Post by Marc Formosa, Collections Technician (Natural History)
A current and ongoing problem for museums is collection storage space. Maximizing space for expanding collections requires Tetris-like problem solving. We are always looking for ways to make the most of the space we have, while improving the long-term preservation of the objects in the collection.
In the spring of 2021, I had the chance to virtually attend the joint American Institution for Conservation (AIC) and The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) conference. A presentation by Laura Abraczinkas and Barbara Lundrigan titled “Storage Improvements for Tanned Mammal Skins at the Michigan State University Museum” covered folding techniques for large mammal skins to reduce the space they take up, while also discussing how to protect parts of the skin like the paws and head from potential damage while folded. The information in this presentation inspired a rehousing project for polar bear, grizzly, cougar, grey wolf, and leopard skins in the zoology collection.
Most of the skins that were rehoused as part of this project were attached to a felt fabric backing. This is typically done if a skin is going to be used as a rug. The head is stretched around an armature (made from a variety of materials including wood, foam, and plaster) to maintain a semi-life like position, but it also makes the head quite heavy. The mouth and teeth are created by the taxidermist and are not part of the original mammal.
For each mammal, I started by creating custom mittens for their paws out of Tyvek – a lightweight and durable nonwoven material that is resistant to water and abrasion, and has good aging properties. I used a sewing machine, for the first time, and stitched the Tyvek together with cotton thread so each mitten fit snug around each paw.
The folding method can be simply described as a ‘bear’ hugging itself. Every fold is padded out with volara, a smooth closed-celled polyethylene foam, to add support and prevent creases forming in the skin. Finally, the head sits on top of the folded skin, again padded out with volara.
For the cougar and leopard heads, customs pads were created for each head to sit on away from the body in order to alleviate stress and prevent the skin from creasing on the neck where the head armature meets the skin.
The skins were individually wrapped in polyethylene sheets as an additional barrier from dust accumulation and insects. Custom boxes were built out of coroplast which allow for the skins to be more easily handled as they move in and out of their new home in the collections storage vault. Overall, this rehousing project improved the preservation of the skins and their storage method. It freed up space, but free space does not remain long in museum collections storage spaces.
Post by Nancy Anderson, Collections Management Specialist (Human History)
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a central, and disruptive role in all our lives. In the coming decades will COVID become a significant cultural memory, or will we begin to suffer from historic amnesia? Terabytes of information may be deposited in archives around the world. For museums, even ordinary artifacts will become powerful tools to engage visitors.
At the Manitoba Museum, there were no artifacts with which we could relate the story of the influenza pandemic of a century ago. Museums around the world saw the need to begin collecting today for tomorrow. A call was put out for objects that would help mark this event from the Manitoba perspective. To date, over 70 Manitobans have responded to the call.
Over the past months, as I have been integrating these objects and their stories into the permanent collections of the Manitoba Museum, I have been amazed by the breadth and variety of the items. Here’s an initial glimpse our growing COVID-19 collection.
Can you pinpoint the moment that the pandemic became a reality in your life? Leslie Nakonechny’s employer offered to cover her taxi fare so that she could transport her desktop computer as she headed to work from home. Initially she thought the pandemic would blow over in a few weeks and that she could turn in her receipt once they were back to working on-site. As the lockdown continued the receipt became a memento in her wallet.
Manitoba’s volunteer spirit was evident early in the pandemic. Sewing machines were dusted off and used to create thousands of masks, gowns, and surgical caps to protect health care workers, friends, and family. We all strove to maintain a sense of community during the pandemic. Signs sprang up in windows, on fences, and along walking paths offering messages of encouragement.
In early 2020, graphic images of a spiked ball began popping up in the media as stories circulated of a new, potentially dangerous virus. Soon the image was being used in inventive ways. The creativity of Manitobans is evident in many of the donations that use a wide variety of media.
The artists’ statements that accompany many of the pieces demonstrate how people seek solace in the arts in a time of disruption. Christen Rachul stamped his pottery with a tiny letter ‘Q’ for Quarantine. Gail Wence took up her embroidery needle, Jacqueline Trudeau her paint brush, and Laurie Fischer returned to writing poetry.
New phrases were added to our everyday vocabulary like “social distancing”, “essential workers”, “lockdown”, “pivot”, and “supply-chain”. The impact on the business community is still significant. Remember hunting for toilet paper?
Genevieve Delaquis spent her time in line capturing many of the decals that told customers where to stand for their safety. There were also new opportunities. U of W students Alex Kroft and Niels Hurst launched a summer business producing 3-D printed face shields for front-line workers.
Manitoba families endured long periods of separation during lockdowns that robbed them of the opportunity to celebrate life’s milestones. Grandchildren were introduced to family via Zoom. Young people graduated virtually.
With the stores closed for all but essential items, Donalda Johnson created pom poms out of plastic grocery bags and decorated cars for a friend’s retirement parade. 96-year-old Helen Rempel quietly crocheted Christmas ornaments for each of her 26 immediate family members who would not be gathering in person.
Some of the most impactful artifacts were created by children. Many of the items illustrate the efforts of parents, caregivers, and teachers to help young Manitobans cope with the upheaval in their lives. For some, letter writing and drawing allowed them reach out to the community.
Grade 12 student Kendra Radey wrote and illustrated Robby’s Life Lesson to teach children about COVID safety.
Public Health officials and politicians tell us we are moving into a ‘new normal’. It is hard to predict when the Museum will be ready to create a retrospective exhibit about the pandemic. As I write this blog, I am aware that I have omitted many of donations. But in the years to come, the COVID-19 collection may be used in museum exhibits and programs or by students, historians, writers, film makers, and others to tell our story.
Post by Janis Klapecki, Collections Management Specialist (Natural History)
As part of the Manitoba Museum’s entomology collection, we house over 60,000 pinned insects, true bugs, and arachnids. In addition, there are a further ~3000 invertebrates preserved in alcohol, also referred to as “wet” specimens. While the majority of the collection are pinned insects in their adult form, there are also examples of the many and varied life stages that occur prior to the adult form, including egg, larval, nymph, and pupal forms. It is important that a scientific collection contain representatives of these life stages (including males and females of each), as they can and do look very different within any given species.
The Manitoba Museum is a research and collections-based museum whose mandate is to collect and preserve both the natural and human histories of the province for present and future generations. Curators conduct research throughout the province in their respective fields of expertise. Specimens are collected during field seasons and are brought to the museum for preparation and subsequent study. Before specimens can be handled and made accessible for study, they must be prepared to maintain their long-term preservation. Fossils need to be exposed from their matrix, plants need to be dried and mounted, and birds and mammals transformed into skins and skeletons. Insects too, must undergo a preparation process in order to stabilize them for storage, and to make them safer to handle. This is where skill meets a bit of art, and sometimes a little luck!
Once specimens are carefully collected and brought to the museum, a decision must be made on how a particular insect will be preserved. Part of this decision is based on what type of insect (invertebrate) it is, but also how we may want use the specimen afterward. Typically, insect specimens for scientific use are pinned in a traditional manner according to international museum standards where all parts are positioned symmetrically, and anatomy used for identifying characteristics are not obscured. If a specimen will be used for educational purposes, or included in an exhibition in one of our galleries, the pinning is slightly different so that a more life-like pose is achieved. Certain groups or forms, such as a caterpillar (larva), or other worm-like animals, would simply shrivel up if it was pinned, and would not be very recognizable. These types preserve better as a whole body stored in a vial with alcohol as a wet specimen.
When adult insects are collected, they typically become very dry and brittle by the time they are brought into the museum. Handling them is difficult without causing damage, as tiny legs and antennae can easily break off. In order to manipulate and pin them in the correct position, they must first be re-hydrated into a softened state. Plastic containers with good sealing lids are used as a re-hydrating environment. The container is filled with a couple of centimetres of distilled water with some alcohol added to guard against any mould growth. Insect specimens are then placed on top of a piece of rigid foam which is floated within the container. After a few days, the specimens are checked to see if they are pliable enough for the wings and legs to easily be moved. Small flies could be ready in a few days, large beetles with thick exoskeletons and strong ligaments, could take several days.
Once in a softened state, the insect is ready for the pinning process. The insect is gently held while a main pin is inserted through the thorax, just below the base of the forewings, and placed perpendicular to the plane of the body. Special entomology pins are used as they are made of metals that will not corrode when in contact with the insect. They come in different gauges to be used with the varying sizes of insects. A large insect, such as a butterfly, will require a thicker pin for sturdiness, and a very thin gauge pin would be used for smaller insects. Anything even smaller, or extremely fragile is “pointed”. That is, where an insect is too small to have a pin inserted, it is instead carefully glued to the ‘point’ of a small triangle of archival card stock and the main pin is then inserted through the point. This main pin is now the only way the specimen can safely be handled.
When the main pin has been properly placed, the legs, wings, and antennae must then be positioned. A pinning board made of soft balsa wood or dense foam is used for specimens with large wings such as butterflies, moths, dragonflies, or grasshoppers. It has a trough where the body can be lowered, and the wings can then be spread over the flat surfaces of the boards on either side and supported. Spreading the wings properly is a bit like the game “Twister” for the fingers. Insect wings are incredibly fragile, so carefully coaxing them away from the insect’s body without damaging them takes some practice. Add to that, the wings of Lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) are covered in fine, microscopic scales that aid in flight, waterproofing, and coloration that will break off, like dust, if touched. Forceps are gently used to spread the forewing out from the body on one side, and while holding that in place, the hind wing on the same side, is brought out and positioned. Once both wings on one side are in the proper position, a strip of glassine is placed gently over them. Glassine is a smooth translucent paper that will not abrade the scales of the wings. Pins are then inserted just through the paper and into the underlying pinning board to hold everything in place. This process is then repeated with the wings on the other side. The antennae and legs are then moved into place, slightly away from the body, and support pins are inserted into the board to hold them there. This is done so that the legs do not obscure any important identifying characteristics.
After the insect is pinned into the correct position, it is left to dry. Depending on the size of the insect, it may dry in a few days, larger beetles and dragonflies could take over a week. When it is dried, the positioning pins are very carefully removed and it is now ready for data labels to be attached on the main pin below the specimen. Labels are printed on archival paper and contain all the pertinent data about the specimen such as the identification, who collected the specimen, and when and where it was collected. This data is also entered into our collections management database. As with all specimens in our collections, it is extremely important to keep each specimen together with its data. The data proves that this exact species occurred in this time and place – it’s recorded proof of that biodiversity snapshot of that time. If the data labels ever became separated from its specimen, its intrinsic scientific value is greatly diminished, or completely lost.
Museum collections all over the world apply these same international techniques and standards when preparing and storing specimens for study. This aids in maintaining consistency between museum collections, and have changed very little over the past several hundred years.
Post by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator and Lee-Ann Blase, Conservation Volunteer
We have all seen those lifeless mannequins looking sad and lonely in a store’s window front, longing for the next wardrobe change of a new season. Here at the museum we like to give our mannequins a bit more attention to detail compared to their retail cousins, what some might call, a full spa treatment!
Humans are uniquely different from one another, and our clothing choices are also uniquely different, from size to shape to style. These human qualities are well represented in our historic textile collection, and when displaying these garments, every detail is assessed to ensure its preservation.
Dressing a museum mannequin is the opposite of fitting a living person. Instead of fitting the clothes to the person, the mannequin is made to fit the clothes. Many of the mannequins we use at the museum have been custom made by our conservation department using conservation-quality materials. We first begin by measuring the waist, chest, neck, arm, and leg lengths. The mannequin form is then either trimmed down, or padded out with polyester fibre to reach the required dimensions to properly support the clothing.
Once the basic form is made and covered with a suitable fabric, we begin to dress the mannequin. This is where historic photographs are useful to see how the outfits were worn, and to bring a little more personality to our frozen foam bodies. Edith Rogers’ cotton-crocheted tea gown, displayed in the Winnipeg Gallery is a good example of using research to determine the best fit. A tea gown bridges the gap between dress and undress as a corset is not worn with it. Research shows only an upper-class woman could have afforded this type of dress among their ball, dinner, reception, and afternoon dresses.
When this dress was chosen for display it first needed to be stabilized in the conservation lab with a fine net in the bodice and a few minor tear repairs. In order to make this garment appear as it would, we added a petticoat from the museum’s collection to help support the textile. With the petticoat slipped over the custom form, then carefully sliding the dress on and using acid-free tissue to fill any gaps – voila – the tea gown was ready for exhibition.
The last part of dressing a mannequin is in the finer details. The arms, hands, legs, waist, and head all need to be positioned. For the modern Pow Wow dancer in the renewed Prairies Gallery, the Curator wanted to evoke the idea that the mannequin is dancing, to look as if the mannequin is in-motion. When trying to imply movement, it can be difficult to balance the mannequin as a structure, but also to balance the preservation of the artifacts that are being displayed.
On your next visit to the museum, hopefully you are able to see some of these fabulously fitted forms.
Post by Debbie Thompson, Diorama and Collections Specialist
More than 440 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period, northern Manitoba was at the edge of a sea near the equator. Among the many invertebrates that swam and lived in the salty waters were jellyfish. Their fossilized remains are the focus of ongoing research at the Museum.
After years of collecting, specific specimens were chosen to undergo a process called thin sectioning. This process creates ultra-thin slices of rock and fossil, supported by epoxy and glass slides. They are thin enough to allow light to pass through, revealing details about internal structures, which can then be studied using a microscope.
The fossils selected for this process can range in size from one to four centimeters in diameter. Every block is trimmed using a rock saw, so that the block will fit onto a glass slide. The fossil surface then needs to be polished smooth and to an accurate scale in millimeters written on two sides of the block.
In the photo above, the red arrow points to the fossil block, note the scale (numbers written on sides of block). The foil is peeled back to reveal the polished fossil surface. The purple arrow points to the glass slide, which has been polished so that epoxy glue will stick to it. The yellow arrow points to a container that is warming one part of a two-part epoxy. The hot plate heats up these components to aid in the even flow and setting of the epoxy.
Each slide is labeled with the data regarding that particular specimen. If too much epoxy is applied, it will flow over the edges and seep underneath the slide.
After the adhesive sets, but before it cures hard, any epoxy that seeped underneath is carefully scraped off using a razor blade, and solvent removes remaining residue. Normally, a whole day will be spent just gluing the specimens onto the slides. To help pass the time, it helps to listen to country music while doing this (although the Curator would strongly disagree with my choice of music).
The thin section machine is noisy, creating the need for ear plugs and heavy-duty earmuffs. Safety glasses are a must, guarding against stone chips. The gloves protect the hands from being water logged for extended periods of time. A mask is needed to prevent breathing in the water spray laden with sediment, as the water is recycled and gradually becomes dirtier the more it’s used. The sponge is used to clean up the sludge that accumulates in the tray.
The block is held on the thin section machine’s arm, and gently pushed into the saw. Very thick blocks will require several cuts from each side. Being extremely cautious, this could take me about 5 minutes to cut.
The cut is finished. The glass slide with the thin slice of rock and fossil is still attached to the arm while I hold the remaining block. On both surfaces, the paler, circular fossil jellyfish can be seen.
This picture shows the saw, with the cutting blade on the left, and the polishing wheel on the right. The gauge in the middle indicates the thickness of the slide being polished. The slide will now be moved to the right-hand arm of the thin section machine, where it is polished on a diamond wheel.
The fossil has been cut and partially polished so thin that light begins to pass through it. It is nearly thin enough for microscopic study. The final hand polishing will be done by the Curator, using a slurry of fine grit on a glass plate. The slide is then placed in a protective envelope. In this example, the fossil is near the top left corner of the slide. Some of the internal features are a dark reddish colour, due to the presence of iron oxide. The faint pale outline is the edge of the jellyfish’s bell.
The newly exposed cut surface is re-polished, and the whole process is repeated. Depending on how deep into the rock it goes, each block can yield 4 to 6 thin sections, creating thin slices that are just two millimetres apart. If a new fossil appears, we keep making thin sections. If the fossil disappears, one more slide is made to confirm that we have reached the end of sectioning for that specimen.
Light passes through a finished thin section, revealing such intricate details as the rust coloured internal canals (due to the presence of iron oxide), and the margin of the bell with faint traces of its tentacles around the outer edges. Ruler is in millimetres.
After sectioning, the slide is scanned on a photographic flatbed scanner. A computer program then digitally assembles the thin section photos for each jellyfish to generate a 3-D image of the body, including internal structures and in some cases, tentacles.
Post by Janis Klapecki, Collections Management Specialist (Natural History)
Amongst the many and varied Natural History Collections at the Manitoba Museum, is a most unusual collection of ‘cases’. These unique display cases of glass panels held together by dark varnished wood frames, are commonly known as parlour cases. The contents combine the artistry of fabricating faux habitats, with the expertise of creating life-like mounts through taxidermy. Some are as small as to only contain a single mounted Least Weasel, others are several feet tall, and may contain dozens of birds and mammals.
Parlour cases became highly popularized during the Victorian era, from about the early to mid 1800s into the early 1900s. This was a heightened time in the discovery of the natural world, and also coincided with, and was stimulated by, the great scientific exploration voyages of Darwin, and his contemporaries. Parlour cases were born out of this time of fascination and the desire to collect and display specimens.
It was commonplace to display these cases in the reception parlours of well-to-do households, thus the name. Owning and displaying these in your private collection reflected on their owners as having attained a certain level of good taste, intellect, and an aire of affluence; “parlour cred” if you will.
However, displaying taxidermy mounts was a practice not only reserved for the rich. They were also displayed in schools for educational purposes, and in the houses of commoners, possibly to demonstrate hunting prowess, or as an attempt to be perceived as affluent.
Early taxidermists were indeed artists and masters of many trades. Expert taxidermists of the time would have been in demand and could command high prices for commissioned work. Not only would they need to know the techniques involved to properly preserve the skin, but they must also have knowledge of anatomy, and aspects of animal behavior. It is extremely difficult to obtain the exact correct posture, or facial expression to match the particular theme of the case, whether it be animals at ease, or reconstructing a predator-prey scenario.
Knowledge of ecosystems must also be appreciated. For example, which animals and plants would actually be found together in the same habitat, or even in the same season. This knowledge and skill executed in taxidermy scenes, and even the large dioramas in our museum, makes for a highly believable portrayal.
However, some of parlour cases ignored that concept of realism out-right and had mounts of birds and/or mammals that would never have seen each other in a given day, or even in a lifetime.
Recently, we had to move our entire collection of large parlour cases from where they were stored in our main collections storage vault. Long tracks of ducting were being installed for the new environmental control unit, and we wanted these far from any danger. We took advantage of this move to inspect, photograph, clean, repair (if necessary), and ensure the database information was complete for each one of these large, fragile cases. The taxidermy specimens, faux substrate, glass panels, and the wood framing were expertly cleaned and repaired by the Museum’s conservator Carolyn Sirett.
During conservation treatment, the cases were also tested for the presence of arsenic. We were not surprised to find that many of the specimens tested positive. Now that specimens have been identified, we take extra precautions when we have to handle them, such as wearing gloves and masks.
Arsenic was a common and favoured compound used by taxidermists from the late 1700s to at least the 1980s. Eventually its use was banned due to its high toxicity to humans. It was prepared as an arsenical soap, and applied to the inside of prepared skins that not only preserved the skin, but also provided protection of the mount from insect damage. This is the reason why so many of the old taxidermy mounts have survived in such splendid condition!
Post by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator
As a repository for over 2.8 million artifacts and specimens, the Manitoba Museum possesses a collection that is made up of pretty much everything and anything you can imagine! One of the more humble artifacts that you might not think of in the museum’s collection, and one that is of practical use in everyday lives, are books. I personally only thought of books as the stories or information that was contained within, until two years ago, when a particular book came across my workbench.
In the summer of 2018, a very excited Dr. Roland Sawatazky, Curator of History, came into the conservation lab with a very large and heavy book in his hands. It was a Brown’s Bible, that belonged to Reverend John Black. I won’t delve into the specifics of John Black but will mention that his story is tied to the early beginnings of the Red River Settlement around 1851.
When Dr. Sawatzky brought the bible into the conservation lab, it was in very poor condition. Perhaps a sign of its dedicated use and a symbol of how far it has travelled both in time and distance. The coverboards were falling off, the spine was torn and abraded, numerous sections of pages were loose as well as heavily soiled and damaged. Chosen to be displayed in the new Prairies Gallery, opening in the fall of 2020, it would need a lot of love and care to ensure its safe display.
In January of 2019, I began to dissect the bible, knowing the repair would take a few months. Books are interesting objects to work on because they are all created differently depending on their age. Binding structures, sewing methods, the type of glue used, printing methods, and machinery all play an important role in telling the history of these otherwise mute objects. The Brown’s Bible is an excellent example of this, in telling a larger narrative based on how it was made rather than the person who owned it or the written text.
The repair began with taking a large portion of the bible apart. Loose pages were removed, the front and back cover boards were taken off, including cutting the spine. This was a frightening feeling for someone who is used to repairing damage, not creating more! From there, about one hundred of the loose pages were mechanically cleaned, washed, flattened, dried, and repaired. Did I say washed? Yes, that is correct. A small “secret” in conservation is that paper can be washed, but inks are first checked for solubility and we make sure the paper fibers can handle the process.
While the pages were drying, the front and back coverboards were worked on. These were cleaned, humidified and the leather re-adhered into the original position. The spine was the trickiest part of the whole piece, in that the original cloth used to hold the coverboards to the text block was too weak and a new cast had to be made for the spine to go on. Small details such as the paper raised bands on the spine are telling signs of the type of intricate details the original bookbinder put into his craft.
After about 8 months of work, the finale to this treatment was nearing. The old adhesive on the spine was removed, the cleaned pages were re-sewn and coverboards were ready to be attached. Looking at this book now, as it hopefully resembles what it once did over two-hundred years ago, I am excited to see it showcased in the new gallery for others to learn not only who owned it, but how it was made and the story behind its repair.
Post by Cortney Pachet, Collections Registration Associate (Human History)
With changes happening throughout the museum, we sometimes find opportunities to update existing exhibits and breathe new life into old favourites. Last spring, when our temporary exhibition about the Winnipeg General Strike, Strike 1919: Divided City, was installed in our Urban Gallery and the entire gallery received beautiful, new mannequins, I jumped at the chance to revamp one of my favourite exhibits -Madam Taro’s room.
Depending on who you talk to, Madam Taro is a mysterious fortune teller from the old country or a woman earning her living working in the oldest profession. I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I appreciate her ingenuity in maintaining a ruse for decency’s sake. In a nod to her name, we swapped out her “crystal ball” (a glass orb) for a set of tarot cards we have in our collection, a reprint of a tarot deck from 1910, so they fit our time period perfectly. We laid the cards out as if she’s giving a reading, with her ashtray and cigarette holder at hand. We also added a decanter and glasses, in case any of her gentleman callers fancy a drink.
From there, I decided which pieces should be removed from the room; some based on aesthetics (or the vibe, for my younger readers), others because they weren’t in keeping with the time period. We kept the majority of the furniture and bedding in the exhibit, but put most of the “dressings” like pictures, doilies, garments, and knickknacks back into storage. In their place, I wanted to feature objects that one might find in a woman’s bedroom – make up, nail polish, brushes, hairpins, perfumes, and powders. Thankfully, our collection is chockful of beautiful examples of personal care items from the early 20th century, so I had a lot of selection. The existing wardrobe is staged with the door ajar to give visitors a peek at some clothing, shoes, and accessories from our collection.
The main decorative addition to the space is the group of hand fans our talented conservator mounted and hung on the wall as art. This feature complements an existing parasol, feather boa, and astrological chart already decorating the room. We also added a gramophone to the space, along with a few records -and even though you can’t read the labels from the door, I made sure to pick records of the period: for instance, foxtrots by Coleman’s Orchestra, “I’m Coming Back to Dixie and You” by the Peerless Quartet, and “In the Hills of Old Kentucky” by Campbell and Burr.
The less romantic but essential elements of the space include a pitcher and basin for Madam Taro to use for washing up or bathing, and finally, the all-important chamber pot tucked under her nightstand. Her room may have included shared washroom and toilet facilities if any at all, so the chamber pot would come in handy for middle of the night relief.
The most striking change in this exhibit is the new Madam Taro; instead of faceless forms, our new mannequins are lifelike, lending to the story of each exhibit. In this case, we wanted a mannequin who was culturally ambiguous and slightly older, someone who has worked long enough to establish herself and afford the “luxuries” I wanted to showcase in her room. Selecting a head made me feel like I was Princess Mombi in the movie Return to Oz, to be honest! The face we chose has a sympathetic expression with eyes that I feel have a bit of sadness behind them -or like she’s tired after a long day at…the office.
All of these elements -the artifacts, the new mannequin, the staging- work together to create a narrative of a woman working and living in Winnipeg in the 1920s. Next time you’re visiting the Manitoba Museum, make sure you stop by Madam Taro’s for a reading…and maybe more!
Post by Cortney Pachet, Collections Registration Associate (Human History)
From October 2018 to October 2019, Cortney served temporarily as the Assistant Curator of the HBC Museum Collection while the Curator was away on leave. As part of her curatorial role, Cortney processed the Fowlie collection acquisition and curated a small temporary exhibition about the collection.
Throughout its history, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a tradition of recruiting young men from Scotland to serve as clerks, traders, and labourers in its North American posts, offering both adventure and security of employment. Housing and basic needs were covered, but luxuries like sugar, tea, tobacco, and brandy were bought from the post by the men themselves and deducted from their wages. Commerce didn’t stop at the four walls of the post; these men frequently acquired handmade objects from Indigenous women in the communities they lived in, both for their personal use and to send home as gifts for loved ones. Since arriving at the Manitoba Museum, the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum Collection has received donations of these objects from former HBC employees and their descendants, highlighting the skilled work of Indigenous women across Canada. By and large, unfortunately, we lack information on these artisans and turn to our collection for answers – using other objects with similar breading or embroidery styles and techniques that have more robust records, we can often identify which cultures or communities may have produced specific objects.
In the summer of 2018, we received a package from Scotland, full of objects, photographs, and documents that told the story of an HBC employee in northern Manitoba in the 1920s. By the 1920s, HBC was more rigorous in their recruiting process. As opposed to “just showing up” like days of yore, men needed to present personal and professional references and pass a physical examination before being offered a contract. Our new acquisition had all these documents and more…but who was this intrepid young Scot that sailed across the Atlantic to the unknown?
Born May 25, 1902 in Aberdeen, Scotland, George Fowlie lost his father at a young age. After finishing school at Robert Gordon’s College in 1917, he worked at North of Scotland and Town & Country Bank. In 1923, when he entered into service on a five-year contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company as an apprentice clerk at York Factory in HBC’s Nelson River District. We have no concrete evidence as to why Fowlie decided to join HBC or leave the bank; his references were glowing- but his daughter suggested that he was single and looking for adventure. Fowlie made the most of his time at York Factory. He traded his desk job for a cariole and dog whip as Fowlie worked with dog sled teams, creating strong bonds with his canine colleagues. He also formed a tight knit community with his fellow Scotsmen, enjoying music played on the gramophone and partaking in the culture of York Factory, which include socializing and working with the Indigenous community in the area.
Fowlie documented his experiences and the people at York Factory through photography, including his work mates, his dogs, himself playing with local children and sharing a laugh with young women in front of the Anglican Church.
These candid images of HBC employees, local Indigenous peoples and the buildings and landscape also give us a rare glimpse at HBC’s working class and a real idea of what life was like for the community at York Factory.
Fowlie also carefully preserved the beloved handmade objects he likely acquired from Cree or Métis women during his tenure at the post –some that he used in his everyday life such as moccasins and gauntlet gloves and some that he sent back to Scotland as gifts for his mother, a number of wall pockets and a beaded belt.
Upon leaving the HBC, Fowlie returned to Scotland and worked as a chauffeur until WWII. Following his service in WWII as clerk in the Royal Air Force, he married Madge Briggs and had daughter Marjorie in 1947. When Fowlie passed away in 1985, his HBC collection was passed down to Marjorie, who appreciated the historical significance of her father’s objects. She decided to donate the collection to the Manitoba Museum, but not before making a quick stop on Antiques Roadshow to showcase these beautiful pieces, and allowing them to be researched and exhibited by the University of Aberdeen. Thanks to George Fowlie and his family’s care, these objects have officially made their Manitoba homecoming.
Post by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator
It’s time for the sweaty part of the blog – not the panicky sweating type of emotion I first experienced when large fragile artifacts were being transported all over the city – but literally sweaty in the sense that big artifacts get your muscles moving prepping them for exhibition. Our first workout began after the stained glass window was delivered to Prairie Studio Glass for its complete restoration. Prairie Studio undertook the joyful task of dismantling the entire window, which started with making a template and numbering over 300 pieces of glass. Next, the components were taken out of the original wood frame and piece by piece placed into containers. That’s when the conservation team decided to join in on the fun and help scrub 100-year-old putty and dirt off each individual piece. After three and a half hours, and only a small section of the puzzle back together, Conservation Technician Loren Rudisuela and I decided we would leave the rest up to Prairie Studio Glass staff.
The second time the Loren and I went back to the studio was to help squish new putty in-between the lead came after the pieces were put back together in their new frame. This was a lot of elbow and thumb grease to make sure everything would be secured. A few weeks later and the big day arrived for the window to be installed into its new wall niche, again making me sweat a little more watching it being hoisted about fifteen feet in the air after having it painstakingly restored. But everything went according to plan and you can now see this amazing artifact on display in our new Winnipeg Gallery!
Another big workout was prepping the Eaton’s lintel for its debut and installation. Architectural features are beautiful to look at, however harsh outdoor environments can really change the finish to some of the materials. For our Eaton’s lintel, the visible deterioration was mainly on the brass components where years of oxidation, rain, snow … lots of snow … and pollution left a layer of thick corrosion along the surface. Once again, we rolled up our sleeves and spent several days scrubbing off the corrosion.
Another added touch to the treatment included making a replica rosette for one that was missing. Installing this artifact was a monumental feat on its own as it required careful lifting, mounting and engineered bracketing in order to ensure its long-term preservation. Now in its new home, I think I can finally put down the workout towel for a little bit – until the next big artifact rolls into the lab.