What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?

Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.



Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.

Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:

Continue reading “What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?”

A Collection of Victorian Moustache Cups

Some small town museums can come across as very cluttered. They tend to display most of their artifacts, often lovingly donated by locals, instead of doing as larger museums do: keeping the bulk of artifacts stored away for preservation or research purposes and leaving only a handful of carefully curated items on display. These small, often volunteer-run museums can provide fascinating insight into what the local community thinks are important to preserve.

As someone who is interested in material history, I am at times frustrated and at others gleeful in these types of museums. I’m frustrated because I often encounter artifacts that seem like they have an interesting story but are displayed with no context and/or in a way that’s hard for me to see (poor lighting, cluttered cases), so I may walk away feeling thwarted instead of enlightened. I’m gleeful, though, when I encounter a type of object I know something about, particularly ones I’ve only ever read about in books and had never seen in person. I often can’t help myself and start interpreting in my excitement to any hapless other visitors around me.

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Such was the case in the Fred Light Museum in Battleford, Saskatchewan, when I ran into this case of porcelain teacups. I’ve never seen so many moustache cups in one place! In short, moustache cups were popular in the last few decades of the 19th century and can be described as elegant sippy cups for men. The moustaches of the Victorian era were at times large and sometimes carefully coaxed into shape by moustache wax – wax that would melt if it encountered hot liquids like tea. The addition of a porcelain bar or removable metal piece on top of a tea cup would protect the moustache from being damaged while the man drank. #Victorianproblems, am I right?

Flowers From No Man’s Land

Last winter, I worked as a research assistant for an author writing a book on the Battle of the Somme. While I was at the Canadian War Museum, going through boxes and boxes of mud-splattered diaries and letters written on battered paper from a century ago, I ran across this surprising object. It is a little glass circle containing a clipping of a poem, perhaps from a newspaper, with pressed flowers, presumably from No-Man’s-Land. Holding it in my white gloved hands, I shivered.

Flowers From No Man's Land

We will remember them.

Hidden Treasures of Banff: A log shouldn’t be this exciting – but this isn’t just any log

I probably shouldn’t have gotten so excited about this hunk of wood. However, if you are a historian of the fur trade – and are interested in the history of Fort Edmonton in particular – you too may have possibly done a little happy dance in the Parks Canada museum in Banff too, as I did on Wednesday:

The log in question.
The log in question.
(Note: yes, that is a reflection from a flash photograph on the glass of the window case. The Parks Canada employee at the desk was explicitly giving visitors permission to use flash in the building. I needed it to get a good photo, but felt guilty doing so, as it’s normally such a faux-pas due to conservation issues. I thought that I would confess my sin before anybody formed negative impressions of me.)

Now, at first glance this appears to be a relatively unremarkable piece of wood. There are a few letters in it: GS, IR, and 1841. Who cares? Well, as it turns out, I do. Maybe you should too.

According to the framed newspaper article accompanying this piece, the GS and the IR allegedly are from George Simpson and John Rowand… also known as Sir George Simpson, who ruled the Hudson’s Bay Company as its governor with an iron fist for several decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, and his friend, the hugely influential Chief Factor John Rowand of Fort Edmonton, who controlled one of the largest fur trading posts West of Lower Fort Garry. Rowand looms large in all of the stories costumed historical interpreters tell at Fort Edmonton Park, and for good reason. He was a fascinating figure. He was also portrayed for many years by an awesome friend of mine (who also played my pretend husband at the Fort when in his labouring outfit for one season). I feel like I know John Rowand. I have, however, never seen anything written in his own hand, until this week. To be honest, I was more pleased to see John Rowand’s initials than Sir George Simpson’s, who is arguably more famous. (Hey, they named my junior high school after him, at least?) In fact, the artifact is known as the “Simpson Register.”

The story the newspaper article tells is that this hunk of wood was found near the Continental Divide (the point in the Rockies where the rivers start to separate and flow either to the Pacific or Atlantic). It was retrieved by Lade Brewster, of the Brewster family of Banff, who are well known in the region as outfitters, in 1904, and was passed down in the family until it was finally donated to the museum in which it now stands.

Now, it is entirely possible that this piece of wood isn’t authentic. It wasn’t rediscovered until several generations after it was allegedly carved by these two historical figures in 1841. However, the timeline fits; this would have been around the time Rowand and Simpson were heading West to visit Hawaii (yes, the HBC had a post there). They were quite good friends, though they disagreed on some policy, particularly with regards to First Nations women. Rowand was loyal to his wife Louise D’Umpreville, a mixed blood woman, for over thirty years, and had many children with her, but I really could write a whole post just listing all of the nasty things Simpson called native ladies (including “bits of brown” and “circulating pieces of copper”). Regardless, carving their initials into this log on the date specified is an entirely plausible thing for them to have done to mark their friendship and travels, particularly near such an important site. They were marking that they were there; in the days before snapshot photography, carving one’s initials was a good way of going about doing so.

To be fair, I really, really want it to be what the museum says it is. It makes me happy to have come so close to such an object which had been seen, touched, and altered by historical figures I have only read about. This is the kind of encounter that an online exhibition cannot replicate: the physical experience of being in the presence of something that was once touched by someone you admire in history. It’s almost a religious experience: visiting the tombs of famous men and woman, gazing upon the handwriting in the manuscript of a famous document, seeing the texture of the paint and the imprint of a paintbrush in a famous work of art… digital copies cannot replicate that experience. With certain historical documents and artifacts – such as, for example, the Declaration of Independence on display in Washington, D.C., – you literally get the awed feeling of being in a temple, which is accentuated by the architecture but originates in the attitudes of the people visiting the site. Now, for me, surrounded by taxidermied animals (facing this case is a giant stuffed beaver, staring out at you with glass eyes), it wasn’t quite so hushed and awe-inspiring. But I did feel giddy for over ten minutes afterwards.

Where to find this exciting piece of wood: Banff Park Museum National Historic Site of Canada, on Banff Avenue, near the river, in the Banff townsite in Banff National Park. (Banff is a running theme, here.) It is a lovely wooden building from 1903, full of taxidermied animals behind antique glass cases. On the second floor, there is a curio case, full of items donated by citizens of Banff over the years. In this case is this piece of wood with a newspaper article accompanying it, which contains the alleged story.

Here, have a few other shots of the museum for the road. Note: the glass is over a century old as well!

Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part III: Using Artifacts as Props

Or, Why Motorcars Were Made To Be Driven

In my last two posts, I enthused about Fort Edmonton Park’s motorcars, and then explained (more or less) how to go about driving a Ford Model A from 1928. Now, let’s talk about why it’s so important to have these cars available at a living history museum.

Aside from just the “being really, really cool” factor, what are the main advantages of having functioning artifact vehicles on 1920s street? Why are interpreters and historical workers so keen on keeping them up and running? Wouldn’t it be safer to just have them sit every day as museum pieces behind ropes with “tombstone” placards with the model name, the years they were produced, their top speed, and their original price?

(Caveat: that being said, of course there is something to be argued for preserving motorcars for future generations. But are you just preserving the image of the object behind glass, separated from society? Or are you going to allow it to be used and loved?)

Advantage #1: Driving cars populates a street that visually looks very empty. 1920s street is the biggest and yet least developed street at Fort Edmonton. The park began with the fort, which was built with the help of the money and interest in Canadian history coming out of the 1967 centennial of Canadian confederation. The park was further developed with 1885 street in the 1970s and 1980s, and 1905 street in the 1980s and 1990s. Until the last decade or two, there was very little on 1920s street, aside from Mellon farm, which is the only structure that still stands on its original land in the park (though it was moved from its original foundations which were nearer to the train station entrance). In the past decade, 1920s street has acquired a Midway, and just got a new movie theatre (which I am pleased to see is now showing films from the 1920s (silent films and talkies) and more modern “historical” movies in addition to the “Northern Lights” video about the park). However, the landscape of the street is dominated by a very large farm, with most of its buildings clustered at the far end of the street away from the train station and entrance.

It’s also the street with the fewest interpreters and volunteers in the largest space, at least compared to the concentration of the fort or the large number of buildings on 1885 street. Last year on 1920s street we had four interpreters, one historical worker (George, the mechanic), a handful of Midway staff to run the theatre and the Tom Thumb golf course (the rest being segregated on the Midway), and about six or seven volunteers who came in once a week or so. Less than ten people, spread across several hundred metres, were meant to represent a city whose population was in the tens of thousands; on many days, there could be only two or three people in costume on the street for hours at a time. Having cars driving down the street does a lot to liven the place up, making it look more populated. I do recall a proud moment last year where the streetcar, myself in one of the cars, one of the maintenance guys in one of their historical trucks, and one of the other interpreters coming from the other direction, all stopped at the railroad crossing as the train went by. I overheard a small child shout out: “Look mum, it’s a traffic jam!” That’s a rarity, but an ideal to strive for; we don’t want Edmonton looking like a ghost town, particularly when it’s meant to be a bustling metropolis… and it is the first impression visitors have of the park when they walk in through the front gates. That’s one of the reasons I liked to take the cars for a spin down to the train station to honk and wave. If a person in costume driving a cool historical vehicle is the first thing one sees when one enters the park, the visitor is instantly reassured that their day is going to be an awesome one.

A 1929 REO, parked near the train station at Fort Edmonton Park. It has lovely comfortable seats, an electric starter, eletric headlights (not acetylene), and even an electric windshield wiper (unlike the one on the Ford Model A, which must be moved by hand). A classy vehicle.
The 1929 REO, parked near the train station at Fort Edmonton Park. It has lovely comfortable seats, an electric starter, electric headlights (not acetylene, like some of the earlier models), and even an electric windshield wiper (unlike the one on the Ford Model A, which must be moved by hand). A classy vehicle. Note, too, the luggage rack on the back.

Advantage #2: It gives (female) interpreters a chance to speak about some little known aspects of Edmonton’s past: women drivers.

One of the comments I got a lot was surprise at the fact that a women was driving. People often think in terms of dichotomies with the past: as we are modern and enlightened in the 21st century, so it must be that in the past we were not. Women didn’t have the right to vote, then they got the right to vote. People have the impression that women didn’t drive in the 1950s, but do now, so of course they wouldn’t have driven in the 1920s. Simple ideas of historical progression precludes the notion. People are uncomfortable with “regressions”, or challenges to the narrative that places us in the present day as the enlightened ones who corrected the mistakes of the past. For instance, many are shocked to learn that in some areas of North America, women, particularly widows who owned land, had the right to vote for generations until it was explicitly taken away from them. Women in what is now Quebec had the right to vote in specific circumstances until 1847 and then lost it until 1940. Women had the right to vote in many of the British colonies (particularly those dominated by religious groups who believed in rough equality of the sexes, like the Quakers) until the American Revolution when the new legislation enacted by the Republic explicitly took those rights and privileges away. The same holds true of free black men in many areas who voted in many elections until the American Revolution. Unfortunately, we as human beings are not necessarily becoming ever more enlightened, as assumed by so many, so I believe it is important to challenge these assumptions and our self-congratulatory attitudes as citizens of the modern world.

So it should be with women drivers. Thinking in simple dichotomies of “women in corsets being oppressed by men and having no say in the world” versus “modern women entering the workplace and being able to vote and wear pants” ignores the strength and agency of the women who lived prior to the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s or the women’s suffrage movements which culminated in the 1910s and 1920s.

Long story short: it wasn’t just men blazing trails in the early decades of the automotive industry. These stories should be told and represented.

Now, women were never a majority of drivers, but they were often more common than many would think. Alexander Rutherford, the first Premier of Alberta, never learned to drive, for example; his daughter, until his death in the 1940s, was also his chauffeur. Once cars became easier to start and thus less strenuous to use, it became more socially acceptable for women to drive. The main barrier for a while was the cost of cars, and as fewer women worked outside of the home for wages, that was a big consideration with regards to car ownership and maintenance. Some early female car mechanics also had to challenge the notion that they couldn’t use tools designed for bigger male hands. However, even if their husbands owned cars, that did not mean that those vehicles weren’t driven by women: why drive to work and park it outside all day (like we often do today) when your wife could use it all day to call upon people and do errands… and be seen about town in an expensive car? In some areas in the first decade of the twentieth century, driving motorcars was even considered a feminine pursuit. The history of female drivers is a fascinating one. See the reading list at the bottom of the page or speak to interpreters on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton for more information on the subject – and anecdotes!

3) Then there’s the whole social history of automobiles itself that can be better explained and demonstrated with moving vehicles. Beyond the technical considerations of operating early motorcars (seen in Part I of this post), there is also the social history of automobiles. As I’ve shown in a previous post on Edwardian Street Life (with videos taken from streetcar lines in 1908!), people interacted with cars and other vehicles on the street very differently in the past.

Until the 1920s and 1930s, people understood the street as a place to be in very different ways. It was a living space, dominated by pedestrians – also known as people going about their day – and everything on the road moved at the same pace, more or less, be they walking, in horse-drawn carriages, cycling, or even in cars (speed limits were very low at first in inner cities). People had to be taught that jaywalking was a thing, a dangerous thing, and a social faux-pas as well as a crime. (It used to just mean a country rube who was so unused to how cities bustled about that he wasn’t watching where he was going.) People had to be taught that roads were places for cars, not people. It was an important and revolutionary shift in thinking.

Now, we can’t fully demonstrate at Fort Edmonton Park this dramatic change in how cities and roads were understood and used without endangering people, but we can make clear the idea that having a landscape dominated by motorized vehicles was not a given. The cars at the park share space with hundreds of pedestrians, in addition to the streetcars, cyclists, horses, and horse-drawn carriages. As previously stated I like challenging the idea of progress and the inevitability of modernity; for a while, there were many people who actively resisted the introduction of automobiles to cities, thinking that the change in lifestyle but more importantly the loss of life was not worth the convenience of travel for the rich few who could afford automobiles. Try to imagine a world in which automobiles were banned as dangerous and reckless weapons. How would our cities – and our country – have developed differently?

Interpreting with artifacts isn’t just about barraging visitors with facts about the original prices, top speeds, and manufacturing information of various models of vehicles. While interesting, and definitely important and of interest to visitors, it’s nothing that they can’t look up using our trusty friend Google or find out from any other museum with motorcars in their collection. Why is it so important that these artifacts are driven? To me, it’s about the social history of cars: the material experience and reality of being a driver in an earlier time period, not facts and figures about technological changes. Visitors can investigate the cars in far closer proximity than most museums would allow (provided, hopefully, that a costumed interpreter or other employee is monitoring them), and seeing them move in person is very different than even seeing historical footage. As an observer, you can see, hear, and even feel how different these vehicles move. You may have to do some emergency repairs, just like an earlier generation of motorists would have done. Visitors can feel the heat of the engine and the rumble as the car moves, and can hear the raspy bleating sound of the horn. The visitor’s sensory experience isn’t just limited to sight, making what they learn all the more memorable. The sheer materiality of artifacts that can be understood through multiple senses should not be underestimated.

Everything can be turned into a learning experience for the visitor. It was in fact a part of my interpretive style. I didn’t want to just lie in wait for visitors to come into my line of sight and then pounce upon them verbally with historical facts (though that did happen on occasion). Instead, I liked to be doing activities – going about my day normally – and have visitors come across me. I felt more authentic; I was a real person, not a mannequin waiting to be animated by the presence of visitors. Driving – doing errands – was a huge part of that. I could be on my way to the drug store from the train station, ready to pick up some prescription (anti-asthma cigarettes, perhaps?), and deliver them to a friend at Mellon Farm. I could easily pull over and speak to visitors who were interested, and then I had at least two or three ready made conversation starters: what are you doing? What are you driving? Why are you driving that car? Where are you going? (Can I come with you?) The motorcar wasn’t just a way to access stories about the technological history of automobiles: it was a bridge to many different stories from Edmonton’s past.

Disclaimer: As previously mentioned in the disclaimers of my previous post on blacksmithing at Fort Edmonton and Fort Langley, I am not a current employee of the park. I am speaking purely from my (awesome) experience as a past employee. Policies may have changed. Perhaps the vehicles are now merely decorative, or are reserved for special occasions. But I hope not. Nevertheless, please do not sidle up to interpreters and demand rides in the historical cars. Getting a ride in the historical vehicles is not a right, but a privilege, dependent on a multitude of important factors, including safety regulations (i.e., weather conditions, crowds, if the car is in need of minor repairs), interpreter availability and training, whether or not the interpreter has other responsibilities (sadly, interpreters and volunteers are not paid or expected to spend the entire day behind the wheel but have other duties and responsibilities), current park policy, number of visitors requesting rides, and whether or not the interpreter is comfortable with bringing that particular individual into the vehicle with them. “Don’t get in a car with strangers” applies to interpreters inviting you into their vehicle too. If you are too distracting, which would make it difficult to concentrate on driving, or make the interpreter uncomfortable, they reserve the right to not get into a potentially dangerous situation for either person involved. (That also means that if you made an inappropriate sexist or sexual comment about me and women’s roles in society vis à vis their ability or right to drive cars (“Hey beautiful, move on over and let me drive!”), now you know why I looked really unimpressed and made excuses to get out of there and park the car in the garage out of sight.) In short: admire and discuss the cars and see what happens next.

Recommended reading/learning:

  • Pick the brains of costumed interpreters, historical workers, and volunteers at Fort Edmonton Park hanging around the Motordrome on 1920s Street.
  • If you are in the Edmonton/Calgary area and have a motorcar of your own that is capable of driving along the highway, I would definitely recommend visiting the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin. They have an amazing collection of old vehicles, from early home made snowmobiles, luxury cars from the 1920s, gigantic tractors, and everything in between.
  • The Reynolds-Alberta Museum also put out several small books on the subject of early automobile travel, specifically in Alberta, which are fascinating reads full of local photographs and anecdotes: Kelly Buziak’s Taking to the Road: Early Auto Touring and Camping in Alberta and Sean Moir’s Perilous Journeys: Early Motoring in Alberta.
  • For a more extensive comparative study of early female drivers in England, America, and Australia, check out Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists by Georgine Clarsen
  • The Modern Moloch“: a 99% Invisible Podcast episode on the definition of jaywalking and early reactions and resistance to the dangerous mechanical contraptions that were taking over living space in cities. It will change how you think about cars and pedestrians and how the distinction came to be.
  • As a cyclist, I find this article an interesting “what could have been” case study: Meet the one city in America where cars have been banned since 1898.
  • AMA Vintage Vehicle Weekend Flickr set by Fort Edmonton Park.
  • History of the Ford Model T (blog, video and photo gallery) via History.ca