You can find all sorts of weird stuff in the back room of a museum.
Take the Musée Héritage Museum in St. Albert, for example. You’ll find the usual pots, pans, radios, chairs and concertinas in amongst the dark, draped shelves of its storage room – pretty much everything that people used in their lives, explains curator Joanne White – but you’ll also spot stone cannonballs, stuffed swans, stereoscopic cameras and the entire contents of a watchmaker’s shop.
And then there’s the glass fire extinguisher.
White hoists the C-26 AutoFyrStop fire extinguisher out of its cotton-lined box. It’s a grapefruit-sized glass bulb filled with a clear liquid.
“We’re not quite sure what’s in it,” she says, but back in the early 1900s, you were supposed to lob this glass grenade at a fire and hope the piddling amount of liquid in it would put the fire out when it broke. It’s a very unusual piece, and museum staff know little about it.
It’s a curiosity from the past, one of the many that sits in storage until they go on exhibit to tell their tales.
“We try really hard to bring out as much as we can,” White says, but many artifacts never see the light of day.
That’s true for a lot of the stuff now in the private storage room at the Vital Grandin Centre on Mission Hill, says archivist Diane Lamoureux, who keeps track of it. They’ve got syllabic typewriters, old church doors, candles and chalices – even a nine-foot-long narwhal tusk.
The tusk was collected by the Oblates from Igloolik, Nunavut, around 1961, she says, and ended up here at some point. The Oblates haven’t decided what to do with it.
“What do you do with a narwhal tusk?” Lamoureux wondered.
Strange tales from another time
Margot Brunn has seen hundreds of strange artifacts like that tusk at the Royal Alberta Museum in her 25 years as a conservator. There are probably a million artifacts in that museum’s collection, she says, any one of which could be considered odd.
Just last week, for example, she had a well-worn accordion, a cork-carved pagoda and some vintage Second World War rations in her conservation lab.
“The biscuits we could probably keep,” she says of the latter. “The sardines are not restorable.”
Museums used to collect anything interesting or old, White says, but most now stick to a specific topic – St. Albert, in the musée’s case.
“Ideally, it’d be something that told a story that has to do with St. Albert,” she said.
Sometimes they’ll get items that they know virtually nothing about, Brunn says, but are too valuable to throw out.
The Royal Alberta Museum got this 1860s-era mirror as part of a huge collection of clothes years ago, she says as an example. It’s got a rich, turquoise-coloured velvet back and is surrounded by fruits and vines made of leather.
“It’s very unusual,” she says, “a work of art and craft that probably no one could replicate nowadays.”
The museum will probably never display it, she adds, since it’s unknown who made it, how it was used or where it came from. But because someone could eventually discover these details, they have to preserve it.
One of the odder items in the Oblate’s collection is the prosthetic arm of Brother Antoine Kowalczyk. A lightweight construct of wood, leather and metal, it’s occasionally been shown in the musée, but usually sits in storage.
Born in Poland in 1886, Kowalczyk became a full member of the Oblates (a Brother) in 1899 in St. Albert. He lost an arm in a sawmill accident in 1897, which is why he had the prosthesis.
Kowalczyk spent much of his life as mechanic, driver, gardener and porter at the Saint-Jean Juniorate, which is now the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean.
“He lived a very simple life,” Lamoureux says, and was known for his devotion to the Virgin Mary – his nickname was Brother Ave (as in Ave Maria).
While he was at prayer, students at the seminary would often come to him with troubles or sorrows, ones that would mysteriously disappear when he listened to them and said, “Let us say an Ave,” historians note.
Kowalcyzk is still popular around the Campus Saint-Jean, where there is an ongoing effort to have him canonized, Lamoureux says. His grave in St. Albert is a popular tourist attraction.
Preserving the past
Every object has at least an hour of story in it, Brunn says – you could talk for hours just on the history of the materials used in a common pen, not to mention its owners and how it came to a museum.
But these stories all share a common enemy: time. Museums not only have to collect strange objects, but also preserve them until their tales can be told.
The leather on that 1860s-era mirror is cracked and brittle, Brunn notes as an example, and already has bits of vine and leaf falling off. The cork pagoda is crumbling, and has such fine detail that it’s almost impossible to fix – she’s been working on it for a year and still isn’t sure how to safely repair it.
Artifacts typically suffer from two types of damage: physical, such as broken bits; and chemical, such as colour changes from light or pollution, Brunn notes.
Conservation starts with a look at what an object is made of, White says.
“Something that’s made out of stone is not going to be as fragile as something that’s made out of silk,” she said.
Then you run through its vulnerabilities (light? shock? mould? bugs?) and come up with a protection system.
The musée’s storage room is designed to guard against many threats. Temperature and humidity controls prevent desiccation and mould, while powder-coated metal shelves keep harmful chemicals from off-gassing. Acid-free boxes guard against other reactions. Plastic sheets on the shelves help curators spot insects, while sheets over the shelves block out dust and light.
Some artifacts need exceptional protection. The Royal Alberta Museum once built individual humidity controlled Plexiglas vaults for some European paintings in 2000, says White. The U.S. National Archives keeps the Declaration of Independence behind UV-filtered glass in an airtight, argon-filled environment. Other precious items might be kept under refrigeration or behind vault doors.
Other times, it’s people who need protection from the artifacts. Brunn has a glass grenade similar to the musée’s in her lab, for example, but this one is filled with deadly carbon tetrachloride. Museum staff will have to carefully drill a hole in it to drain this fluid without cracking the glass before they can display it.
Any step taken to fix or store an artifact must be carefully researched, as a wrong choice could erase history forever.
The Royal Alberta Museum has two documents written on birch bark made in honour of the 50th anniversary of Father Lacombe’s ordination in 1899, Lamoureux says as an example. At some point, someone had the great idea of putting shellac on it to preserve it.
The results were disastrous.
“It turned an awful dark yellow-brown colour, and it made the writing on the birch bark very hard to read,” she says. “It’ll never be 100 per cent (again).”
People really connect with objects, which can give us physical links to the past, White says. A glass fire extinguisher seems silly today, but would have been high tech back in the days of bucket brigades.
“If you come into a museum and you see something that belongs to someone in your family … it immediately gives you a connection to that history, and it’s a very, very powerful feeling,” she said.
That’s why museums keep all this odd stuff in their back rooms.
“What do you do with a prosthetic arm?” Lamoureux asks, referring to Brother Antoine’s. “You keep it, preserve it, and at some point, hopefully, there will be a plan to do something that reflects Brother Antoine and the work he did.”