These past few months the Conservation lab has been filled with archaeological treasures from fur trading posts throughout the province. Artefacts range from small silver buttons, to beads, to awls and even the tiniest of padlocks. My concentration however has been on the treatment of artefacts composed of iron. These objects are usually covered in bright orange, red or brown corrosion products with mud and other debris attached – essentially a conservator’s dream! We love to clean the dirtiest of things because not only does the artefact show beautifully afterwards, but we have the chance to uncover mysteries such as maker’s marks or small design details. Although the main goal of the process is to stabilize the artefact and slow the corrosion process, when these mysteries expose themselves we can’t help but get a little excited.
Cleaning iron has its challenges and I am glad to have been trained in the conservation profession with the latest technology of today. The process of cleaning iron artefacts traditionally involved using a lot of muscle and painstakingly scrubbing off layers of dirt and corrosion with steel wool, glass bristle brushes, dental picks and wooden probes. This takes many hours and almost always leaves a few areas un-cleaned due to a lack of accessibility.
Today the process of cleaning iron artefacts has been simplified; reducing hours of work into a task that now only takes a few minutes. Our lab is fortunate enough to have in its possession a piece of equipment known as an air abrasive unit, which I also like to refer to as my magic conservation wand. Harry Potter would be so jealous. Air abrasive cleaning uses different types of fine powders that are added to a controlled air stream and then dispersed through a fine tipped pen. The pen is controlled by the user who directs the air stream at the artefact and moves it over the surface to the areas needed to be cleaned. And the results are awesome! Because you can direct the air flow to where you want it go – those teeny unreachable places that caused so many headaches, can now be blasted clean.
The different types of powders we use to clean artefacts with include sodium bicarbonate, aluminum oxide, crushed glass, plastic bead and even crushed walnut shell. Here are a few before and after photographs of some things that have been recently treated via air abrasion from the archaeology collection.
Before and after photographs of axe head cleaned with air abrasion – way more exciting!
Before and after photographs of partial copper kettle cleaned with air abrasion.
An unexpected aspect that has caught my interest while cataloguing is the names of collectors and identifiers. For example, there are hundreds of beetles in the museum’s entomology collection. Many of these insects were collected and identified in the 1920’s and 30’s by G.S. Brooks and J.B. Wallis, but also by R.A. Scrapneck, McKillop and Preston (both with initials W.B.), R.E. Wrigley and others in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Even without being able to put a face to them, these names have begun to stick in my head. I wanted to know more about these people, and found myself searching out information about collectors.
One of the hallmarks of a good database is standardization. It is difficult to search out information if entries are not done in a particular manner. At times an inconsistency with first initials can become explainable after a little research. I learned from museum records that W. Preston was actually a former curator of the museum, and was generally called Bill the more familiar form of William. So beetle collectors B. Preston and W. Preston turned out to actually be the same person. Similarly, Bob Wrigley is R. E. Wrigley as the “R” stands for Robert.
Not all collectors are professional, however. Sometimes amateurs have donated excellent collections to the museum. While updating some botanical data, I began searching out the full name of collectors who are frequently only designated by initials. Mrs. A. Simpson turned out to be Mrs. Alonzo Simpson. Alonzo, however, is her husband’s name, and so it would not really be correct to abbreviate her name to A. Simpson.
Any name searches I did only yielded more Mrs. Alonzo Simpson references. Luckily, a chance conversation with a long-time museum volunteer, helped me to learn that Mrs. Simpson’s daughter Mildred used to volunteer at the museum. After some further investigation on-line I found obituaries for Eva Mildred Bowie (Simpson) and her sister, Florence Claire Lloyd (Simpson) which both mentioned Alonzo and Lillian Simpson as their parents. And a 1921 census confirmed their mother’s full name to be Lillian Rose Simpson. And so there I had it, the elusive full name of Mrs. Simpson.
Another Manitoban female collector is J.M. Walker. In this case, J. is the correct first initial, as it stands for Jennifer. She did a lot of collecting in the late 50’s, while working on her Ph.D. in Botany. She was a lecturer and later on a full professor at the University of Manitoba. J.M. Shay is the same person, as Jennifer Walker married Tom Shay and took his last name, so specimens collected later by her are done by J.M. Shay.
This is also especially interesting when historical names come up. The museum has in its collections plant and animal specimens collected by the Criddle family. Both N. and S. Criddle have contributions. Percy Criddle and his family homesteaded in Manitoba in the late 1800’s in the Aweme area. Despite the lack of a formal education when younger, several of Percy’s children became expert naturalists. They kept detailed records and collected a variety of specimens. In fact, Talbot, Stuart, Evelyn and Norman Criddle all have “naturalist” noted on their headstones.
Dr. Neil Holliday, a Manitoba entomologist, has written an excellent history of the Criddle-Vane family which is available online: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/51/criddle_n.shtml
And I wonder what other Manitoba history is yet to be uncovered by researching a name?
Karen Sereda, Natural History Cataloguer
Tiger beetles are apparently very difficult to catch, although one would not know it when seeing the great number of tiger beetles in the museum’s collection. A quick survey revealed the Museum has over 500 pinned specimens in three genera; Cicindela, Ellipsoptera and Amblycheila. After cataloguing a couple hundred tiger beetles, I became curious about their biology, and did some research.
Tiger beetles are found all over the world and there have been over 2600 named thus far. North America has over 100 species. Tiger beetles are carnivores, and adults have long legs and prominent mouthparts to enable them to catch and consume other insects and spiders. Even though they have large eyes, they run so fast that vision is not sufficient to help them avoid obstacles. Instead, they hold their antennae out in front of them to monitor the landscape they are running through. Periodically, they need to stop to relocate their prey.
You can see a tiger beetle in the Carberry Sand Hills diorama at the Museum. Many of these beetles do live on the ground in dry or sandy areas, and in Manitoba this is where you may be able to see them. But be careful! They can give you quite a pinch with their sharp mandibles if you try to pick one up. Since they are carnivores, they do tend to have, for their body size, rather large mouthparts.
The larvae are also predatory, but rather than chasing and capturing prey, use a ‘sit and wait’ strategy. Juveniles dig a vertical burrow and then patiently watch the entrance for unwary small arthropods to venture too close. Unlike the larval stage of many other insects, tiger beetle larvae have well-developed eyes and good vision. They swiftly pierce prey with their sharp mandibles, and pull it down into their burrow to eat. Juveniles also have hooks lower down on their dorsal side to enable them to anchor themselves in their burrow and avoid being pulled out by unruly prey.
Many of the adult tiger beetles have distinctive markings on their elytra (hardened forewings) that can be used for identification. Some species are brown with yellowish-beige patterns, but others can be quite colorful. Iridescent blues, greens and reds are common.
In my readings I came upon an extremely enthusiastic piece, written by an American entomologist Ted C. MacRae. His blog described his efforts to photograph the spectacularly colored tiger beetle, Cicindelapulchra, during a fall field trip to a site in southwestern South Dakota. He called his article “North America’s most beautiful tiger beetle”, which I assumed at first was due to his obvious fascination with tiger beetles. Later I looked up this beetle’s common name and found it in fact to be the “Beautiful Tiger Beetle”! Only a beetle lover could have named it thus…..
Karen Sereda, Natural History Cataloguer
Well, after thirteen years or so, the Museum’s conservators are back climbing in the Nonsuch rigging, in order to check and clean the lines, sails and masts. This is a very exciting development for Collections and Conservation.
A bit of background information – amendments to Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health regulations in 2002 resulted in stricter requirements for workers climbing at heights. The Nonsuch therefore had to be provided with fall arrest lines, in order that workers could safely climb up in the rigging. The Manitoba Museum worked for the next several years to design, cost and install appropriate safety lines from the gallery ceiling. Additionally, the staff who would be doing the climbing had to take Fall Arrest training; and the Museum had to have a written Safe Work Procedure detailing how the climbing will be done.
Finally, everything has been put in place, including the purchase of safety harnesses designed specifically for women, as the two conservators who will be climbing are both female.
Conservator Carolyn Sirett was the first to go up and look at how dusty the main yard and mainsail were (very dusty!)
Carolyn on her first climb
She then came back down and we decided that she could carry up the backpack vacuum that is normally used to clean on board the ship.
Carolyn was able to vacuum most of the dust off the starboard side of the mainsail, main yard and the footropes on the main yard.
Carolyn starts to climb with the vacuum
Here she is partway up the ratlines
Vacuuming the main mast
We will continue to climb up in the rigging as time allows. Mondays during winter hours are best, as it takes time to prepare – check harnesses, get supplies – and we can’t let any visitors on board while someone is working aloft. The Museum will soon be moving to summer hours, so after next week, the work will most likely stop until the fall.
In future, instead of hauling a vacuum up into the rigging, we will be using a converted central vacuum that belongs to the Planetarium/Science Centre. It has a 50-foot long hose, so only that will have to be carried up; it will be much easier.
We will continue to clean off the Nonsuch rigging over the next fall/winter season. Dust can be damaging as well as unsightly, so it should be removed whenever possible. I hope to post some before and after images that will really demonstrate how much dust we’ll be dealing with!
Recently, Melissa Pearn, our Cataloguer of Natural History collections went on maternity leave. She wrote this blog entry before she left.
As a Natural History cataloguer, I have the opportunity to work with some very interesting specimens. I love that my job involves all three areas of natural history – botany, zoology (mostly entomology), and palaeontology/geology. Having studied pollination and reproduction of Lady’s Slipper orchids for my Master’s thesis, I especially enjoy working with the botanical and entomological specimens. It’s fascinating to get to see some of the plants and insects that I have heard or read about, but have never had the opportunity to see in nature.
I’ve recently been cataloguing an interesting collection of Manitoba insects. The specimens were collected in the 1920’s and 1930’s, in places such as Victoria Beach and Winnipeg (especially Transcona). Not only is the collection fascinating because of its age and local origins, but also because of its diversity. Many of the specimens belong to the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), but the collection also includes insects from 11 other groups such as Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), Coleoptera (beetles), Diptera (flies), Hemiptera (the true bugs), and Odonata (dragonflies), among others.
The collection was assembled by Manitoban naturalist and entomologist George Shirley Brooks. He was born in Wrentham, Surrey, England in 1872 and came to Manitoba around 1913. He was not only a founding member and president (1932-1934) of the Natural History Society of Manitoba, but also co-founder of The Manitoba Museum and author of “Checklist of the Butterflies of Manitoba”. He died in Winnipeg on October 20, 1947 and is buried at Brookside Cemetery.
Older collections such as this one are very valuable for the information that they contain. Because many specimens have a collection date and location, they can help researchers to evaluate and determine population trends over time, or to determine the status of rare species for example. In order to maintain the integrity of these types of collections, proper storage and handling are very important. In Natural History, specimens are stored in a collections room that is controlled to create just the right temperature, light, and humidity conditions. Under less than ideal conditions, or when on display for long periods of time, specimens can become altered, as can be seen with the faded coloring of some of the moths and butterflies in the Brooks collection.
Storage case with insect groups Lepidoptera (moths) and Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies)
Insect case with Hymenopterans (bees, wasps), Dipterans (flies) and Hemipterans (true bugs)
Two Luna Moth specimens. Though approximately the same age, the one on the left has become severely faded.
NOTE: Melissa had a healthy baby girl on Feb. 3. She is named Ivy. The Museum staff wish her family all the best.
At some time or another, we have all experienced a really satisfying day at work, or perhaps more often, a day that left us wanting to vent our frustrations. Today we might use social media to voice these emotions. In the days before Facebook or Twitter, Joe Maruca documented his working life in a ‘Secret’ notebook filled with amusing cartoon sketches.
Recently, I processed a fascinating collection of family items donated by the children of Joseph and Alice Maruca. These include a porter’s uniform, photographs, documents and the notebook. Joe’s father, Vincenzo had immigrated from Italy in 1920 and worked as a freight carpenter at the CNR shops in Transcona. In the 1950s Joe Maruca was employed as a Porter Captain at the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg. The “Royal Alex” was part of the Canadian Pacific chain and was considered one of the finest hotels in western Canada. It opened its doors on Higgins and Main in 1906 and served as a social centre of Winnipeg until 1967. The hotel was demolished in 1971.
Through Joe’s sketches we can see a humorous account of the inner workings of the Royal Alexandra as viewed through the eyes of the front line staff. There is the frustration of being under tipped by a wealthy client or being “twisted” by a co-worker. The word twist can be as slang expression meaning to cheat or have something wrench from your grasp – when a fellow porter takes your next client and tip! We also see Joe as the hero of the story and a bit of a lady’s man.
The Royal Alex was home-on-the-road to musicians who came to play at the hotel or local hotspots such as the Don Carlos night club. Included in the donation is a collection of signed photographs of notable African-American musicians of the era – The Mills Brothers, The Charioteers, Nellie Lutcher and The Deep River Boys. Joe enjoyed a positive reputation among these performers and the service he provided would have been in marked contrast to the discrimination they faced at segregated American hotels in the 1950s. “When you’re in Winnipeg ask for Joe, he’ll take good care of you” was the message passed among the performers. A couple of his sketches suggest that Joe may have had musical dreams of his own.
As new artefacts are added to The Manitoba Museum’s collection, our understanding of the past expands. Donations from families like the Marucas help to give us a glimpse the life of a talented ‘average working Joe’.
Nancy Anderson, Collections Assistant, Human History
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A few weeks ago, as my family was setting up our Christmas tree, I hesitated putting up a small number of glass balls, passed down to me from my grandma many years ago, remnants of my dad’s childhood in Winnipeg’s North End. These ornaments have been a staple on my tree for a decade since striking out on my own –the delicate painted glass balancing out my beloved childhood favourite, an A&W Bear on a green felt sled. This year, however, I am The Mother Of A Toddler. Little, excited hands grasping and pulling at the ornaments I have lovingly toted move after move! Finally, after some encouragement from my spouse, the glass balls were cautiously placed at the top of the tree, where Toddler Hands McStickyfingers can’t reach them, despite her efforts to stand on her toes, arms outstretched, saying “Reach! Reach!” (Nice try, kid.)
Thankfully, safely in the storage room at The Manitoba Museum, our History collection’s complement of Christmas ornaments remains out of the grasp of toddlers. Whenever handled, these ornaments receive the “White Glove Treatment”, meaning we don cotton gloves to protect the artefacts from oil present on our skin. In instances where an object is particularly delicate or small, I prefer to wear blue nitrile gloves, so I can best hold artefacts as I examine them for cataloguing or photographing.
Delving into the collection to photograph Christmas artefacts, a few pieces stood out to me, reminiscent of ornaments –both old and new– decorating my tree at home. Carefully preserved by generations of family members, many of these artefacts were collected to decorate the Urban Gallery each year, featured on the Christmas tree in the dentist’s parlour as part of an exhibit called In Winnipeg at Christmas.
This delicate toadstool and its pair date to the mid-1920s, donated to The Museum along with a few dozen other ornaments of the period, including a hot air balloon, birds and fruit, like these bunches of grapes. Originally, these ornaments decorated the tree of a young Winnipeg couple, married in 1925.
] The skiing snowman, made of cotton and pipe cleaners, was donated to the collection after his original owners loaned him to The Manitoba Museum for In Winnipeg at Christmas.
Our Christmas holdings, however, are not limited to the 1920s. For those who prefer the A&W sledding bear over the filigreed glass ball, the collection has plenty to offer. One former curator had an eye for objects that reflected the contemporary popular culture of the 1980s, picking up pieces like a Snoopy squeeze doll –yes, that’s its official name in our collections database– and a staple for most people born in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a Cabbage Patch Kid tree ornament.
As I put these ornaments back in their boxes and return them to their shelves in the storage space, I can’t help but wonder whether one day my ornaments will meet a similar fate, becoming part of an exhibit like In Winnipeg at Christmas in the 1980s, but with a snappier title. Provided I can keep them safe from the toddler ‘til then.
By Cortney Pachet, Human History Cataloguer
The Nonsuch at the Manitoba Museum is the largest artefact (in size) in the collection. It is unique in that it is an artefact that visitors get to walk aboard, touch and literally step into a piece of history. Another interesting part is that the Nonsuch is a real life ship that was once sailed by a crew and it is because of this that the Conservators at TMM care for it a little differently than other objects in the collection.
One aspect of caring for such a large artefact is following a routine maintenance plan in order to keep the ship in first-class shape. This includes regular cleaning of the decks, captain’s quarters, sails and hold, as well as taking twice-yearly measurements to see if there are any changes or movements to the wooden components. Another part of the maintenance plan is moving and adjusting the rigging. When we talk about the rigging of the Nonsuch we are talking about a lot of different components including the masts, ropes, yards and sails. One of the reasons why we undo and move the lines as part of the conservation maintenance plan is to allow the ropes to not stiffen overtime. Movement of the rigging also allows the sails to be unrolled so that they do not become stretched from sitting in the same position.
Some other unique things that are done by the Conservation team to keep the Nonsuch as close to working order include tarring the deck seams, repainting the stern carvings and splicing rope works when needed.
The next step in our maintenance plan, which will hopefully be completed in the upcoming months, includes climbing the ratlines (rope ladders leading up the mast) with our special vacuums and giving the ship a good dusting. This probably wouldn’t have been done in the high seas due to the abundance of wind available but since the ship is permanently stored indoors it does get quite dusty. Part of our training for this task includes taking fall protection training so that we are as safe as possible when geared up in harnesses and climbing the rigging. Stay tuned for a future blog on what it’s like to vacuum a ship 60 ft. in the air!
As mentioned earlier, the Nonsuch is treated differently from other artefacts and needs to be preserved in a way that maintains it in working order to prevent further damage. This is in comparison to our regular collections which mostly stay static in their positions tucked away in storage vaults. Having the opportunity to be a part of the preservation of the Nonsuch is a rare opportunity and also a chance for Conservators to trade in our lab coats for a sailor’s cap every once in a while.
-Carolyn Sirett, Conservator
I went to the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Conservation (CAC) this year, as I try to do every year. It is held in late spring in a different location in Canada, alternating between different regions of the country. It is not a large conference, with attendance ranging from 70 or so in the smaller cities, to about 150 or even 200 in larger cities such as Toronto. This is because there are not a huge number of conservators in Canada; we are quite a small profession.
Why do professional associations, or any group for that matter, hold conferences? Aren’t they just an excuse to travel somewhere exotic on the corporate or government dime, and drink wine?
Well, no. Conservators have been compared to doctors; the way we care for objects has many similarities to the way doctors care for people. We “operate” (perform treatments) on objects to repair damage that has been done. We also spend a lot of time advising on preventive measures that will keep objects “healthy”; as in human health, prevention is the most important consideration, to prevent or mitigate damage or deterioration. There are also, as in medicine, many scientists working with practitioners (the conservators) to identify needed areas of research, to add to the body of knowledge in our areas of work. New information is always being discovered, as in medicine. That is why we have professional journals, and why we hold conferences.
I’ve been to many conferences over the years I’ve been a conservator. I find that I always learn something, and I always come back to work rejuvenated, with my enthusiasm for my job renewed. Working in cultural heritage in Canada can make one feel fairly isolated. I don’t have that much contact with the general public; I work in a medium-size museum, so I have a lot of museum colleagues, but not that many fellow conservators to talk to. There just aren’t that many of us.
Going to a different Canadian city every year, getting to see different museums, with their great collections, but also challenging situations, is wonderful. However, the best thing about going to professional conferences, for me, is the face to face contact with people. I can read someone’s article in a journal, but to talk to them in person just can’t be replaced. I learn about new conservation treatments, the latest research, shared problems, and the overall mood of the profession. I catch the giant enthusiasm of new graduates.
I personally am able to pay to attend CAC conferences out of my pocket, but I also try to support the attendance of another conservator from the Museum out of departmental budgets, with grant assistance, whenever possible. This is because I firmly believe in the value of professional development, and especially the value of professional conferences.