Reflections on “Ask a Curator Day”

By Melissa Cole, Curator

You might be asking, what exactly is “Ask a Curator” day?  It started a decade ago with the intention of giving the public access to experts who work in museums, galleries, and heritage sites through the use of social media.  Initially the event started on Twitter; since then it has extended to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and more.

From the first year this online event started, it has proven to be popular, attracting cultural, heritage, and science institutions from across the world! 

Here are a few questions that were asked and my responses!  If you wish to view the Facebook Live event you can view it on the Oshawa Museum’s Facebook Page.

What COVID-19 artefact do you think will fascinate people 100 years from now? And why?

The inspiring move when local breweries stopped beer production and turned over to making hand sanitizer to help fight COVID-19.  Initially, All or Nothing Brewhouse in Oshawa started producing exclusively for local hospitals, front-line emergency workers, and major utility companies.  A can of All or Nothing Brewhouse’s Hand Sanitizer was the first COVID-19 related object to be acquired for the Oshawa Museum’s collection.

What’s the weirdest thing in your collection?

I can’t focus on just one artefact in particular, but rather a collection of artefacts.  I have two collections which many may find weird, but they are also fascinating!  Our Farewell Cemetery Collection which contains coffin jewellery, the decorative hardware used on coffins. 

The other collection is our extensive medical collection, which was used a few different doctors in the Oshawa community prior to the opening of the hospital; when surgeries took place in the home, a kitchen table would have made a great make-shift operating table.  Many of the instruments resemble the tools that are still used today but there are a few which have thankfully…changed with the times. 

Do you have a particular Henry Family member that you like best?

The youngest child of Thomas and Lurenda is Jennie (Lorinda Jane) Henry.  I have been fortunate to meet her granddaughter, who spent time in Jennie Henry’s home when she resided on Agnes Street (I said Elgin Street during our Facebook live).  She shared stories with me about the home and has donated various items related to Jennie and her husband, John Luke McGill. 

Have you ever broken an artefact?

Yes I have, and of course it was an artefact that once belonged to Thomas Henry, of Henry House.  I broke his tea cup accidently because it had been left in a hutch that was being moved.  Many of the large furniture pieces in Henry House are used to store smaller items such as china cups and saucers, other chinaware, stoneware, vases, glassware, and many other artefacts related to the household.  Fortunately, I was able to repair the china cup because of my collection care training that was provided the Museum Management and Curatorship program offered through Fleming College.     

Curator advice: MAKE SURE ALL ARTEFACTS ARE REMOVED EBFORE MOVING A HUTCH!

What is your favourite tool?

I have three tools….beside my computer that assist me greatly with my work on exhibitions and with collections.  My squeegee tool, measuring tape (make sure to measure three times), and 3M Command Strips that have saved so many wall repairs.  The walls of Robinson House thank us each time we use them because the walls in this house are made from lath and plaster.   

ArteFACTS: Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Coach, 1933

By Melissa Cole, Curator

The artefact featured in today’s blog post is one of the Oshawa Museum’s recent acquisitions.  I was hoping that this artefact could be included in our latest exhibition Celebrating 60: Sixty Years of Collecting unfortunately the coach is very fragile and does require some conservation work before it is placed on display for a period of time.  Although anyone that attends our Exhibition Opening next week will get an opportunity to view the coach as it will be on display, for one week only, along with the original plans and instructions for building the coach.

So what exactly was the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild, and what was its purpose?

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Fisher Body was an automobile coachbuilder founded by the Fisher Brothers in 1908 in Detroit Michigan.  By the 1920s, the Fisher Body Company had become one of the biggest and best known suppliers of automobile bodies in North America.  General Motors acquired the majority of the holdings of the Fisher Body Company in the early 1920s.  By 1926, General Motors turned the company into its main coach-building factory.   One of the obstacles that General Motors faced at the time was the lack of designers available for hire.

Starting in the 1930s, The Fisher Body Company in Detroit, in conjunction with General Motors in Detroit and Oshawa where the Canadian Headquarters was located, ran a series of competitions in design and styling for teenage students.  In the early years of the competition, contestants ordered a set of model plans to build a Napoleonic Carriage which was the signature logo of the company.

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The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild became the major recruiting tool for young artistic talent.  Each year twenty-four scholarships were awarded to boys between the ages of 12 and 16 in Canada and the United States.  These scholarships ranged in value from $500 up to $5000 in 1933.

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The Oshawa Museum has one of the earliest surviving Napoleonic carriages from the Guild competition in Canada.  This particular model was submitted for competition in 1933 by Floyd Hembruff.   When this carriage was submitted for donation to the Oshawa Museum it was accompanied by the original plans, contest rules, model diagrams and cut outs with assembly instructions.  The coach itself is 46 cm long, with the tongue added the total length is 71cm, the height is 28 cm and the width is 23 cm.  The finished model weighs about 7 pounds (3 Kg).

By 1938, with the increasing interest in car styling, the Craftsman’s Guild introduced a new category – designing and building a model car. The interest in the car design competition was so overwhelming that the Napoleonic Coach was dropped. By 1968, when the Craftsman’s Guild was concluded, over 8.7 million youths had enrolled over the life of the competition, millions of dollars in Awards had been given and many lives had been touched – some profoundly. Thru the years, the Craftsman’s Guild represented rock-solid values. Young men learned that perseverance was essential and that hard work paid off. They enjoyed a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from a constructive and positive activity – plus the joy of working with their hands and mind to create their very own design.

Many scholarships are given each year to young people with outstanding athletic ability or outstanding scholastic record.  What made the Craftsman’s Guild unique was recognition and reward for young people with outstanding creative ability.  Many of the winners went on to become designers themselves and others such as Floyd Hembruff became Mayor of his community and founding partner of a respected construction company in Matheson Ontario, Hembruff & Dambrowitz Construction Ltd. which built extensively throughout Northern Ontario.

Meet the Museum: Melissa Cole, Curator

The focus of this blog series is the staff of the Oshawa Museum and their role at the site.  What does it mean to the archivist or curator at a community museum?  What goes on behind the scenes in the Programming office?  What is Executive Director Laura Suchan’s favourite memory of the Museum? 

Join us and see what happens behind the doors of Guy House.

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Melissa Cole, Curator

What do you do at the Oshawa Museum?

Hi my name is Melissa Cole and I am the Curator at the Oshawa Museum.  This is not the first position I held here at the museum.  In 2000 I was an intern in the archives with the previous archivist, Tammy Robinson.  Shortly after the internship finished a job opportunity became available in the programming department which is where I worked until I became Curator in 2002.  My main duties as Curator is to oversee the care of the three dimensional artifacts in the collection from our smallest artifact, a bead from the Grandview Archaeology Collection, to our largest artifacts, the museum buildings, Guy, Henry and Robinson.  I also research, develop and install exhibits, write grants and oversee the administration of the collection.  A lot of what I do takes place behind the scenes.

 

Why did you choose this career?

I love learning about the past and discovering where we have come from.  As a child I was fortunate that my parents took me to various museums throughout Ontario and was able to spend time with family in England and Wales where we visited castles and historic sites.  One particular visit that stands out the most was a visit to a museum called Llancaich Fawr Manor.   I was chosen from the crowd and put in a costume that represented the time period of the home.  I was that child that wondered what was behind the closed doors – I wanted to see behind the scenes and that is exactly what I get to do now!

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Melissa, July 1994, in period costume at Llancaich Fawr Manor, with a tour guide

 

What is your favourite part of your job?

There are many aspects of my job that I love.  I love my job because each day is different, one day I am installing an exhibition and the next I am meeting with paranormal investigators.  Another aspect of my job that I love is discovering the stories behind the artifacts in our collection and being transported back in time.  Who knew a broom could have such a remarkable story.

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Melissa, in the Robinson House storage area, with our Rebellion Box

 

What do you find most challenging?

Balancing all my projects which have varying degrees of importance.  There is only so much time in a day and I find it challenging at times to tend to the administration duties while trying to give the truly important things, such as the collection, the time and effort that it deserves.

 

How did you get into the museum field?

I have a degree in Anthropology from Trent University.  In my first year, I will be honest, I wasn’t sure where my anthropology degree was going to lead me.   I initially wanted to teach.  During one of our lectures a Professor came out to discuss a joint program between Trent University and Sir Sandford Fleming College called Museum Management and Curatorship.  I knew at that moment that is what I wanted to do.  I was ecstatic!  I basically chased Professor Harrison around for four years of university, I know it sounds silly but I kinda did!  I immediately set up an appointment with her to find out more about the program.  I must have made an impression over the years because she actually contacted me at home during the summer of ‘99 to inform me that I had been accepted into the program.

 

What is your earliest memory of the Oshawa Museum?

I grew up in Oshawa; I am the Curator of my hometown’s history!  I remember coming to the museum on a class trip in grade three, it was then known as the Sydenham Museum.  Although my fondest memories of the museum are associated with Lakeview Park (where the buildings stand) – I spent a lot of time at this park as a child with my dad during the summer we would walk the path and I would ask every time if I could play at the park.   Out of the three buildings, Henry House is the one I remember most because I wanted to live there – it also stands beside the park where I played!   Today my office window looks over the lake and the park that I have fond memories of and Henry House does feel like my home away from home.