophers from the Napi and the Gophers story: 
This program was originally done during the Blackfoot Shirts Exhibit, however, it also links to our permanent exhibit on southern Alberta history.

Our fossil casting program was another popular program in 2010 so we brought it back over the break. This program is so messy that after each of the three times we've offered it before I've vowed that I won't offer it again.  It is, however, ultimately too much fun (and educational) to let a little mess get in the way.  So, I expect that it's only a brief matter of time before we are doing fossil or hand casting again.  This program was originally linked to our Dinosaurs and Company Exhibit.  Although we are typically a human history museum, in winter 2009-2010 we had a special exhibit on dinosaurs, and the other animals who lived at the time of the dinosaurs, which opened up a whole bunch of fun new programming opportunities for us. The fossil casting program includes searching for micro fossils, learning about the reasons scientists create fossil casts (display, education, etc.), and creating a fossil cast of your own: 
Our final program over the break was a group of New Year's celebration crafts.  This program, because it speaks to the multi-cultural heritage of the people of southern Alberta, links to our permanent gallery at the museum.  Parts of this program, learning about winter festivals of light around the world, were originally offered earlier this month and in December 2009.  We learned about how people from different cultures celebrate the new year in their culture.  Here families are preparing paper carnation garlands which are used to decorate for Diwali:  
and displaying their garlands:

This series of favorite programs has left me energised to complete my planning for 2011. I’m finishing up the details for the spring programs and pulling together ideas for topics for our summer and fall programs and really looking forward to the year to come.