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The secret lives of chairs

New museum exhibit features chairs of all shapes and sizes, and from all eras of St. Albert’s history


Sit Down and I’ll Tell You a Story

Until Sunday, Nov. 17

Musée Héritage Museum in St. Albert Place

Household objects can tell stories about the time that they existed in, the purposes that they filled, and even the people who used them.

It’s true, even though it seems like a funny concept when you first walk into the Musée Héritage Museum’s new exhibit that is all about chairs – chairs of all shapes and sizes and from all eras of St. Albert’s history.

“We're always trying to think of collections and items that we have that people haven't seen that we want to bring out and tell stories,” explained Joanne White, curator at the museum. “Some of them have individual stories that don't necessarily fit into a larger narrative easily, so we pulled together all of these items, which are completely individual stories, but all tied together.”

As it turns out, chairs make as fine a theme for a history exhibit as any other. If some chairs could talk they would probably tell some amazing stories about the people who sat in them. Take the first chair that you find when you walk into the exhibit, for instance.

It’s a fine oak chair with a leather seat that looks official and authoritative for a very good reason. It was in service for several decades in the assembly room of the Alberta legislature. Starting with the first sitting in March of 1906, this chair held up successive local members of the legislative assembly through long meetings and intense debates as one of the real seats of government. Its first occupant was St. Albert’s first MLA Henry McKenney and its last was Ernie Jamison, the former owner of the St. Albert Gazette who began his political career in 1971 just as the chair was ending its service life there. He donated it to the Musée Héritage Museum; however, the 113-year-old piece of furniture on castors is actually still in focus where it is on loan at the Edmonton Public School Board Museum and Archives located in McKay Avenue School, the same place where legislators of the new province of Alberta first met before the Legislature Building was ready for business in 1912.

“We've had it on loan to them for a long time because they've got a number of them there. It was more accessible to the public in its original situation.”

Right next to Jamison’s wheeled chair is another elegant and stately seat, which is an actual wheelchair that was used by John (Joseph) Belcourt, a local freighter who was born in Lac Ste. Anne in the 1880s. He was frequently infirm and had progressively poorer use of his legs in his later years. Thankfully, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal had been in St. Albert since 1863 running a convent school but later became well known for their health care services. Sister Zoe Leblanc-Emery was the first public health and home care nurse in Alberta. Belcourt sought help from the Grey Nuns and received this chair most likely in the 1930s.

That isn’t the only piece with a connection to that charitable order.

“We recently got quite a large donation of furniture from the Grey Nuns from their Edmonton offices but these were pieces that were on the hill,” White continued, showing off an antique wooden bench that likely would have given cause, for whoever carried it, to later complain of back strain. It sits next to a chair that, through an engineering feat of transformation, turns into a short stepladder.

Possibly the oldest 'chair' in the collection is a Blackfoot backrest “which is quite lovely and spectacular” that dates back to the 1870s. The oldest object that people could sit on, however, is a chamber pot that was around at the time of Canada’s confederation in 1867. The pot (and its mismatched lid made by another manufacturer in 1880) was used by the Oblates.

Perhaps more approachable in the exhibit are the chairs from two different periods of the Bruin Inn. They smell less like beer after all these years and possibly more like sweat, leather and faded memories. It might be enough to spark those memories anew but please remember that you can’t sit on the chairs and also that the museum is not a licenced establishment.

Another seat in the show that might bring other fond memories back includes an old salon chair complete with the over-the-head dome hair dryer. It’s next to another piece from a bygone era: the high chair from the Chevigny family back in the 1930s. Cheri Chevigny and Vera (née Perrot) Chevigny had twin girls, Joan and June, who were astonishingly born three days apart in July 1939, leading to news reports being spread across the region.

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ecology and Environment Reporter at the Fitzhugh Newspaper since July 2022 under Local Journalism Initiative funding provided by News Media Canada.
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