Internal Insight: Weeks 14-21

Internal Insight: Weeks 14-21

Well. I left this longer than I intended…..

My only excuse is that, now that my internship is coming to an end, I have been spending my spare time on the job hunt for my next adventure. And also Netflix. And Youtube….

That being said, work has been very hectic over the last several weeks, and I have finished and begun a whole list of projects. The past couple of weeks have been all about getting messy and making mistakes, so thanks for the heads up, Miss Frizzle! In my last post, I mentioned that I had finished my first small exhibit that was going to be installed at the North Peace Regional Airport. Well that was installed shortly after that, and I couldn’t be happier with it!

One of the hardest parts of this exhibit for me was that I had only been to that display case once before to change out an old display, so I couldn’t remember very well what the size and shape of the case was. While I had Heather’s guidance in terms of writing the appropriate amount of content, I realized when we got there to set it up that I had not really planned out how the panels were actually going to sit in the case. It took about twenty minutes of fiddling for me to fit everything in so that it was visible and I was happy with it. One of our archives volunteers, Tamara, told me a few days ago that she has been out to the airport quite a few times lately, and each time she saw people looking at my exhibit and children who were very excited about it. For me, that’s about the best “job well done” that I could receive.

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On February 7, I finished one of my biggest projects of this job. I completely catalogued all of the Rudy Schubert negatives! Remember how we originally thought there were about 450, and then I discovered that there were in fact 600? Well, turns out that there were some prints with no negatives which I also catalogued, rounding the whole collection off to 609.

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The final negative!
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This is what 609 catalogued negatives look like.

One of the most exciting things about this was that in the process of cataloguing them, I discovered two negatives of the African American troops that were assigned to build the Alaska Highway. When the highway was built, the American Army sent seven regiments to do the job. Three of those regiments – the 93rd, 95th, and 97th – were composed of African American soldiers led by white commanders. At this time the American Army was still segregated. The African American troops were generally given the broken equipment discarded by the white regiments, and often had to do the work that others did with bulldozers, with shovels and axes. They faced constant racism, with the American Army reluctant to send them in the first place, believing that they did not have the mental capacity to operate heavy equipment, or the constitution to weather the extreme cold of Northern Canada.

Our museum produced a calender for 2017 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway this year, featuring Rudy Schubert’s negatives. Because Schubert was white, he was part of the 341st Engineering Regiment, and entirely white regiment. His assignment was to take picture primarily of his own regiment, who he would have traveled the highway with. At the time that the calender was put together, no one realized that the two images I found later were of the African American soldiers. Looking at a negative, it can often be difficult just to discern what is happening in the image, much less who is featured in it. When I scanned the negatives, however, that process reverses the image into a positive one, so it is perfectly clear what the photo is of.

We had one woman who bought the calender call to tell us that she was disappointed that the calender did not feature any images of the African American troops, and all that we could tell her was that Schubert hadn’t taken any. This was true, to our knowledge, but it bothered me that we were not, at that point, able to show that the construction of the Alaska Highway was made possible because of the work of all of the regiments, not just the white ones. It is extremely important to me as I build my career to do work that is diverse and reflects the fact that we live in a diverse world with diverse experiences.

Finding these two photographs was more than just exciting for me. I actually became a bit emotional as I sat at my desk processing what I had just found. I felt compelled to tell the stories that they showed. Of all of the wonderful photos that Schubert took, these are my favourite because they are making it possible for me to not just tell, but show visitors the experience of EVERYONE who was affected by the construction of the Alaska Highway in my exhibit. In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small thing, but I think that as long as I keep trying to do these small things so that my work reflects, as much as possible, all of the people in the stories I tell, then those small things might someday add up.

Over the last several weeks, I have also been turning my research into writing. I wrote a research report, an exhibit brief, a storyline, came up with an idea for an interactive activity and started planning it, and now I am in the process of writing my exhibit script. All of these new projects have presented all kinds of new ways for me to learn and make mistakes. And, as it turns out, I am in fact a mistake-making human. I know, who would have guessed?

I worked for weeks writing my research report, sculpting it to perfection, editing it multiple times, and asking lots of questions throughout to make sure that I did it absolutely right. Now, if you haven’t written/read a research report for an exhibit before, as I had not until that point, there is a section where you discuss potential themes. As it turns out, one of the things that I am slowly learning to shake is being an academic. Academic prowess has served me well for over six years now, but apparently the real world doesn’t really care about that, and that’s okay. I worked so hard to think of brilliant themes for my exhibit, including ideas such as “pioneer road,” and “changing landscapes.” What I found out after Heather had read it was that my definition of a theme was not only academic, but also extremely not what they want in the context of an exhibit. Ooops.

Themes in the exhibit world as essentially what I would consider your topics or “body paragraphs”. It is the questions or different topics that you intend to discuss in your exhibit. So yeah. WAY OFF. I’m someone that has a very hard time accepting that I am a fallible human and that I will make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and that that’s okay, and this time was no exception. I am learning to be grateful for that experience though, because the only way that I am going to learn to be okay with getting things wrong is to actually get them wrong sometimes……most times…..

Last weekend we celebrated Heritage Day at the museum. The theme was “My Canada”, so I put together 15 signs that detailed important moments in Canada’s history that relate to this region and our exhibits, which we called Canada 150 Facts. We also had an interactive board with quotes from famous Canadians about what Canada means to them, and asked visitors to contribute by writing down what their Canada is and adding it to the board. The event wasn’t very well attended (as hard as we try, we can’t compete with hockey tournaments!), but the people who did come seemed to enjoy themselves. As it turns out, my Canada 150 Fact cards ended up being a bit of an Easter egg hunt as people worked their way around the museum trying to find all 15.

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Our interactive board! What is your Canada?

This past Thursday was possibly the busiest of all. Never again in my life do I want to do a tour and a meeting back to back. Ever. Please. This tour was a rather difficult one, with the kids not being very keen in listening or letting me speak, and the adults not being much help with the kids. I have given lots of tours in my time though, so I got through it, and as soon as the class was out the door, I started setting up for our Acquisition Committee Meeting.

At the beginning of my internship, I had said that I wanted to work on my leadership skills. While I do have a good amount of experience in leading classes and giving presentations, I really hate doing it. I don’t like being in charge, being the boss, or being in the spotlight at all. However, if I want to become a fancy museum curator lady, these are things that I have to get comfortable doing without it requiring a full evening of recovering with Netflix and a Ben & Jerry’s. Heather offered for me to lead a  meeting to practice this skill, and I agreed.

This was the last Acquisition Committee Meeting that I could lead because by the time the next one is scheduled, I will be done here, so it was either do it now or don’t do it at all. Really, this turned out to be the best situation to practice leading a meeting because I already knew everyone who was on the committee very well. It was hardly the hotseat. I spent the past week going through all of our items that were up for possible accessioning, checking whether or not we already had similar items, and deciding on my own recommendations to the committee. I made an agenda, organized the items, and talked the committee through each of them in turn. This was a big meeting because, with all of the backlog from the holidays, we had a lot of stuff to get through. The whole meeting took an hour and a half. And remember, this was immediately after giving a one hour tour to first graders. I have never been more grateful for my pajamas in my life.

I only have one month left here in Fort Saint John, and a lot of work to finish. While I only have a short time left, I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to be just as much of an adventure as it has been here all along. Here’s hoping I make it to the end of March without making too many mistakes!

 

Internal Insight: Weeks 9-13

Internal Insight: Weeks 9-13

I guess I have to start the new year off by saying, “Whoops!” The hectic month of December definitely got the better of me, so this post is very, very late. What that does mean, however, is that I have plenty to share about all of the festive activity that was happening at the museum throughout the month of December.

The first week of December our wonderful volunteers, Heather, and myself enjoyed decorating both the gift shop and the museum, making it as festive as possible for the upcoming events. This was particularly special for me, considering I am so very far away from home at the moment, and was not going to be able to make it home for Christmas. I still got to share in putting up decorations with a group of truly wonderful people, and was able to still feel very festive.

Our first even was our Christmas tea on December 7. This meant lots and lots, and LOTS of delicious food and treats. I mean, seriously, there was so much food. It happened to be a bitterly cold Northern day that day, which I think really helped our turnout. Why else would you bother venturing out into the cold if not for tea, coffee, and treats?

This was also a great learning opportunity for me because it was the first time since starting my job here, where I have spent more than a few minutes in the gift shop serving customers. I really enjoy being in the gift shop and greeting visitors, but working in the back of the archives means that it’s not something I tend to do a lot of on a day to day basis. Not only was this a good opportunity for me to hone my skills on the cash register, but it was a nice change of pace and meant I got the chance to be social and friendly with our equally cheery visitors.

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Just one of the perks of working here is that there’s left over cookies after events!

Just two days later on December 9, we hosted our Kid’s Night: Christmas at the Museum Event. I think this was one of my favorite events so far. Not only did I get to work with kids again, which I love, but I got to combine that with festive cheer and an all around lovely evening. It was personally very wonderful. The evening started with a story about a pioneer christmas, which I got to read, with carol-singing integrated throughout the story. Then we moved on to crafts.

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We had decided on the crafts a few weeks before in order to give ourselves enough time to prepare. Each craft was inspired by decorations that were mentioned in the story. The kids made paper lanterns, paper chains that were shaped like snowmen, and lid ornaments made from spray-painted metal jar lids. I wrote the instructions out, and then placed them and the supplies at each table. The kids could make one of each if they wanted, and their parents were there to assist them, so out of all my crafting experiences so far, this one was the most effortless. However, I am still finding the odd sequin and bits of glitter in odd places!

The evening concluded with a visit from Santa, played by our local historian and volunteer, Larry Evans, who sat with each of the kids and talked to them individually about what they wanted for Christmas. While they visited Santa, the kids also got treated to homemade hot chocolate and cookies, which myself and two other volunteers got to serve. I’m not sure if there’s anything more rewarding as an adult at Christmas than being able to help make the Christmas magic for kids.

The final two weeks of December were a bit of a whirlwind of stress for me, but in a good way. Heather took those two weeks off work and went to spend the holidays with her family in Ottawa, which meant that I was left to manage the museum solo for the entire two weeks. My nerves and anxiety were not okay with the prospect of this!

All in all, there was only one catastrophe that wasn’t even really a disaster. The first Wednesday morning of my solo stint, I came in to work to discover as I was turning the lights on, that some of our heavier books in the gift shop had fallen from the top shelf. In their fall, the books had crashed through another glass shelf, scattering books and broken glass everywhere. By the time I got the mess cleaned up and the books placed elsewhere, customers began coming in looking for, you guessed it, books as Christmas presents. I think I was about as frazzled as you can get, not to mentioned stressed that I was already almost two hours into my workday, and hadn’t accomplished anything else other than cleaning up the mess and serving the customers that came in solidly for about an hour.

As the days went by though, I got slowly more and more comfortable and relaxed with being on my own. When one of our weekly volunteers came in one day and asked me how things were going, I replied that things were just fine, no disasters, as I had told her the previous week. She laughed and said, “You sound WAY more confident about that this week!” And I think I was.

One of the things that I found the most difficult to adjust to was the constant interruptions. At this point in my usual work routine, I’m used to getting to my desk, and settling into my work so deeply that it is almost like being in a trance because I am so focused. But when you are working in the front office and also managing the gift shop by yourself, there’s no chance of that happening. On one morning, every time I sat back down at my desk to continue cataloging, another customer would come in and I would have to abandon my work again. I swear that night I was hearing the door bell of the gift shop in my sleep!

Being on my own also meant learning a lot more extra duties, including learning how to cash out and manage the cash register for opening and closing, checking Heather’s email and responding appropriately, and handling any artifacts donations that came in, just to name a few things. This was in addition to trying to catalog the same amount that I normally do in a day. I quickly found out that this was just not possible.

In the month of January, I have also been working on two exciting new projects. The first one was for St Distaff’s Day. This is the first day back to work for women after the twelve days of Christmas, in which they resumed spinning wool every spare moment they had. As such, the day has historically been associated with women’s work and women’s labor. At the museum, we decided to hold a special event on this day, and hosted the Spinner’s and Weavers society, who came to the museum for several hours on December 7, and demonstrated spinning for the public, while answering questions and talking about the history of the celebration.

 

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In anticipation of this, I was asked to collect facts and images about the day that we were going to put on a display board for the event. While it didn’t require a huge amount of research or preparation, and it is a very simple display, I’m still very proud of what I did, mostly because I did it all myself from start to finish.

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Finally, I am nearing the completion of my very first proper exhibit. This exhibit is going to be displayed at the Fort St John Airport until the end of August, and Heather gave me free reign to make it about whatever I wanted. What an opportunity! I decided to make my exhibit about “Animals of the Alcan”. In my research for my large exhibit, and in cataloging all of Rudy Schubert’s negatives, I have learned a lot about the relationship of the army engineers and the animals that they encountered while building the Alaska Highway. For example, in addition to often keeping cats or dogs as “mascots” the troops tended to be fond of keeping bear cubs as pets, or feeding adult bears out the back of the kitchen.

Not all of these interactions were great. There are many stories about troops getting chased up trees by bears who weren’t interested in being pets, or in one case, was irritated at a soldier’s poor attempt to shoot the bear with a gun that was way too small to kill the animal, so that the bear just absorbed the bullets unaffected, and got crankier and crankier with the soldier until he had decided he’d had enough and chased him up a crane, where the soldier spent the night until the bear left.

Another sad story is that of the Moosevelts. One moose calf that was found without his mother was taken in by one of the companies and named Franklin Moosevelt, after the American president at the time. Franklin was quite pampered in the short time that he spent in the camp, but one day got into the powdered eggs, then drank too much water, and died of gastric problems shortly after. Similarly, Eleanor Moosevelt, adopted by a different regiment after her mother died, she soon died too from malnutrition, as the troops would feed their mascots the food available to them: army rations and GI food. Not the stuff typically suitable for wildlife.

Just this week I finished writing the text for this exhibit, and printed out all of my material. Now all I have to do is mount my text on foam-core board, and set up the display at the airport. I’m very excited to finally get the exhibit up, but I also feel a bit nervous. As this is my first time designing an exhibit and actually carrying it to its finished state, I’m now worry about things like whether or not I’m going to have enough panels and images, or perhaps too many? I’ll find out one way or the other next week when we head out to the airport to mount it.

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Here’s a little sneak preview!

Now that I’m past the halfway mark for my internship, I’m getting anxious about making sure I meet my deadlines and finish everything on time. I can’t wait for this new set of experiences, and I’m so excited to see was the next three months here have in store for me. Have you had any similar experiences? Feel free to leave any comments below, or share this post anywhere you like.

Internal Insight: Weeks 7-8

Internal Insight: Weeks 7-8

The past two weeks at the museum have been busy ones, and as December approaches, I expect things are going to get even busier. The biggest difference lately is that we have had a lot more special events happening. For example, this past week we had three different programs, two of which were brand new and were being tested out for the first time, plus a special event one evening.

The first of the programs that we ran this week was our newly-written-upon-request Young Alaska Highway program. For this program, we welcomed 30 homeschooled children who were about 6 or 7 years old, as well as a few of their parents, to learn about the construction of the Alaska Highway. For this program, Heather began by teaching them the ins and outs of the history, and then the kids got to make two crafts which they got to take home with them.

To prepare for the program, the week before myself and our volunteer Madison, sat in the kitchen with brown and white pipe cleaners, and a huge selection of googly eyes, and made up about 40 kits with all of the necessary materials, cut to the correct length, for the kids to make mosquitoes out of pipe cleaners. Mosquitoes played a very big (literally and figuratively to my understanding), and very obnoxious role in the construction of the Alaska Highway, tormenting the men in swarms at all hours of the day. In addition to putting together the kits, Madison and I each made one ourselves so that we knew how to put them together in order to help the kids make theirs, as well as to have some finished examples that we could show them.

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I thought they turned out well and looked really cute. My mom thought they looked like spiders with bunny ears on. One of the kids agreed with her.

Now, I consider myself to be extremely good with kids. I really love kids, and I’ve had quite a bit of experience in both my personal life and professional life working with them. I also have a special needs older brother, with whom I grew up playing a very big role in his care, so I don’t think it’s bragging too much to say that I’ve got skills. But trying to help 30 kids make crafts? Whole different ballgame, guys. At one point, one of the parents actually came up to me while I was helping one of the little girls and said, “I applaud you on your patience.” I don’t think anyone could have said anything more encouraging to me than that!

The next day we had a school group of Grade 3 students come in for our Wild Animals Program. This time, there was a presentation where they learned about the different types of animals in the region, including their Dane-zaa (the First Nations band in this region) name, as well as the scientific name, and the differences in the life cycle and development between babies and adults (aside from the fact that, as the kids repeatedly pointed out, the babies were consistently cuter).

In addition, this program involved a story, which I was given the privilege of reading to the group. It was a really nice story, with beautiful illustrations, called “Autumn Bear.” I was told by one of the little girls afterwards that she really liked my story, and she really liked my top, so that was very nice.

Then the kids had three different crafts and an activity. And this time, it was just Heather and I. Oh boy. This craft was much more difficult, because the one that I was in charge of (helping the kids make moose antler headbands) involved me, three semi-functioning staplers, and about 8 kids at a time, who all needed help to make sure that the headband got stapled together on one end, measured to fit their head, and then stapled together on the other end. With some groups, this was no problem: some had a few more parent volunteers which helped me out a lot, and the kids were finished different steps at different times, meaning that I could stagger helping each of them. Then there was the group where it was just me, and every single kid seemed to finish each step at exactly the same time, and of course, all wanted help with their headbands at, you guessed it: exactly the same time. For anyone who works with large groups of kids like this on a daily basis, I applaud you. I was exhausted.

Round three. In theory, this group should have been the easiest. It was another group of homeschoolers, but slightly older than the first, who came in to learn about the fur trade. This program was also newly-written, and involved a slightly longer presentation, and then an activity and wrap-up. Heather asked me to give about a third of the presentation, because she had of course been doing a lot of talking over the past two days, and wasn’t sure if her voice would hold out. I don’t love giving presentations or public speaking, but it’s definitely something I’m no stranger to, and I was eager to help out. All I had to do was read the information off the sheet. No problem. Until about half an hour before the kids were scheduled to show up and I suddenly found myself a bundle of nerves, anxious about the harsh judgment of children.

I did, in fact, survive, and while I’m not sure that the kids were totally interested in what I had to tell them about the fur trade, I am sure that I did a good job in telling them about it, whether or not they wanted to hear it. For the activity, the kids were divided into four different groups, two fur traders, and two First Nations, each with a stack of cards indicating the goods they had, and a list of the goods they needed to acquire to win the game. In their groups they had to barter and trade to gain these possessions. All I had to do was supervise and make sure they didn’t try to do any back-alley deals without the rest of their group members (as it turns out, this was easier said than done!)

While I had a ton of fun this week working with these different programs, and changing up my normal day to the extreme, the highlight of my week came the evening of the 25th. This was our documentary night, and event which the museum hosts about three times a year. This one was featuring a compilation of film footage taken by Rudy Schubert (the same Rudy Schubert who’s negatives I am cataloging and going to be writing an exhibit on) of  Fort St John and the surrounding region at various events throughout the 50s and 60s, including rodeos, and a special visit from Princess Margaret.

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I was able to watch this footage earlier in the week, as we previewed it while we set up the room for all of our different events this week. Watching it on the actual night, however, was a totally different experience than what I had been prepared for. That night, I counted 98 people in total who showed up to watch the film. Larry Evans, one of our local historians and basically the guy that everyone knows because he’s on every committee in town that exists, hosted; providing commentary and pointing out different people and points of interest, and explaining each scene as the silent footage played.

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Quite a few people got ahead with their Christmas shopping with a couple of DVD copies of the film for sale in our giftshop.

What happened during the course of this was a public historian’s dream. As people watched the film, occasionally you would hear someone shout, “Oh, that’s my mom!” or “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so’s dad?” or “Hey look! It’s George Pickle!” Larry participated in this as well, often saying, “Now, I don’t know who that person is, does anybody know?” In any other crowd, in any other place where the community was not so tightly-knit, I suspect that people would not have felt as comfortable to simply shout out something or someone that they recognized. I was having so much more fun, and enjoying the footage so much more being able to watch it with such instant audience reaction, including their taking joy and humor in some of the mishaps of the rodeos, than I did simply watching the footage on its own with my coworkers.

It occurred to me in the car ride home, however, that this was more than simply getting swept up in the group dynamics and laughing when others laughed. This was so striking to me because it was a rare instance in which, not only was the audience watching the archive while being the archive themselves, but even more rare; the document, the historian, and the audience were all speaking to each other in a mutually collaborative conversation, and not a one-sided narrative, as often occurs in historical writing and research.

A full day later, and my mind still keeps wandering back to this realization. Ever since I began to learn about what it means to be a public historian and to practice public history, I have wanted to achieve this kind of interaction in my future work. I want to do work that is accurate and historically-sound, but work that is also accessible to as many people as possible, and that people can actually engage with in a real way that is meaningful to them. Now that I have been a witness and participant in an event which achieved this very thing, I want to continue doing work that makes me feel the way I did and still do reflecting on what I saw.

The next couple of posts should be increasingly more festive, as we begin decorating the museum and setting up for our holiday events. Until then, continue to feel free to share this post, or comment and continue the conversation.

Internal Insight: Weeks 5-6.

Internal Insight: Weeks 5-6.

Since my first post about my new internship, I have continued to be challenged by my job and to learn new skills on an almost daily basis. Week five was particularly special because I got to test myself on whether or not I remembered some of the things I learned on my very first day.

On the first of every month, we check all of the fire extinguishers, checking off all of the boxes on a form to make sure that they are all properly intact and ready in the event that they need to be used. Since I began on October 3, this has been designated my job. Along with this, we have a film display in one of our display cabinets, with thing such as posters for vintage Hollywood flicks, ticket stubs and advertisements, as well as a film reel. For those of you in the archival profession, you will likely know that film, when it begins to decay, is extremely combustible. With this in mind, it is now part of my first-of-the-month duties to check that film reel and make sure that it doesn’t show any signs of breaking down. That way we hopefully won’t have to use the fire extinguishers that I also checked beforehand.

Finally, I also check and change the hygrothermographs. Hygrothermowahtnow? Hygrothermographs. These are the neatest machines, and I am still very excited that it’s my job to manage them now. Basically we have three of these machines, one placed in the archives, one in the parlor exhibit, and one in the school room exhibit, which track the humidity in the room. Essentially each machine has a slip of paper with the dates for the month, which gets wrapped around the cylinder inside, and two pens with rest on the cylinder. Throughout the month those pens run along the paper, and whenever there is a raise or a drop in the humidity, the needles raise or drop correspondingly.

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My job every month now is to gather up all the machines (and not mix them up, as specific ones go in their designated spaces, and once you change the paper and put them back together, you can’t see which room you wrote down that it’s supposed to go in!), and open them up. Once I remove the paper from each of them, I check and make sure there isn’t anything unusual, such as a really dramatic drop in the humidity, or vice versa. Once this is done, each machine gets a new slip of graph paper, with the room that it corresponds with and the dates for the month that this data pertains to, and it gets put back together, returned to it’s place, and switched back on for another month. The paper that I collected from each of them gets put in the designated folder along with all of the others from previous months.

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This month I also finished, FINISHED, all of my scanning. Yay! As it turns out, the number the curator had originally estimated for how many negatives their were, she figured about 450, was slightly off. There are in fact 599.

Now that I am finished scanning them, I have moved on to the next phase of the work: accessioning and cataloging them. This has proved to be much more labour intensive. On average, each negative takes me between 15-20 minutes to accession, meaning I tend to get about 10 done a day. Given that I have 599 to get through, I’m going to be here a while. This is the first time I have ever cataloged negatives though, so I have already learned so much.

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I think I might need to get a second desk just to keep all of my different piles organized!

A lot of what I have learned is how to be brutal. Some of the negatives in this collection have at one point or another had a positive image made from them, which we also have. In the case where I have a negative and a positive, I will accession them both under the same number, specifying which is which, and put a note in the curatorial remarks on the database stating that this has been done. There have been several instances however, where I have a negative and a positive, but the positive was copied backwards, or in other cases, I will have two or three positives, and perhaps one positive is facing the right way, but the other two are backwards, and one of the backwards ones has writing on the back which provides important information about the image. What am I supposed to do with that?

The first time this happened, I had two positive images, both of which were backwards, and one which had writing on the back that gave similar information to what was written on the original envelope. I took it to the curator’s office to ask her what to do, and Heather looked at them and, realizing they were both backwards, asked me, “Do we have this information elsewhere?” “Yes, it’s written on the envelope too, but it’s worded a bit differently.” Before my very eyes, and to my complete shock and horror, she ripped up the two positive images and informed me we wouldn’t bother keeping either. What a lesson!

This month I also finished one of the books I have been reading as part of my research. “‘This was no ____ Picnic’ 2.4 Years of Wild and Woolly Mayhem in Dawson Creek” by John Schmidt is a collection of first hand accounts from men and women working on, or living near the construction of the Alaska Highway. Having finished a book giving a general history of the construction of the highway, this was an excellent book to move onto next to fill out my knowledge of the experience.

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Since finishing this book, I have now begun digging into our archival holdings for more information. The curator provided me with these three binders, which have been keeping me quite busy. The first is based on oral interviews, but does not actually contain the transcripts (unfortunately), but rather the stories that the collectors then wrote based on the interviews that they conducted with people who built the highway. In this binder I found the answer to a question that has been driving me nuts since I started this: Why did Rudy Schubert, who was a Canadian from Fort St John, join the American army during the war? Apparently, according to the information in this binder, he tried to enlist in the Canadian Army, but was denied by the officer that he tried to enlist with, because of his German heritage. I actually exclaimed out loud with excitement when I read that and finally had an answer that made a lot of sense.

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The two other binders I have been working my way through contain photocopies of newspaper and magazine articles about the Alaska Highway, some written during or just after its construction, and some written in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of its completion celebrated in 1992.

This week was also quite exciting because it involved a little fieldtrip. The museum keeps an exhibit display at the local hospital, and the agreement with the hospital is that this display gets changed every six months. I got to help Heather pick out the artifacts she had in mind for the new display, and make up the text panels using foam core board, spray-gluing the text onto the board, and cutting each one out with an exacto knife. Then we packed up the car and went to the hospital to take out the old display and put in the new one. This was a really interesting learning experience because I actually got to watch Heather make decisions about the space once we got in there. For example, some of the items we had, once we filled the case with the most essential artifacts and the text panels, just simply wouldn’t fit, and so we made the decision to not include them in the display.

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The finished results!

Finally this past week, I got to accession a dollhouse. This was so. cool. And also very, very hard. The dollhouse was originally from 1948, and was an item which could be ordered from a catalog and then put together once it arrived. This particular one was never actually put together though. I have never accessioned something with so many parts, so it was an overwhelmingly time consuming task, but I really enjoyed the challenge, and felt so gratified putting so much effort into making sure I did it properly. The first day I saw it, we roughly assembled it to make sure that we did actually have all the pieces, counted the pieces, and then assigned each a letter of the alphabet so that it could all be accessioned together under the same accession number. Then we photographed each piece for the database. All of this took me an hour.

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A very awkward attempt at trying to take the picture while holding the roof on!

The next day that I worked on this was the really tough work. Now it was time to actually put it up on the database. This meant taking measurements of every single piece, recording which piece these measurements corresponded with, and how the pieces were listed, writing a detailed description and history of the item, and completing the condition report. The dollhouse was in fairly rough shape, so the condition report alone took a very long time, as there were several things on each piece which needed to be noted. In the end, just the accessioning took me two and a half hours. So all together, accessioning one dollhouse took three and a half hours of labour. If you’ve ever wondered why small museums and archives don’t always have a database, or their entire collection up on a database yet, this is why.

The next two weeks should bring even more opportunities for me to learn the ropes and share the stories of doing so. Among other things, we are hosting a wild animals program for some younger children, as well as a program about the Alaska Highway for slightly older children, so I am very much looking forward to shadowing those, and writing about the experience in another two weeks. Until then, please feel free to share any of your experiences working in this field, or doing your first internship after graduation, in the comments, or share this post!

Internal Insight: The First Month of my Curatorial Internship at the Fort St John North Peace Museum.

Internal Insight: The First Month of my Curatorial Internship at the Fort St John North Peace Museum.

On October 3, 2016, I started my first internship and paid work in the field since graduating from my MA. Now, I’ve been applying for jobs all over the country all summer, while also working overnights in a grocery store to make ends meet. This meant waking myself up part way through my weird daytime sleep so that I could brush my hair, have a cup of tea, and do skype interviews without looking like I had just been asleep, and then going straight back to bed after so that I could go to work that night. Not exactly the most fun time I’ve ever had.

My routine with nightshifts was that, whenever I had more than one night off in a row, I would keep myself up after my last shift and switch myself around again so that I could sleep at night like a normal person, spend time with my partner, and see things like the sun. So when I got the call finding out that I got this internship, I was running on about 30 hours of no sleep, and when the number came up on my phone, I prepared myself for rejection, just as I had for every other job I interviewed for and didn’t get. When I answered the phone, and the curator offered me the job, I was so stunned and overtired that my response was, “ummmm…..yeah?”

Adding to the sleep deprivation, I now felt overwhelmed with adrenaline. Not only had I got the job, but the position, a curatorial internship (basically my dream job), was in Fort St John, B.C. at the Fort St John North Peace Museum, and I had a week to move there and start the position. Good. Not a problem. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE FINE.

And everything has been fine. A month in, I’m reasonably settled in to my rented room, and I’ve been gradually expanding my roadmap with little weekend errands. Aside from the fact that I arrived at the beginning of October to snow, which has not left, I’ve been really enjoying myself here. The town has everything I need, everyone I’ve met is lovely, and the landscape is just beautiful. Definitely a change of scenery (pun intended) for this East Coast native.

This internship has been everything I could have hoped for so far. It is not an exaggeration to say that I learn a new skill everyday. My typical day begins with working with a collection of negatives. These negatives were taken by Rudy Schubert, who was a Canadian, and the official photographer for the U.S. Army during the construction of the Alaska Highway. The first two weeks of my internship I spent organizing these negatives, and trying to sort them into their appropriate groups. Now, I am almost finished scanning them all onto the computer. After this, I will be accessioning them, and putting them all up on the database. So far, I’ve scanned over 500. All I can say is thank goodness I can listen to music while I work.

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The organizing begins
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My complete box of negatives
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Scanning

The other part of my day is spent doing research on the construction of the Alaska Highway. The longterm deliverable of this internship is that I will be designing an exhibit based on Rudy Schubert’s photographs, to compliment the rest of our exhibit space about the Alaska Highway. So far, I’ve been mostly trying to catch myself up on the basics -being an Easterner, and never having studied history from this side of the country, I didn’t know a thing about the Alaska Highway until now, so I still have a lot to learn.

One hour out of my day is spent doing miscellaneous things around the museum with Heather, the curator. On one day, I helped her and Marjo, our volunteer textile expert, assemble some new archival-grade mannequins. This was hilariously good fun. Marjo had an outfit already in mind for the lady, and when she was dressed, Marjo commented, “Doesn’t she look like a liberated woman of the 20s?” I love thinking this every time I walk past our 20s lady now; it makes me smile thinking that we made her a liberated woman, ahead of her time.

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We still need to decide on some outfits for these guys. In the meantime, they keep an eye on me and make sure I’m working hard!
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Our modern 1920s lady!

I have also been attended all of the different committee meetings that the museum has. In preparation for the Acquisition Committee Meeting, I learned how to properly write up the forms for items we wanted to deaccession, and then got the opportunity to present each item up for deaccession, and explain the reasons that we wanted to deaccession it. Then, after the committee voted on each item, I learned how to properly photograph and deaccession each item in the database.

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Most, but not all of the items to be decided on for acquisition.
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All of the items up for deaccessioning.

I also got to go on a little daytrip to Dawson Creek, for a meeting with Destination B.C. They have been holding a series of workshops with various groups involved in the tourism industry in Northern B.C. to figure out why people visit Northern B.C., and what sort of things need to be done to help increase tourism to this area. This was a fascinating workshop because it wasn’t just representatives from museum and heritage groups, but from all sectors of tourism, so for me it was a wonderful opportunity to learn about these other draws, and how we can all work in partnership to increase tourism in the region, and in doing so allow these communities to thrive. Having only really discussed tourism as a factor at the academic level before this, being able to actually participate and see how to have these conversations was extremely valuable.

This month I also got to go out to an area just outside of Fort St John called Bear Flats, for the Northern Trails Society monthly meeting. This society consists of heritage bodies, such as the museum where I work, in the North Peace region. Currently they are planning a circle tour between all of the different museums and heritage sites for 2017, so that was a large part of the discussion that day. I got to see first hand the discussion and decision-making of every aspect of putting together a project of that scale; we took an anonymous vote on which company to use for the design of the promotional material, for example.

The site where we held this meeting belongs to Ken and Arlene Boon, who volunteer with the Fort St John North Peace Museum, and have a collection of buildings and artifacts of their own on the property, which has been in their family for three generations. After the meeting, Ken gave us all a tour of the property, and I can safely say I have never seen landscape quite like this. Seriously. Look at it.

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This was probably my favourite item in the building: cooking is a skill important for BOTH boys and girls!

I think the biggest highlight of that day were the doggy friends I made. Well, friend. This is Shiloh and Buster. Buster wanted to be my friend and let me pet him to my hearts content. Shiloh did not, so I appreciated his dogginess from afar.

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My friend, Buster.

Just when we were about to leave, we also got to see a heard of elk running down the mountain at top speed! Something must have spooked them or chased them, because they were gunning it. I’ve never seen elk in the wild, so this was really exciting. Unfortunately I didn’t get to take any pictures because they were too far away. From where we were they were just little specs going down the side of the mountain. I did, however, get to see three young deer on the side of the highway, munching away and not caring about the 18 wheeler trucks whipping past them, as we drove back to the museum at the end of the meeting.

I am learning so much here, and I don’t want to miss keeping an account of all of the skills I’m getting, so I’m going to try and post fairly regularly over the next six months that I am here. I can’t think of  a better job to get to start my career, and I can’t wait to see what adventures the rest of my time here will bring.

Exploring Exhibits: Napoleon and Paris

Exploring Exhibits: Napoleon and Paris

This post is very late in coming. The only excuses I can offer is that it is apparently much more difficult than I thought to get yourself into a productive writing routine after you have graduated and are no longer receiving grades for your work/crippling criticism/are now much more invested in your netflix schedule. But I digress.

Part three of our museum day took us to Paris to explore the reign of Napoleon. This exhibit is a collaboration between the Canadian Museum of History, Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris, and Paris Musée, making it a very special treat for Canadian visitors who otherwise do not have the opportunity to be able to see European historical cultural objects such as what is on display at this exhibit, without actually getting on a plane set for France.

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This exhibit begins chronologically, in which visitors walk through the space following a physical timeline, which is a manifestation of the theme, “[t]hrough fourteen key dates, explore the connection between Napoleon and Paris.”

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The second part of the exhibit is more thematic, allowing visitors to understand the culture, politics, and philosophies guiding Napoleon throughout his reign. This was where I personally began to really get excited, because it was at this point that the aesthetics and design of the exhibit really became relevant.

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Throughout the exhibit, the text describes Napoleon’s accomplishments and failures, and highlights the image which he cultivated for himself throughout his reign through his public monuments and statues, and the stylistic changes to clothing in court life, “[b]y reviving the pageantry of the fallen monarchy, Napoleon sought to put some distance between himself and his subjects. Around a core group composed of the members of the Imperial Family, he gathered a host of dignitaries. This luxurious way of life satisfied his taste for comfort, his desire for order, and his politics of splendor.”

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Not only are visitors able to see this clearly in the artifacts on display, but they are also able to experience it for themselves, through the rich deep background colors of the exhibit walls, meant to look like wallpaper in some parts, and the sheer decadents of the clothing and everyday objects, emphasized by extra lighting which shone on the cases and made every reflective surface glitter. One of my favourite sections was the mock up of what Napoleon’s tent would have looked like when he was away fighting campaigns. As you stand taking in the display, a shadow outline of Napoleon appears in the corner, as if he is standing just outside of his tent at nightfall.

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The exhibit also allowed visitors to consider the popular depictions of Napoleon in our own culture, an aspect which my public historian heart loves, “[t]ake a seat and see how some of the events linking Napoleon and Paris have been depicted on film. Napoleon is one of the historical figures most often portrayed on the screen. This presentation of excerpts from the recent mini-series by Canadian director Yves Simoneau features French actor Christian Clavier in the leading role. The excerpts reflect some key dates in the chronicle of Napoleon and Paris.” This is a splendid invitation.

Not only is the film excerpt itself a lovely reflection of the same combined efforts of Canadian and French talent that the exhibit it but, when paired with the exhibit, allows visitors to be critical not only of what they think they already know about Napoleon and Paris, but also about the way that he is depicted even today. It is also a wonderful opportunity to add motion and allows visitors to visualize a period which, because it seems so different from our own lives, may seem to many to be unreal, or difficult to imagine.

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Napoleon kept an eye on visitors while they looked around…

Another feature that I enjoyed was the large quotations from Napoleon that were integrated throughout the exhibit. Given that the theme of the exhibit was exploring Napoleon’s relationship to Paris, these quotes gave visitors insight into how Napoleon viewed that relationship himself, and acted as captions of those thoughts for visitors who prefer to move through exhibits more quickly, without reading the more in-depth text panels.

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All in all, this was a wonderful exhibit that we enjoyed exploring a lot. It was so exciting to be able to see such fantastic artifacts that I would never have the chance to see otherwise (Napoleon’s hat! His HAT). The exhibit runs until January 8, 2017, so if you get a chance to check it out, then I definitely recommend it. For more information, check out the museum website here http://www.historymuseum.ca/napoleon/

As always, if you have seen this exhibit, please share your thoughts on it too!

Exploring Exhibits: Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia

Exploring Exhibits: Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia

Part two of our adventures at the Canadian Museum of History involved exploring the exhibit ‘Gold Rush! – El Dorado in British Columbia.’ Central to this exhibit was the notion that although the idea of El Dorado was a myth, it was one powerful enough to inspire thousands of people around the world to migrate in the pursuit of gold, changing the economy, relationships, cultures, and landscapes of the West dramatically and irrevocably. The exhibit asks, immediately upon entry, what happens to a world driven by myth?

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I was definitely tempted by the shiny gold guitar!

One of the things that I thought was particularly notable about this exhibit is how self aware it is. It justifies its own existence and creation by explaining how the gold rush in British Columbia was distinctly different from other major gold rushes, and is explicit about how this fact makes it worthy of its own study and exhibition. For museum nerds like me, this was a really interesting inclusion, and I think one which should be applauded. The authority that museums, and particularly national museums carry, allows them to create the narratives of our past, in a way that is largely unquestioned by the visiting public. Justifying why a particular exhibit is necessary or important to study and understand helps to also demonstrate the basis upon which these decisions are made behind the scenes.

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In a similar vein, this exhibit includes text panels labeled ‘Scholarly Insight.’ These panels often provided information in a relatively similar style to the other panels in the exhibit, occasionally referencing a scholar from the field on particular points. On one hand, these panels serve to add to this sense of self awareness in a way that I thought was really important. Exhibits are something created by people, and include information that is debated between different experts. It is not always definitive, and we do not necessarily know everything there is to know. On the other hand, however, the text of the panels did not challenge the viewers’ perception of the exhibit by offering information to consider that complicated the narrative of the rest of the exhibit. I would not expect an exhibit to actually be contradictory in any way, but I think it is important where possible to challenge visitors by allowing them to draw their own conclusions about the content. These panels also served to reinforce the authority of the museum by backing up the information provided with ‘scholarly insight,’ rather then empowering and inviting the viewer to consider the information for themselves.

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On that note, however, the exhibit did an excellent job of painting an incredibly rich and full picture of the experience of the gold rush for everyone involved, whether they were the newly-arrived gold seekers, or Indigenous peoples who had a long standing relationship with these resources and were now establishing relationships with others interested in finding and using gold. Exploring how the rush effected the everyday lives of everyone involved, as well as changed the economy, and the physical landscape, allowed visitors to immerse themselves in that experience and imagine what it would be like to be a person living in each of the many contexts that the exhibit presented.

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Artifacts depicting saloon life in gold mining towns

Inviting visitors to imagine themselves in these roles was also reflected in the way in which the exhibit text was written. The text was written in a style similar to the telling of a myth or legend. For example, one of the panels informed visitors that, “[p]art of the gold you wear today may have been stolen from a Columbian chief or an Egyptian king, or mined in Mexico’s Seirra Madre. Melted and reused again and again, gold circles the world.” Writing in this way ignites the imagination of visitors, and allows them to experience the excitement and allure that may have been felt by the gold seekers who traveled continents and lived incredibly hard lives in their pursuit of such legendary riches, as visitors themselves are drawn in by the idea that they might already possess riches from long dead kings and chiefs.

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We found a stage coach in this exhibit too!

I also appreciated the attempt that the exhibit made to include women in the narrative. Explaining that European women, for the most part, did not accompany men to the New World in pursuit of gold, the exhibit mentions a few cases in which women did sneak in on the action. It also notes the roles that they adopted otherwise in the newly-forming societies that emerged in response to the gold rush. Specifically, however, I appreciated that the exhibit noted explicitly that it is difficult to find such narratives because sources telling women’s stories in this context are few and far between. The effort made to include women in the narrative was thus all the more important and significant.

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Finally, I thought that this exhibit had a lot of interactivity, which is something that I am always a big fan of, and think is really important for exhibits to be modern and invite participation, which is, in my opinion, vital. The activities were designed primarily to be fun and informative, making them great for kids, but definitely still lots of fun for adults (we certainly spent some time playing with the different activities on offer!).

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This exhibit has lots of information and is quite large, and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you find yourself on that side of the river. Special thanks once again to Chris for taking the beautiful photos of the exhibit. You can check out his really cool history website here: http://www.historynerd.ca/

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Found out Chris’ weight in gold. I definitely think I’m going to hang on to him…

If you want to find out more information about the exhibit, check out the Museum’s page about it here: http://www.historymuseum.ca/goldrush/

As always, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment if you have any questions, or just want to carry on the conversation! I’d love to hear what you thought about the exhibit.