Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Lord Save Us from the Et Cetera of the Notaries"

For millennia archivists have struggled with the question of how to appraise and preserve an archival record of local, unwritten custom. The British historian E.P. Thompson, in an effort to explain why respectable local citizens would blacken their faces and poach the King’s deer, [i.e. the origins of the 18th century Black Act] and concluded that the common experiences of local custom supported resistance to the King’s expanding forests. As Thompson famously wrote, “at the interface of land and law is custom.” Common custom, he concluded, was a kind of unwritten ambience.
Similarly, when the French monarchy expanded across northern Europe in the 13th century, jurists attempted to incorporate the indigenous, unwritten customs of independent communities. To accommodate this “law of the land” jurists with some knowledge of customary law, known as coutumiers, travelled across rural France documenting local laws in a process that eventually produced the French Code Civil and ultimately the template for the Civil Code of Québec. The coutumiers shared a common problem. How to document a living custom known only by oral tradition? Medieval scholar Philippe de Beaumanoir in his famous work, Coutume de Beauvaisis summarized the need to capture in text, practices known only in unwritten custom:

It is my opinion, and others as well, that for all the customs which are currently used, are good and profitable, to be written down and registered, so that they be maintained without change, for memories are fallible and peoples’ lives are short, and what is not written is completely forgotten
But coutumiers believed it was not enough to document local custom, the custom must be authentic to be trusted. Once again in the long history of archives, we find a primary goal underscored: to preserve records in a manner both authentic and reliable. To produce trustworthy records from oral testimony the coutumiers turned to a device from Roman Law: the Enquête par turbe. The enquete is a tribunal co-opting the elders of a community to derive a common custom on a subject.

Several wise men, in good repute, are to be called.... The custom having been proposed, they are to declare and honestly transmit what they know and believe and have seen to be the practice …. Upon the swearing of an oath, they are to stand off to the side, deliberate, and communicate their deliberations...

In the enquête par turbe Renaissance French jurists offer us an example of western law trying to apply textual parameters of legal reason around local cultures built on complex personal relationships of land and unwritten heritage. A common expression of the period summarized the perspective of regional French communities experiencing the enfolding French national constitutional program and their loss of cultural authority: “Lord save us from the et cetera of the notaries.”
Once safely recorded on paper, regional custom was secured in an archives and incorporated into national law. Charles DuMoulin, Parisian jurist and advocate for documenting unwritten heritage explained the purpose in discussing the documentation of the local common customs surrounding Paris:
 The text of these customs…have been rendered the most accurate possible. They are useful to reference the original custom, and should be deposited in registers, either in the Parliament of Paris, or in courts and administrative offices of the kingdom. They can even be conserved in specialized libraries and cabinets... they can be referred to in innumerable [circumstances] to reconstruct the verbal process. 
Centuries later, Sir James Douglas was confronted with a challenge not unlike the coutumier: to attempt to reconcile and incorporate indigenous custom into the assimilating textual form of colonial governance. One of his earliest efforts to document the unwritten traditions of First Nations came in the form of the Doulgas Treaties. Since Douglas’s efforts, not unlike the French coutumiers, we have witnessed numerous attempts to document the relationship between local indigenous custom, law and confederation. To what degree did Douglas and his contemporaries capture and articulate the unwritten land practices of indigenous peoples is best summarized by Wilson Duff’s pithy characterization of the Douglas Treaties as “innocent legal fictions”. This type of recognition and reconciliation continues today in the form of  projects such as the BC Treaty Commission.

Raymond Frogner,
Royal BC Museum

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Somethings Never Change

From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer, Royal BC Museum

I’ve been thinking about Christmas since July – not because I am a Christmas fanatic, but because that’s when I started working on revisions for our Christmas school program at Helmcken House. Kids from kindergarten to grade two come to learn about Christmas traditions, foods, gifts and games at the turn of the last century. During my research, I looked at a lot of advertisements from the Victoria Daily Colonist, now known as the Times Colonist – a local newspaper that has been in print since 1858.

Often when people imagine Christmas 100 years ago, they picture simpler times, with homemade gifts and decorations and food preserved from the garden. There was that, but as the newspaper will attest, there were electric Christmas tree lights, big bargains for last minute shoppers, imported food and visits with Santa Claus too!

Victoria Daily Colonist, December 24, 1908

Victoria Daily Colonist, December 22, 1907

Victoria Daily Colonist, December 15, 1900

As for toys, a letter from Alexander Grant Dallas to his father in law Governor Sir James Douglas, sent in 1876, sums up what every generation seems to think:

“According to your wish I gave Xmas gifts…to the children, to the amount of £8 - £1 each all round. The present age is so fast and so different to that when I was their age that it is not easy to satisfy them. They ask for watches, steam engines, bicycles etc, but I try to repress this folly and give them books, or anything I think that may be really useful.” (Christmas in Old Victoria, John Adams, Firgrove Publishing, 2003, page 51)

Hopefully, what will never change is that the holidays continue to be a time of people getting together, eating and playing. You may even wish to make a visit to Helmcken House part of your Christmas tradition when in Victoria. Stop by from December 17-31 between noon and 4 pm. See for yourself what has changed and what has stayed the same.

(Helmcken House, the Royal BC Museum and the IMAX Theatre are closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Jim Ryan Fonds

Big Jim Ryan in action at Swiftsure,  Victoria B.C.
For the last few years at the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives we have been talking about cold storage.  One of our goals is to acquire or build a facility for records and other materials that require cool and cold storage.  On the archives side, this mostly means negatives, both nitrate and acetate, slides and transparencies, prints, Polaroids and motion picture film.  Without appropriate storage, these are at risk to anything from colour fading to complete disintegration.
With over 5 million photographs in the BC Archives alone, this is no small task. In December 2010 Archives staff began the arrangement, description and safe housing of over 100,000 photographs that made up the Jim Ryan fonds in preparation for the eventual move into a cold storage facility. 
Jim Ryan was a well-known Victoria character who settled in Victoria, BC in 1949 and joined the Daily Colonist as a full-time newspaper photographer.  He was fired in late 1953 but given a freelance position.  Jim received a weekly retainer from the Colonist in exchange for first choice of his photographs in the paper.  He also had photograph published in Life, the Vancouver Sun, the Province, Liberty, the Toronto Star Weekly and Maclean's.
In 1955, Jim became a friend of, and official photographer to, Premier W.A.C. Bennett.  He took thousands of photographs of Bennett and in 1980 published a book of them entitled "My Friend, W.A.C. Bennett."  Jim was very successful throughout the 1950's and eventually formed "Ryan Bros. Photo" with his brother, Don.  They handled weddings and portraits as well as news assignments and political work.  They also branched out and made films about Victoria's centennial celebrations in 1962 and BC's centennial celebrations in 1971. 
In 1973, Jim joined the Victorian, a small paper which had a brief boom during a printing strike. He stayed with the paper until it closed in November 1977.  He continued to freelance for other papers and magazines and worked on various books of photographs.  Jim died of cancer on July 4th 1998 in a Victoria hospice.

Three staff members and one intern worked on the two large and complex accessions for seven months. The collection was originally housed in various boxes, with rusty paper clips, degrading elastic bands and acidic envelopes holding negatives. Each box was opened, sorted, counted, placed into new envelopes and information from the original source was transferred. Photographs were arranged according to Jim Ryan’s own filing system and described using our new collections management system.  For a while it did seem we would never be finished but the happy day came at last when we put the final labels on sixty-seven boxes of photographic materials. 

Below are a few samples of some reference scans of a few of our favourites of Jim's images, enjoy!

~ Ember Lundgren, Bev Paty & Katy Hughes

Mother Cecelia of the Good Shepherd animal shelter
Photographer: Jim Ryan
Children enjoying winter play

Photographer: Jim Ryan
“Blond Bombshell” aboard HMCS Saskatchewan

Photographer: Jim Ryan
Chivalry in the 1960’s,
Cook and Fort Streets, Victoria B.C.

Photographer: Jim Ryan
W.A.C Bennett at home in Kelowna, B.C.

Photographer: Jim Ryan
Victorians frolicking in an early spring snow

Photographer: Jim Ryan
Wounded, but still on the job!

Photographer: Jim Ryan
Soue Kee, a local businessman, after he was attacked

Photographer: Jim Ryan

Friday, October 28, 2011

Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s National Research Centre Forum

from the desk of
Genevieve Weber

Collections, Research
and Access Services

Royal BC Museu

The roles of archivists are numerous.  This fact is illustrated clearly when archival professionals from places as diverse as Rwanda, Bangladesh and Nunavut all gather in the same room to discuss their varied responsibilities. As Gary Mitchell, Provincial Archivist and Director: Collections, Research and Access Services at the Royal BC Museum says:

The staff at the BC Archives is committed to acquiring, preserving and making accessible the documentary heritage of British Columbia for our citizens and researchers around the world. The work of archivists is vital for ensuring accountability and for supporting understandings and interpretations of British Columbia through the management and retention of its personal, corporate and social memory. 
We embrace the challenges of new information technologies in our ongoing commitment as stewards to this invaluable legacy.  We pride ourselves on providing access to our archival records while balancing our custodial responsibilities of security, integrity, and authenticity.
As Canadians we are privileged to live in a country that believes strongly in the right of citizens to access information and knowledge, while protecting the privacy of individuals.   A recent example of this is evident in the plans of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to create a National Research Centre.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has spent more than a decade working with survivors of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system, conducting interviews and providing a safe environment in which to explore the lasting effects of the system on our society.   The TRC has been leading community events to foster education and communication about the IRS legacy in our country, and working with the Government of Canada and the related church groups to gather documented forms of information.  All information gathered will be made available to the public, subject to privacy laws, and, when requested, respecting individuals’ wishes to keep their statements private. 

Part of the mandate of the TRC is to create a National Research Centre in which to store this collection of documents and statements, and to make the information accessible to all Canadians.  In March of this year, before I started work at the Royal BC Museum, I was privileged to attend the TRC National ResearchForum as a private citizen, joining hundreds of archivists, IRS survivors, and human rights advocates gathered to discuss the options the TRC has for this future centre.  Speakers were invited from all over the world to share their stories of rebuilding and information sharing after natural disasters, war, and human rights violations wiped out all documentation of groups of people or events. 

It would be impossible to select the most inspiring of the speakers, but here are a few that were memorable:

Ann Stevenson, Information Manager, Museum of Anthropology at UBC (MOA), Vancouver 

Close to home in Vancouver, BC, the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN) is an online tool supported by a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant and housed at UBC. The four Co-Developers of the RRN are the Musqueam Indian Band, the Stó:lō Nation and Stó:lō Tribal Council, the U’mista Cultural Society, and the Museum of Anthropology and Laboratory of Archaeology at UBC,. The Royal BC Museum is one of a number of Founding Partner Institutions. It is an interactive and collaborative information sharing source, an innovative way for communities to choose what information is shared, and how it is shared.  Community members can add stories and material, allowing researchers a personal look into the historical and current culture, people, and activities of communities around BC. 

Freddy Mutanguha, Executive Director, Kigali GenocideMemorial, Rwanda 

First opening its doors on the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the Kigali Genocide Memorial acts as a museum and archives of the war in Rwanda, as well as a place of healing for the survivors.  Mutanguha is a young man of great passion, and as a survivor himself, the impact of accessing information about the events that took place in Rwanda and the effects of hearing the stories of others involved is obvious to his listeners.  

Catherine Kennedy, Executive Director, South African HistoryArchive (SAHA), South Africa 
Formed to confront the difficulties South African citizens had in accessing information about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission conducted in 1995 after the abolition of the apartheid system, SAHA works to move information out of the archive and into schools and communities.  SAHA also acts as an advocate for better Freedom of Information policies in South Africa.  

Mofidul Hoque, Trustee and Secretary, Liberation War Museum, Bangladesh
The Liberation War Museum commemorates the struggle for independence in Bangladesh.  As there is a lack of documentation about the war in 1971, part of the museum’s educational program includes encouraging children and youth to interview family members about their experiences and donate the results to the museum.  Their mobile bus exhibit is proof that community outreach is possible on an extremely limited budget. 

Madeleine Redfern, Mayor of Iqaluit, former Executive Director Qikiqtani Truth Commission

Redfern spoke of the importance of documenting both sides of the story: many of the events that took place in the north throughout our country’s history are recorded from the perspective of the colonists.  The opportunity to speak and hear the Inuit version of the past led to greater understanding and, often, a sense of reconciliation and peace amongst the people interviewed.  Having all versions presented together leads to greater knowledge for future generations. 

After three days of information sharing, advice, and relationship building at the National Research Centre Forum, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission now has the task of compiling the knowledge gained and making some tough decisions: Where will the National Research Centre be located?  Will it be a physical space only, designed in the traditional style of museums and archives?  Or will a large component be virtual?  Perhaps a mobile archive will be included?  Whatever the outcome, the important thing is that the information will be made available to all Canadians, allowing this crucial part of our country’s history to be learned and understood.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

To Chaperone or Not To Chaperone?

From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer at the Royal BC Museum

Chaperones are critical to school programs at the museum. they are often required to drive the students to the museum and then once here we ask them to help with the education program. But how? Do the chaperones feel comfortable in their role - if they even know what it is?

There have been many studies on how text, labels and exhibition layout can affect learning, but not so many on the the role and effectiveness of chaperones. During my recent preparation for school program training I've read some interesting case studies including one by Elizabeth Wood. Her 2010 article "Defining the Chaperone's Role as Escort, Educator or Parent" suggests that chaperones behave in these three ways. I have often thought of them as escorts but the idea of treating school program groups more like family groups really struck me.

Considering that chaperones with school program groups are often parents or close family relatives, it seems natural that they would want to interact with the students as well as monitor them. If I were in the gallery interacting with a family I would ask the parents and the children questions and I would also answer questions from the adults while still focusing on the children. Why not do that with school groups?

Chaperones in school program groups can sometimes cause distraction by talking amongst themselves, wandering off or answering questions before students have had time to think about an answer. In school program training this year, I am suggesting to the docents that we welcome chaperones early on - not only as escorts but as participants. Instead of reminding them not to interrupt the program, let's invite them to participate - and when they do participate, let's turn it back to the kids. By acknowledging chaperones and inviting them to learn with us, we may be able to reduce some of the distracting behavior that can take place but more importantly we may be able to increase the learning that happens for everyone in the program.

Have you been a chaperone on a school trip or have you worked with school program groups in a museum? Do you think this approach will work?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Re-imagining History

From the desk of Tim Willis,
Director of Exhibitions
and Visitor Experience

‘Challenge’ is a rather overused term these days – often a euphemism for ‘problem’. But I have to say we have a beauty of a challenge right now.
 We’ve just begun to re-imagine our History Gallery. It’s time. Much of the History Gallery was created in the 1970s and it has been visited by more than 10 million human beings. It is still in great shape and its immersive settings continue to surprise and delight. But we have new stories we’d like to explore and the existing presentation has never really fulfilled its interpretive potential. 
Imagining how to renew this iconic presentation presents a remarkable – and perhaps unique - challenge and some head-scratching questions:

Maintaining the Magic
The 'Old Town' gallery is built with enormous precision and detail. A whole street is perfectly replicated. How do we add a layer of new interpretation without ruining the illusion? 
Old Town’: the detail in the buildings
and their interiors is astonishing 

In the Beginning…
Though the gallery is organized around a general timeline, few visitors are aware of it. Does a chronology help visitors to follow a story and situate themselves? Should we break from this structure and present the gallery as a series of themes?
 The Modern History begins with
Captain Vancouver but few visitors
realize that they are on a
journey through time

Nurse, scalpel please
To achieve a transformation, there needs to be a critical mass of new presentation …not simply a rejuvenation of old displays. So, what parts do we keep… and what needs to go? Do we have the courage to remove large [and surely beloved by someone] elements?
The Exploration Gallery:
a candidate for replacement?

Who’s not invited?
How do we represent the numerous cultural groups that have made British Columbia their home? The very nature of our society and history is cultural diversity. How do we adequately represent everyone who came here to make a new home?
Currently, Chinatown provides a
glimpse into some particular experiences
of Chinese British Columbians

Where are the people?
Though the entire existing gallery is about the endeavors of human beings, it is surprisingly devoid of any sense of human personality. How do we connect people to the real experience of people from the past?
The Majestic Theatre and The Cannery:
both appear to have just been abandoned!

These are just some of the challenging questions our planning team is confronting right now. We’ve a long way to go – though I think it’s the challenge in the true sense of the word that is firing our imagination right now.

I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts as to how we should approach any one of these considerations.

Tim Willis

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Youth in the Service of Age

From the desk 
Conservator at the 
Royal BC Museum

David Douglas was a hard-working Scottish botanist.   When he died, aged 35, he had introduced about 250 North American plants to British gardeners.   In addition to the Douglas Fir, he described 7,000 of the 92,000 plants known to botanists in the early 19th century.  Over eighty plant and animals have douglasii in their scientific names.

Douglas' often requested book of sketches alongside a Pseudotsuga menziesii cone 

He travelled to the Pacific Northwest in 1824 and 1830.  His Book of Sketch maps of a Journey from the Junction of the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers to Quesnel and North, April to May 1833 is in the BC Archives and frequent requests are made by researchers who wish to view or photograph the manuscript maps.  Unfortunately the book is in very poor condition; it is too delicate to travel and photography is difficult because of the damaged binding.  The 25 single-sided pages containing the maps sketched in iron gall ink are relatively stable at the moment, but iron gall ink is notoriously destructive to paper.
We are very fortunate this summer to have Emilie van der Hoorn, an intern from the University of Northumbria (UK) working with paper conservator Betty Walsh.   Emilie has a particular interest in iron gall inks and she tested the pages with Iron Indicator Paper developed by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage.  These revealed that there are loose Fe2+ ions present which will catalyze the degradation of the cellulose; in time the ink will eat through the paper. 
She has proposed that the iron gall ink be treated soon to preserve the relatively good condition of the sketches, and that the remaining pages of the book be washed and de-acidified.  There are two options for treatment.  The least invasive would be to interleave sheets of gelatin impregnated alkaline paper between the inked pages.  These would neutralize acids to a pH at which the gelatin could complex the Fe2+ ions preventing migration of the corroding ink to facing pages, but not preventing acids and ions embedded in the paper from degrading further.  Alternately the pages could be treated with a calcium-phytate method.  Developed by the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed in the Netherlands, this would leave the paper cleaner, probably more supple, deacidified, and with an alkali reserve to counter future acid buildup; ink corrosion would not continue.  The book would have to be taken apart, and rebound after the treatment was complete, however the binding is fairly ordinary and, once apart, the manuscript maps could be better photographed for use by researchers. 

It is always a difficult decision to disassemble an artifact.  Although conservators aim for reversibility in their treatments, in many cases this is impractical.  Conservators also tend to be … conservative, unwilling to experiment with treatments that have not stood the test of time; there are many cases where doing nothing has caused less damage than elaborate “improvements”.  However, the problems with untreated iron gall ink are well known.  

Interns challenge us with their questions, inspire us with fresh ideas from their recent studies, and galvanize us with their youthful energy.  Because of the crush of other projects, treatment of the Douglas Sketchbook will happen after Emilie has returned to her studies, but in the meantime we have all benefitted.  Emilie examined, analyzed and articulated the treatment of a valuable artifact, the Archives received the perspective of two of the leading schools of paper conservation, and the manuscript maps of David Douglas are poised to illuminate future research.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Scavenger hunt

From the desk of
 Sean Rodman

Strategic Partnerships
at the
Royal BC Museum

School hasn't started yet and, as I am writing this, it's raining here in Victoria.  So, what to do with the kids?  Come down to the Royal BC Museum and go on a scavenger hunt! I've taken 5 mystery photos, and attached a few clues to help you out.

Can you figure out where I took these pictures in our galleries?


From his perch high up on the old stone wall,
This raven keeps guard,

Over those entering our hall.

Boots made to order, 
While you listen to the sounds,
All around you in Canada's oldest Chinatown.

Barrels by the shore, all ready to go.
Have a drink in the tavern,
While the sea breezes blow


His home is not in the sky, not on the land.
This whale flies through the air,
- so give him a hand!

It looks like a dino, but don't get it wrong.
This old horse ate grass,

All day long!


Last but not least - a present for you!
Bonus points if you can... 
Identify the poo!

Friday, August 19, 2011

An Acquired Taste

from the desk of
Genevieve Weber

Collections, Research
and Access Services

Royal BC Museu


People often ask me what my favourite part of my job is.  The answer is easy: looking through the records.  I review new acquisitions, decide whether they fit with our mandate, and write proposals recommending whether we should add them to our collections or send them on to a more appropriate repository.  So, a big part of my job is looking through records – before anyone else!  Even better!
The BC Archives collects records relating to the political, business, and social history of British Columbia.  Often people and companies want to donate their records to the Archives, but before we accept them there are a number of things to consider.  For example, do we already have related records?  Were the records created in the province?  Was the creator from the province or did s/he spend a significant amount of time here?  Do the records provide evidence of activities, people, and life in the province?
As I research the records to determine these things, I often find interesting extras tucked in amongst the documents.  The archives generally accepts paper, photographic, audio-visual, cartographic and electronic records, but often other types of objects are included in an acquisition.  When this happens, I have a choice to make: the archives can keep the object and consider it a record; the object can be offered to another part of the museum, such as the Human History department and transferred accordingly; or it can be returned to the donor if it is considered to be irrelevant to the rest of the records.  In the past few months we have found some fascinating items:
  • -      Driftwood painted with the image of a seagull (kept with the records of the B.C. Indian Arts and Welfare Society fonds)
  •         A sad iron from the 19th century (to be returned to the donor as the provenance is unknown and it is unrelated to the records)
  • -      A lock of hair (re-housed and kept with the records – as it was with a letter it is considered to be a part of the correspondence)
  • -      Pince-nez (armless eyeglasses) belonging to a former BC Premier (transferred to Human History)
  • -      A 19th century cash box, used to store the diaries of a former BC Premier (transferred to Human History)
Example of a 19th century
sad iron

Cash box containing: 
diaries and pince-nez case
RBCM 2011.156
Sometimes I determine that the records would be better suited to another institution.  The BC Archives communicates with museums and archives throughout the province and the country to ensure that records are being stored in the most suitable place possible.  This spring we were offered a group of records that I determined would better fit the mandate of the Japanese Canadian National Museum in Burnaby.  The records, although created in BC, were related to a federal activity and therefore would be more suitable in a national institution.  The donor agreed, and the JCNM was thrilled to be the recipient of the donation.  Likewise, a colleague recently called me from Arizona to offer us some records that had been created in BC and which he felt were completely out of his repository’s scope but may fit in ours. 
Once I have determined that the records are related to BC and fit our mandate, I write a proposal to the Collections Committee, which has to approve each new acquisition before it can be added to the collection.  The proposal is jointly written by an archivist and a conservator.  For each item or group of records offered to the Archives, a conservator must ascertain the state of the records.  As the majority of records are paper, the main concerns are mold, bleeding ink, rust from staples or paperclips, disintegrations, etc.  However, there may also be a concern about “red rot”, something that happens to leather book covers, or photographic emulsion peeling back from the images.  Audio-visual records have their own set of conservation issues. 
Archival Conservator Betty Walsh
examining a registry that is part of
a new acquisition

Recently acquired records vary in scope: registers of mining company shareholders; personal photograph albums created by a Victoria teacher and administrator; the private records of politicians from the last two centuries; sketch books with images by a magazine illustrator; corporate records of BC companies and organizations; and commercial photographs taken of events and places around the province.  With so many intriguing records to examine I am constantly setting myself strict timelines – otherwise I would be at risk of spending all my time reading old letters and looking at pictures but never getting any work done! 
Do you like to look through old stuff?  I would love to hear your stories about interesting things you have found – perhaps in a relative’s home or even your own attic!