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.
Post by Debbie Thompson, Diorama and Collections Technician
Dioramas are incredible works of “science meets art”. Planning the layout, construction and content often takes years, with a tremendous amount of research and collaboration with curators, diorama artists, carpenters, and electricians. Volunteers are also a vital part of the making of dioramas; they take on the mammoth task of hand painting individual leaves. But what happens after the fanfare of the grand opening? What happens as time passes by? There are just a few people to keep a close eye on them, monitoring them for insects, rodents, dust, and repairs.
As Diorama and Collections Technician, I am one of those people. One of my main tasks is the maintenance and repair of the dioramas. Many people, of all ages, want to know if what they see in a diorama is real or not. The temptation to reach in and just test a blade of grass, flower, or a leaf on a tree is enticing. Sometimes, damages occur as a result. Then it’s time for repairs.
Along the fence of the rye field diorama is a thin section of prairie. All the tall grasses and flowers are within reach of visitors, and over time, the combination of accidental and intentional handling had led to the degradation of this section of the diorama. What was once a tall grass prairie has been beaten down to a matted mass of broken, unrecognizable stems.
Knowing where to collect the plant materials, receiving permission to collect in that area, ensuring what I’m collecting isn’t endangered nor threatened, and then processing the plant materials to preserve them is only the first step in repairing the damage. Once the plant material is preserved, its original colours have faded, so the plants must be painted “back to life”. Before the plants were even picked, detailed notes on colour are taken so when the plant is painted, it resembles its living counterpart.
Once the plant materials are painted, then it’s time for the repairs.
This piece of the diorama has been removed from along the fence that is easily accessible to visitors. The foam base had been painted a dirt colour, and originally it had clumps of tall grasses and flowers. But now, the plant material lies broken.
I removed all the broken grasses and stems, revealing a few of the original stumps of grass clumps (green arrows). However, these clumps cannot be reused and so must be removed.
All the grass clumps are removed with a hammer and chisel (yellow arrows). Not only would it look unnatural to have broken grass clumps, but a level surface to work with is needed for the repairs. The exposed white ethafoam will have to be painted back to a “dirt” colour.
Here you can see that the exposed ethafoam has been painted a dirt colour and then allowed to dry (blue arrow). In the aluminum trays is a special solution that the grasses are soaking in (orange arrow). The soaked grass clumps are placed in the chiseled out areas. When the solution dries, it dries clear and hard, cementing the grass clumps in place. This will in time have to be removed the same way, with hammer and chisel, as damages build up.
Here is a newly repaired section of prairie, with Little Blue Stem (purple arrow ), Stipa (another type of prairie grass, green arrow) and Slender Goldenrod flowers (grey arrows). Extra dirt was placed between the newly installed grasses, with sun bleached grass debris sprinkled over top.
From start to finish, this one piece took just over 2 hours to repair. In all, there were 9 pieces that had to be repaired in this fashion.
Many of the dioramas are composed of real, once living plant materials that have been responsibly harvested and preserved using different chemicals and techniques. Examples of these types of plants include the aspens in the rye field and elk dioramas and mosses and spruces in the Boreal Gallery. However, the green, living looking plants are made of plastic, such as the many plant species in the wolf den diorama. And then there are combinations, like a real stem but plastic flowers, such as the Black-Eyed Susans in the rye field diorama.
I hope this blog gives you a better understanding of what goes into maintaining the dioramas at the Manitoba Museum.
Post by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator
If you want to see the blood pressure rise in a conservator, display really big, historically significant, breakable objects at least ten feet off the ground. It’s the next phase in our Bringing Our Stories Forward capital gallery renewal project, and the conservation team has moved to treating artifacts for the Winnipeg Gallery set to open in the fall of 2019. The objects going on display are not only monumental in size, but genuine monuments from some of the city’s most iconic architectural buildings.
Remember the second old city hall? For anyone born after 1962, probably not, as this was the year the building was demolished. But that’s OK! Before the wrecking ball came crashing down to make way for the new modern city hall, the museum was given two large stained glass windows that stood above the main entryways. These beautiful stained glass objects measure approximately nine feet wide by four feet tall and weigh a little over 100 pounds. Being so large, and obviously fragile in nature, you can see why a conservator, who repairs artifacts daily, becomes hesitant when they are handed design drawings of one of these windows being displayed above the entrance to the new Winnipeg Gallery.
So what’s the big deal? No matter the size, all artifacts are prone to deterioration. The issue that was assessed for our chosen window is that over the last one hundred years the glass on the window has begun to slump and a visible concave shape has formed in the object, as well as several cracks and some areas of loss. In order to reverse this damage, we teamed up with Prairie Studio Glass who will help us with the restoration process. The first big step was moving the nine foot wide window from our basement storage, to the loading dock, onto a trailer and safely transported to Prairie Studio Glass’s workshop twelve blocks away where they can begin to dismantle each piece before putting it back together again – did I mention that this all needed to be done without causing more damage?
Moving the stained glass window out of basement storage. © Manitoba Museum
Our second big artifact preparation is what we like to call the Eaton’s lintel. This structure once resided on Portage Avenue as part of the exterior facade of the downtown Eaton’s department store (1905 – 2003), which after demolition became the home of our beloved Winnipeg Jets. Spanning seventeen feet in length, weighing approximately 5,000 pounds, composed of 17 separate limestone blocks, and three brass fixtures, it is the largest and heaviest artifact going into the new gallery. Currently located in our off-site storage facility, groundwork for this object will include construction of an engineered mount to support the weight of stones, pre-assembly of all the pieces (to make sure everything fits!) and general cleaning of the limestone and brass surfaces.
Once this is complete the lintel will be moved to the museum, carted across the galleries and installed in its new home. Again, a lot of moving around here!
No matter the size of the artifact, as a conservator we are always up for the challenge of preserving our biggest or littlest objects. Stay tuned for part two of this blog which will capture some of the treatment work performed on both of these monumental pieces.
Post by Karen Sereda, Collections Registration Associate (Natural History)
The incredible diversity of the Museum’s herbarium can only be credited to the dedicated collectors of botanical specimens, both modern and historical. Recently, while updating some herbarium specimens, I came across some plants in our collection dating from the early part of the 20th century. The importance of these specimens cannot be emphasized enough, as many of them come from locations that are no longer the same as when these collectors visited them. The stories of many of these early Manitoba collectors are fascinating.
John Macoun immigrated with his family to Canada from Ireland in 1850. Being unsatisfied with farming, John took up teaching in 1856 and developed an obsessive interest in botany. Although he had little formal education he became a Professor of Botany and Geology in Ontario in 1868, and in 1872 was recruited for railway surveys in the west. Due largely to his efforts, natural history came to be regarded as an important aspect of these surveys.
John published extensively, and his 1882 publication “Manitoba and the Great North-west” was wildly popular. It was as a botanical field naturalist, however, that Macoun’s abilities shone.
He was able to recognize new plant forms at first sight, and discovered many new species. Many of these were named after him using the specific epithet macounii.
In 1875, William Alfred Burman was persuaded to immigrate to Canada at the age of 18. He studied theology and the natural sciences at university, and in 1880 was sent by the Anglican church to Griswold, now the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, to teach and establish a mission.
While there, he became fluent in and wrote about the language of the Dakotas. As well, he helped to found the Forestry and Horticultural Association of Manitoba which still promotes horticulture on the prairies. Burman later returned to Winnipeg to lecture in botany and biblical literature, plus act as the steward and bursar for St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba. He had a high opinion of both John Macoun and Norman Criddle (to be discussed in Part 2), two amateur, yet extremely competent botanists. Burman was an avid nature lover, and was also an examiner in botany at the University of Manitoba for many years.
Reginald Buller was an eccentric man. Although he went by Reginald, his full name was actually Arthur Henry Reginald Buller.
He was hired by the University of Manitoba in 1904, and the Buller Building is named after him. One of the first six science professors, he taught botany and mycology, and was a prolific researcher.
A perpetual bachelor despite the interests of various women, he never owned a house in Winnipeg, but lived in various downtown hotels his 40 years in Manitoba. Buller was a serious billiards player, and also wrote poetry. He especially enjoyed writing limericks such as this one he based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light.
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned home the previous night.
If you are interested in more information about Buller, you can read this article by Dr. Gordon Goldsborough.
Part 2 features the next generation of Manitoba botanists; Norman Criddle, Charles W. Lowe, and Margaret G. Dudley.
Post by Angela May, Conservation Intern
The Collections and Conservation Department hosted Angela May on her 15 week curriculum-based internship between September and December 2018. This internship was the final requirement for Fleming College’s Graduate Certificate in Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management.
Before artifacts go on exhibition in the galleries, they come to the conservation lab for assessment and treatment if necessary. Recently I began work on preparing artifacts for the upcoming exhibition, Strike 1919: Divided City, including a streetcar sign. The sign consists of iron, glass and painted fabric. When it came into the lab the metal was corroded and dirty, the glass was covered in dust, and the two rolls of numbers painted on fabric were coated in dirt and many of the numbers had yellow staining.
In order to address these issues the sign first had to be taken apart so that each component could be worked on separately. This was done carefully, without causing any further damage, and also documented to make sure it could be put back correctly when completed.
First, the loose dirt and dust was removed from the iron frame using a brush and vacuum. Some packing peanuts that were caught on the interior of the frame were also removed using tweezers. Next, a fibreglass bristle brush was used to gently remove corrosion from the frame. It was a slow process to remove the corrosion from all sides of both the exterior and interior of the frame, the front of the metal straps that held the glass in place, as well as each little screw that fastened the straps to the frame.
Because the back sides of the metal straps holding in the glass were unpainted, I was able to use the air abrasive machine with plastic media to more easily and quickly lift the corrosion from these pieces.
Once all of the corrosion had been loosened. I again brushed and vacuumed the artifact to lift the dust that had formed from the corrosion being removed. I then “degreased” or lifted the rest of the corrosion still left on the surface with saliva and cotton swabs. The enzymes from the saliva help to lift the corrosion without damaging the painted surface like some solvents would. Science!
This took many, many swabs!
Next I began work on the textile number rolls which were covered in dirt and stains (some of the black paint was also lifting). To lift the dirt, cosmetic and soot sponges were used until they came up clean. Water and Orvus, a near-neutral pH anionic detergent, were tested on the surface to see if the yellow stains could also be lifted, but the paint was soluble in water so no further interventions were pursued.
Finally it was time to clean the glass. To do this, a bath of room temperature water was combined with Orvus until suds were just beginning to form. The glass was placed in the bath and a soft brush was used to wipe off the dust. The glass was then rinsed and the process repeated for a second time. During the second rinse, distilled water with a few drops of acetone were used so that no residues would be left behind on the surface and so that the glass would dry a bit faster.
It was now time to reassemble the artifact. The numbers were rolled back up and fitted back into their slots and the glass with the metal straps screwed back into place.
And there you have it, one clean and rust free (for the most part) streetcar sign. You can see this artifact in the upcoming Strike 1919: Divided City exhibition, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike opening in March 2019.
Post by Nancy Anderson, Collections Management Associate (Human History)
Visitors to the Manitoba Museum are currently enjoying two hockey themed exhibitions – Hockey: The Stories Behind our Passion from the Canadian Museum of History and Manitoba Heart of Hockey developed and produced by the Manitoba Museum. Both exhibitions examine the meaning of hockey in the lives of Canadians as players and their families, coaches, officials, broadcasters, and fans.
One person who literally helps to keep the game running smoothly is the skate sharpener. A trained operator can optimize a player’s performance by skillfully honing the pitch and contour of the blade to match their stride and style. Recently, the Manitoba Museum received a donation of an early skate sharpening machine along with the sign for “Vimy Skate Sharpening” run by Allan Merko.
Allan Merko was a Canadian lad with a passion for hockey. Times were tight growing up in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, so Allan collected bottles to cash in for the deposit in order to pay for his basic equipment – skates, gloves and a stick. After a move to Ethelbert, he played centre for the Ethelbert Eagles and later the Sabres wearing jersey No. 9. His skill and speed on the ice earned him the nickname “Squirrel”. Later, he would take up coaching the younger Ethelbert Oilers team and teach power skating. His daughter fondly remembers growing up as a ‘rink rat’ and hanging out with her dad.
Allan was more than just a player and coach. He also operated the Zamboni and created and maintained the ice at the Ethelbert Arena. Sometimes he flooded the ice between periods in full hockey gear while his team rested in the dressing room! Being mechanically inclined, Allan taught himself how to sharpen skates on an unused machine in the arena thus saving local skaters a 125 km round trip to Dauphin.
Following a move to Winnipeg in the late 1990s, he set himself up in the skate sharpening business at the Vimy Arena in St. James. His love of the game shone through in the service he provided to his customers. Al, as he was known, always remembered their names and preferences. One young customer sent him a note at the end of the season – “Thank you for sharpening my skates all year and thanks for taking an interest in my ringette. I had a great time at Nationals”. Al took the time to listen to parents tell stories of their children’s accomplishments. One mom recalled he would offer “the warmest of hugs especially when …I was run ragged during hockey season.” Sadly, Al passed away in 2012 which coincided with the last year of operation for the Vimy Arena.
The contact between blade and ice sets hockey and ringette apart from other team sports. In arenas and sporting shops across the county, it is the skill of the operator at the skate sharpening machines that keeps the players skating their best.