You Tell Us: Why Every Old Artefact has New Secrets to Reveal

Both on & off display, the Huron County Museum houses an incredible collection of objects donated by our community. Staff collect and research as much information as possible about artefacts and their significance to Huron County history when they arrive at our doors, but there’s always more to be added to these objects’ stories, and their significance to the people who made, owned, used or donated them. As wonderfully demonstrated by our recent Community Curators exhibit, fresh perspectives on interpreting artefacts enhance their context and value.  Sometimes only after having an artefact in our collection for years does special knowledge from the public allow staff to identify the people in a black & white photograph, or translate German postcards sent to a Dashwood family. A growing and changing understanding of these objects ensures that they remain dynamic and connected to the community, rather than accumulating dust.

Celebrations Exhibit, Temporary Gallery, Huron County Museum.

A recent revelation about artefacts came this fall when staff were planning Celebrations, the Temporary Gallery’s winter exhibit dedicated to favourite holidays from October to March: Diwali to St. Patrick’s Day. The displays are a combination of artefacts from the museum’s collection and objects on-loan from individuals and families who celebrate each holiday. Lynn Zhu of Toronto, whose husband is from Clinton, shared her memories of celebrating Lunar New Year both in China during her early childhood, and afterwards when she and her parents moved to Canada. Lynn also lent the exhibit a selection of decorations and “red pocket” cash envelopes from past Lunar New Year occasions, providing translations for the Mandarin words.

Ceremonial Chinese sword donated by E. Townsend Family, M970.20.10

While Lynn was translating the decorations, I asked her take a look at a couple of red silk hangings in the museum’s collection, guessing their lettering might also be Mandarin. The banners are part of a collection of objects from China donated by the E. Townsend family in 1970. Elisha Townsend, born near Londesborough, was a Methodist missionary to China in the first half of the twentieth century.

Very generously, Lynn agreed to view photos of the banners, and provide translations. She explained,

The hanging banners you found are in Chinese, and are an example of a
du

ì
l
ían
对联
They should be hung on either side of a door…They usually describe some well wish
in a rhyming matching-syllables way. The particular ones you have are so interesting because they are about God…
There are many churches and Christians in China, but they’re not as obvious as here. So religious

du

ì
l
ían
are not common at all…[T]hey likely were used inside the home or a church. Also, likely they were displayed all year round. (People often leave the

du

ì
l
ían
up all year, so they get shabby looking, and get new ones before the New Year celebrations.[The first banner] says: “God is my herder.” [The second banner] (使我不至窮乏) says: “Let me not be poor and needy.” After some googling, it’s actually the translation of Psalm 23:1. “God is my shepherd, I shall not want/I lack nothing.”

 

Wall hanging donated by E. Townsend Family, M970.20.2

Red satin wall hanging donated by E. Townsend Family, M970.20.1

Thanks to Lynn’s translation more than forty-five years after the Townsend family’s original donation, museum staff can now understand the banners and better appreciate their significance to Elisha Townsend’s missionary work

Lunar New Year begins today, Monday February 8th! You can see the decorations loaned for #HCMCelebrations now through March Break in the Temporary Gallery. Admission next Monday, February 15th, 2016 is FREE for Family Day. 

Can you help with the museum’s current historical mysteries? We’re looking for any extant image of Goderich Township pioneer Agnes (Johnston) McIlwain for our upcoming Migration Stories exhibit in April.

Unlocking Memories of the Huron Jail

The Huron Historic Gaol was an operational jail from 1841 until 1972. Many Huron County residents still remember the building when it housed inmates, as well as the governor or superintendent (jailer) and his family in the adjoining house; museum staff wanted to hear their stories to gather a more complete picture of day-to-day life living or working in jail. This summer, student museum assistant Mackenzie Bonnett met interview-partners with memories of the building prior to its 1972 closure at the gaol; he shares his first experiences with oral history.

 

001 - CopyFollowing the recent death of a former notable gaol employee, the Huron Historic Gaol and the archives at the Huron County Museum received a series of inquires into their life and time spent at the Gaol. Through these inquiries staff realised there is relatively little we know about the personal experiences of those that spent time at the Gaol while it was still in operation. We decided that the best way to learn more about these stories would be to get them directly from the source; this started my summer Gaol oral history project.

I sought out people with any connection to the Gaol whether they were inmates, guards, maintenance staff, volunteers or family of the governor (jailer). A press release was sent out in early June to various local newspapers asking anyone with these types of connections to contact the gaol. Before starting any interviews I had to prepare myself with questions to organize and keep focus during the interview. I also had to prepare for the logistics of an oral history project which requires consent and release forms which allow people to assign a future date for when the information from their interview can be used.

Over the summer I conducted three interviews that each had their own interesting stories that told a variety of things about the Gaol and its staff and inmates that were not known to our staff today. I heard stories from friends and family of past Gaol Governors that heard firsthand accounts of day to day operations of the Gaol including escape attempts and notable prisoners. I also heard from Gaol volunteers that gave important insight into how the Gaol and its inmates were viewed by the community it served.  I hope that the stories I heard and transcribed can be use in the future to aid with research and the creation of further exhibits.