Nothing gets an archivist’s heart beating quite like the arrival of that special document or that unique object that makes a direct and concrete connection to the past.
It could be a map of the Yukon that shows the very beginning of the gold rush at the end of the 19th century. Or it’s a never-before-seen pencil drawing of the Avro Arrow or it is a series of paintings done by Robert Hood, a 19th century Arctic explorer, that somehow survived the journey home to London, England.
These artifacts, and more, are part of an exhibition that features some of the most interesting pieces to land in the collection of Library and Archives in the past five years. There are about 50 in the show called Premiere that is on display in the Morley Callaghan Room at Library and Archives Canada until Dec. 3. Twenty-one people at LAC selected the items. LAC acquires hundreds of thousands of records in a five year span, making these 50 items solid gold needles pulled from Canada’s historical haystack
For Sara Viinalass-Smith, the exhibition’s organizer, the show brings together materials from the private and public collecting side of LAC along with published material from the collection.
This show was an opportunity for archivists to pick the material they thought would be worth putting in an exhibition, she said.
Viinalass-Smith, herself, selected pieces from Jane Urquhart‘s papers.
“She included some juvenalia in her most recent donation,” she said. On display is an Hilroy notebook with the draft of a play about Anne of Green Gables that the author of Away and The Underpainter wrote as nine or 10 year old Jane Carter in the late 1950s.
“These are items that you come across that are extremely unique that people wouldn’t necessarily see,” Viinalass-Smith said. There is also a picture of Urquhart taking acting lessons from Dora Mavor Moore in the 1960s.
Demonstrating the variety of works coming into LAC is a book that is nearby that is about syphillis in Quebec in the late 18th century. And there is also a sheet of music called If I Had A Million Dollars with lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by Matty Malneck from 1934 that made its way into the collection.
Some of the archivists who selected the material were on hand for the tour on Tuesday afternoon including Roddy McFall who is a government records archivist who showed off a map that was part of a massive filing of papers received three years ago from Natural Resources Canada’s navigational branch and the survey and mapping branch.
One map was surveyed in 1897 and then plotted by a man named William Ogilvie, who later became the second commissioner of the Yukon territory. There is also a field book of Ogilvie’s that was among the 1.5 kilometres of records from NRCan. The books would be sent back to Ottawa and the maps were made of those books.
The map actually documents the start of the Yukon gold rush, McFall says. It shows the location of the prospecting team of George Carmack, his wife Kate, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley who found the first pieces of the famous Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek that would send upwards of 45,000 people flooding into the territory. Ogilvie knew all three of the prospectors, making the map that much more significant, McFall said.
“It’s very rare to have the paper record and the identity of the three individuals,” McFall said. He says he was lucky. He had a colleague who had tried to pry the maps out of NRCan for 30 years. McFall got them because the storage space was closing. Timing is indeed everything. Finding a home form some 80,000 maps did pose a space problem for LAC when it too is downsizing.
Staying in the north, archivist Shane McCord discussed a collection of four watercolours by Robert Hood, who was on Sir John Franklin’s first expedition into northern Canada, this time on land, and he survived the hardship of a journey that took him from Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Coppermine River. Eleven men died on the trek, including Hood, who was shot by a voyageur during a confrontation.
“Hood’s story should be a feature film really. There are two artists on the trip and they both fall in love with and Indigenous woman named Greenstockings. They were to fight a duel over her but the expedition’s daughter removed the bullets.” Hood got the girl. But the journey was horrendous with the men reduced to eating lichen and boot leather.
Before he died, Hood did several paintings showing the people he met. The scientist also discovered the electro-magnetic nature of the aurora borealis.
The paintings were acquired from relative of Hood’s in London, England. The story of these paintings surviving the tundra is “pretty exciting.”
Finds like these are very special, McCord said.
“This is the find of a career for me. You don’t find Arctic expedition watercolours in this condition very often. I immediately wrote all my former archivists to say ‘Hey guess what I found.'”
There are more treasures on view.
There is an early design drawing for the Avro Arrow from 1958, showing an early consideration for a vertical takeoff. This theory was never tested.
Archivist Jennifer Anderson said the designer of the Arrow were considering all sort of ideas including an Avro car, something like a flying saucer.
The drawing comes from the papers of the designer William Kuzyk, who worked for A.V. Roe Canada Ltd. He ended up working in the U.S. before coming back to finish his career at the National Research Council. It came into LAC in 2016.
There is material from Canada Post shepherded by Emma Hamilton-Hobbs. The work is a striking original piece of embroidery from the Punchline Embroidery Centre in Vancouver done in 2000 for the year of the dragon showing a Chinese dragon, along with a sheet of stamps.
“I love the colour and the vibrancy. You can see that it’s embossed and the dragon looks almost three-dimensional,” she said. As an art histrian she relishes working with artworks from Canada Post because of the variety of forms it comes in.
There are photographs too. The two on view were taken by Lana Slezic when she was in Kandahar, Afghanistan for Canadian Geographic in 2004, said archivist Jill Delaney. She ended up staying in the country photographing the lives of women and children. Those pictures were part of a book called Forsaken. An image from that book shows an Afghan female police officer in full niqab aiming a handgun. It is an arresting addition to the display, especially when one learns, as Delaney explains, the officer was later assassinated outside her home by the Taliban.
“This presents an alternative perspective” from the photographs from the Department of National Defence which are part of LAC’s concept of what Delaney called “total archives. We try and document from … the state and civil perspectives.”
Finally the exhibition also contains one of the oldest book’s in the LAC collection. It was purchased in 2017 from a private library. It was selected by Guy Berthiaume the chief librarian to make its first public appearance. Mivachar Ha-Peninim (Choice of Pearls) by Solomon Ibn Gabirol. The book is in Hebrew and was written by an 11th century poet-philosopher. The copy on view was published in Italy in 1484 by a very early printing press.