Library and Archives Canada is displaying some of the treasures from its many collections in a show at the Museum of History called A Little History, which will run until Jan. 27, 2019. It offers a view of the country’s past through the eyes of children in rare archival documents, photographs and artifacts from the collections of both institutions. Before the show opened curator Carolyn Cook answered questions about the show from ARTSFILE.
Q. What is your role in this exhibition and more generally at the LAC?
A. I am the curator of this exhibition, which was created in partnership with Canadian Museum of History (CMH) and I am a curator for Library and Archives Canada (LAC). For this exhibition, I was responsible for proposing the general theme, collections research, item selection and the writing of exhibition texts.
Q. Describe this exhibition for me?
A. The exhibition is on view in the Treasure of Library and Archives Canada gallery which is located on the first level of CMH. The exhibition is composed of more than 30 items from LAC’s collections, including documents, photographs, publications and works of art as well as a few artefacts from the museum’s collection.
The exhibition presents the unique stories and experiences of children as told by the items in LAC’s collections. Too often the experiences, stories and contributions of children are romanticized, overlooked or absent from our history books. Finding evidence of their experiences can sometimes be like a game of hide-and-seek. But children have their own stories and have been active participants in events that are central to our collective history.
The exhibition is divided into three zones; Witness, Traces and Voices. Witness presents stories of children who were present at or active participants in significant events in Canadian history. The second section, Traces, represents the majority of the material. It explores the fragments of children’s stories that lie within materials produced by adults — from formal portraits found in family collections to documents in government and institutional records. These traces of their experiences help reveal the attitudes of adults toward them and the impact of laws and policies on them throughout history. The third section of the exhibition, Voices, presents some the rarest material – items created by children themselves.
Q. Why has it been pulled together?
A. The exhibition is the second in a series of five exhibitions developed in partnership with CMH and presented at the Museum. The theme of children’s history was selected as an opportunity to highlight this little known aspect of Canadian history. Children are notable in history books primarily for their absence. When children’s history is presented in exhibitions it most often takes the form of exhibitions about childhood rather than stories about particular children. We wanted to use a more story-based approach and explore personal stories of individual children. This also allowed us to display some treasures as well as demonstrate the breadth of what is held in the vaults of LAC.
Q. What is the earliest piece. Can you say what it shows?
A. The earliest piece is a diary written by a 12-year-old girl named Eleanora Hallen who emigrated from England in April 1835. Eleanora kept a diary recording her seven-week transatlantic voyage. In it, she candidly describes the other passengers onboard, a mealtime quarrel over a steak and the thrill of passing near “large islands of ice.” She continued her diaries and sketches after the family settled in Upper Canada. Together, they paint a unique picture of the challenges of the immigrant experience.
Q. What is the most contemporary piece. What does it show?
A. The most contemporary piece in the exhibition is a flag design submitted by a young boy named Charlie Tighe in 1963. When Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson put out a call for designs for a new Canadian flag, he received almost 6,000 submissions. This is just one of many sent in by children. For his submission, nine-year-old Charlie drew the image that appeared on his sweater. The drawing is exhibited alongside Charlie’s letter to the Prime Minister in which he offers to send the sweater to Pearson since “I am growing out of it.” The letter also includes a petition signed by 24 of his classmates.
Q. The Treasures from the Archives is a relatively new exchange with the Museum of History. Can you explain what it is and what it aims to accomplish?
A. This exhibition is part of a five-year series that has the goal to provide visitors with unprecedented access to rare and exceptional items from the collections of Library and Archives Canada. These exhibitions also include items from CMH’s collections which help to illustrate the chosen themes.
Q. Children are sometimes seen but rarely heard in history. What can they tell us?
A. Items created by children are often ephemeral and seldom preserved. In fact, most of what has been preserved in archival collections is fragments of their stories that lie within materials produced by adults — from formal portraits found in family collections to documents in government and institutional records. These traces of their experiences help reveal the attitudes of adults toward them and the impact of laws and policies on them throughout history. Items created by children can be challenging to find in our collections as they are frequently subsumed within the broader histories and heritage of their families and communities and are rarely catalogued as being child-made.
The exhibition does present a number of drawings, photographs and diaries created by children and these rare documents provide a glimpse into children’s private worlds, revealing their unique ways of speaking, thinking and interpreting the world around them. Intimate, candid, and sometimes whimsical, the diaries, letters and drawings created by children invite us to see history with fresh eyes. It reminds us that children were also involved in or felt the impact of significant events in Canadian history.
Q. Is this history of children important?
A. The missing perspectives of children in history also conveys a message, perhaps unintentionally, that the opinions and viewpoints of children matter little, and that the actions of children have little historical consequences. But children of the past had many histories, exhibited agency and often participated in events which many museums consider central to their mission. I also think it is very important for young people to see themselves reflected in the history they study.
Q. Are the stories of young boys better known, or more widely seen than the stories of young girls?
A. I wouldn’t say they are necessarily more visible in archives, but rather just of a different nature. I think where you do see the difference is that often children’s materials were preserved and collected when the child grew up to be a famous adult and certainly, depending on the time period, people deemed to be significant Canadians were largely male. For example, we are displaying a diary kept by Sir Sandford Fleming, a drawing by a young Harold Town and a composition written by Glenn Gould at the age of 8.
Q. The presence of the little boy at the Last Spike feels so familiar. Little boys and girls have always been witnesses to history. How was his story uncovered?
A. The first section of the exhibition presents four individual stories of children who witnessed significant moments in Canadian history. In many ways, this iconic photograph of the ceremonial driving of the last spike perfectly illustrates the concept of the exhibition. Here is an image that many Canadians are very familiar with, however most people have never noticed the young face that peers over the shoulder of Donald Smith. The boy who pushed his way to the front of the crowd is Edward Mallandaine who rode a railway flatcar the night before to witness the historic event. By doing so, he placed himself at the centre of one of the most significant events in Canadian history.
Edward’s incredible story was documented in the book The Boy in the Picture: The Craigellachie Kid and the Driving of the Last Spike.
Q. Are the stories of children of minorities told in the exhibition. Are they hard to find? Is there an example of that in the exhibition? What does it show?
A. As is often the case, the least powerful in society leave little trace of their lives. Those childhoods that were documented and preserved can be quite telling. Stories of children of minorities are told in the exhibition, but the majority of the material is found in the Traces section for this very reason. For example, the exhibition includes a Chinese head tax certificate for a 10 year old boy named Chong Do Dang from 1922 and a miniature painted portrait of an unnamed African-Canadian boy that was that was painted in Halifax in the early 1840s by Lady Falkland, wife of the Governor of Nova Scotia, for her souvenir album. In the Witness section is a photograph of a young David Suzuki and his sisters taken when they were in a Japanese internment camp.
We are also telling stories of Indigenous children including that of Thomas Moore, whose before and after portraits from 1896 are some of the most reproduced images from the Indian Residential School system. The exhibition also includes the story of two young Inuit girls whose anonymous portrait taken by a government official in 1949 found new life and relevance when the girls were identified and named though LAC’s Project Naming.
Q. Do you have a favourite artifact, document. Or even a couple of them. What are they and why do they matter.
A. There are so many incredible and touching stories. The photograph of Jean-Louis and Mary-Angélique Riel from 1888 is particularly poignant as it is accompanied by letter written by their father, Métis leader Louis Riel, on the day of his hanging in Regina. In it he speaks to his young children and signs the letter with “Prenez courage” (take courage). Both Jean-Louis and Marie-Angélique were born in Montana during the political exile of their father for his role in the 1870 Red River Resistance.
Another favourite of mine is the diary of 16-year-old Arthur Lawson. Written at the beginning of the First World War, it invites us to understand his childhood sense of self and the world around him. The daily entries include headlines about the battles raging overseas which seem almost casually inserted alongside mundane notes about the weather, family events (like his brother’s birthday) and the scores of that year’s World Series between the Boston Braves and the Philadelphia Athletics. Before the war was over, Lawson himself enlisted.