Monthly Archives: April 2009

Marine Museum of the Great Lakes Hires Archaeologist

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (Kingston) is to be congratulated for adding a full-time, marine archaeologist Ben Holthof  to its staff. The core of the funding for the position is a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for three years. This is one of those rare examples of Trillium helping with full-time staff for sustained period. In my opinion, there is far too much messing about with a few months of untrained staff here and there in Ontario. My guess is that the Marine Museum does not know what they will do at the end of the three years, but kudu’s to Ann Blake for holding out for a qualified, registrar-curator to attack the backlog and rebuild the catalogues. I sense an intelligent, long-range plan behind the scenes. Ben Holthof  has hands-on experience with two Canadian museum collections and a Masters in Maritime Archaeology from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. (His speciality is near-shore infrastructure.)    Attention Hon. Aileen Carroll:   We need more like this please!

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Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Museums

Thoughts on Bill 149, An Act to Protect Ontario’s inactive cemeteries.


Gravestone, Napanee

Bill 149, a private member’s bill submitted by Jim Brownell, M.P.P. for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, has now passed Second Reading. This brief bill proposes that no one may relocate an inactive cemetery.

In Ontario, whipping the remains of our ancestors out of the ground and interring them elsewhere to make way for development has been common practice. I have been very unhappy about this for a long time.

In 2000, I spent part of the winter in Boston, Massachusetts. There are many interesting cemeteries in greater Boston, but what impressed me was the Old Granary Burying Ground, which dates from the 1600’s and is now deep downtown, surrounded by tall modern buildings. If this had been moved in the early twentieth century to convenience the business community, Boston would have lost one of its five-star attractions and America one of its greatest treasures.

So, the reader knows where my heart lies.

Back to Bill 149. When cemeteries are known and clearly marked I am in favour of stopping the current practice of moving the remains. Since developers know when they acquire the property that there is a burial site involved, they should be able to adjust their plans to comply with the legislation.

But what will happen when a developer stumbles on a formerly unknown burial site? He already has considerable investment in his project. The proposed development may simply not permit re-working to avoid the cemetery. Once the problem is public, the resale value of the land will drop significantly. The temptation would be to keep the bulldozers running and not report the discovery. It happens now. I fear that it will happen more often and we would loose more of our history, not less.

My worry is that Bill 149 is too much stick and no carrot.

The promotional material published about the bill claims that there will be future additions which: “will establish clear-cut regulations for potential developers to avoid unnecessary planning and additional costs”. (Office of Mr. Brownell.) These regulations are yet to be written. Has anyone with planning experience thought deeply about them?

I have worked defending material culture most of my life, and I can tell you that drafting such regulations will require the creative brain of a genius and the patience of a saint.

With all levels of government in 2009 insanely pro-development and averse to any new spending for heritage (which is seen in Canada as “nice, but not essential”) I do not know what can be offered to developers which will make them happy to stop the bulldozers.

The heritage site problem is world-wide. No magic fix has been discovered. In Vancouver, the developer may get more “air rights” in exchange for preserving heritage. He is permitted to build taller on another site. The jury is still out as to whether this is a good or bad system. Other things that have been tried elsewhere include swapping of lots with the municipality and tax relief, both of which require enthusiastic participation from local government.

In Ontario, municipalities are now supposed to be preparing archaeological master plans to map below-ground heritage so that developers will be able to learn where the sensitive areas are. Archaeological master plans don’t necessarily map everything, but where one exists there are fewer surprizes. However, municipalities don’t have the money to invest in the exercise and few archaeological master plans have been completed. I believe that the City of Toronto has one, and the City of Kingston and there may be a couple of others. With municipalities strained to the limit to cope with aging infrastructure, we are not going to see the province blanketed with archaeological master plans in the near future.

My other question is what will happen when the family or the first nations band actually want to move the remains.  This has not been acknowledged in the supporting materials either. However, I think that this will be a much easier problem to rectify through the regulations unlike the problem with developers.

A brief, simple bill such as Bill 149 has a much better chance of becoming law than a complicated draft. What alarms me is that the background materials presently provided show almost no familiarity with the history of heritage struggles in Ontario.  There is no evidence of any sophisticated thinking about how to improve the situation. There are no astonishing new suggestions. So, although I support Bill 149, I believe that some future, pro-business government will simply emasculate it, as Mr. Harris’s government did to our old Ontario Heritage Act, and we will be back where we started. I would put money on it.


Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Material culture

An Acrobatic Troupe from Palmerston, Ontario


More than a quaint picture!

Four male performers pose for the camera. Three men wear the uniforms of acrobats: the fourth wears the costume of a clown. These are the Aberdeen Minstrels of Palmerston, Ontario in 1898, and today the group is unknown. This is an interesting photograph. Obviously, the picture records the preferred dress of circus or side-show performers of the 1890’s, but there is much more here.

The Governor-General of Canada from 1893-1898 was John Campbell Gordon, Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair, known as the Earl of Aberdeen. Aberdeen was wildly popular with most Canadians. Even today, when there is a list of exceptional men and women who have succeded him to the office, he is remembered as the man who changed the role of the G-G from representative of Royalty to an agent for the best interests of common Canadians. His term ended in 1898. The name of this group might have been chosen in his honour.

The Earl took a great interest in sports. He spoke out strongly for school athletic programs to improve the fitness of young Canadians. The name of the group probably reflects the profound influence of the Governor-General during the time these young men attended High School.

Moreover, this Governor-General was Scottish and the Palmerston neighbourhood included many Scottish immigrant families. The minstrel on the far left is David A. Cox of Palmerston, born November 6, 1879 of Scottish descent, son of David D. and Mary Cox. The minstrel third from left (the shortest) is believed to be John A. McCombe of Palmerston, born 9 April, 1979 of Scottish descent, son of Samuel F. and Janet McCombe. The man second from left has not been fully identified but is believed to be one “C. Morrison”, and may also be of Scottish background. The clown is identified only as “J. Marshal [sic]”. The little troupe in its own way communicates the pride in Scottish ancestry current in the Palmerston community of the 1890’s.

At first, I wondered if this was a professional team from a travelling circus, but it was not so. Both David Cox and John McCombe were employed as railway brakeman. Palmerston owed its existence to the establishment of railway barns and a junction there in the 1870’s, and it seems that at the turn of the last century, the railway was still an important employer. Cox and McCombe likely knew each other at High School and continued as friends on the railway. Morrison and Marshall may also have been co-workers, but this has yet to be proven.

This all tells us that these are amateur performers. Also, they are not sons of the upper class with independent means, amusing themselves but rather working class men who probably had limited leisure time. The fact that they chose to spend it training and rehearsing tells us that the men certainly believed in the personal benefit of the activity. It is not outrageous to suggest that the publicity must have conferred rewards in the form of popularity or even status in their community.

Perhaps, at the turn of the last century, everybody in Palmerson and perhaps all of Wellington county had heard of the Aberdeen Minstrels.

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Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photograph history, Photographica

Why Does the Archive Not Want My .jpgs ?

A local researcher was perplexed.  She “digitized” some letters and photographs and shared them with an historian.  He was grateful and delighted.  -But when she offered the same electronic records to an archive, the response was a polite, “Thanks but no thanks.”

“I want to keep the original letters and photographs to give to my granddaughter,” she said,  “but the historian thought they should be shared with other Canadians.  So it seemed that offering the scans to the archive was a good solution.”

I can’t  be certain that every professional archive in Canada would have declined these electronic images; however, I am sure that many would have done so.  Why?

Archives are expected to take good custodial care of every accession “forever”, which means as long as it is reasonably possible to care for and maintain the document.  Caring for an electronic record will require “migrating” the data every time there is a leap forward in hardware and software, which in turn requires rigorous watchfulness, staff time and up-to-date understanding of technogy.   This investment is not without financial cost to the institution.

If a zealous donor presents the same electronic copies to (say) three archives, then multiply this cost by three within an heritage community with is hardly rich in resources.

Public funds will pay for this custodial care.  Many archivists feel that public funds are best deployed in caring for original materials where there is the justification of intrinsic value (“cool” and “antique”), and perhaps also monetary value.

Moreover, no matter what the industry hopes, it is likely that electronic records will deteriorate (“become corrupted”) over time, and with no original, the archive cannot replace them.

Add to this the legal concept of evidence.  It is possible to tamper with an electronic record, and this is likely to get easier with time, not more difficult.  Without an original, there is no way of knowing for certain that the electronic file in fifty years is not different from the original.

Most archivists are now challenged with the care of records which have always been electronic and have never been fully available on paper, such as large databanks.  There is much debate in the profession as to how best to do this.  At the moment, many archivists see this as challenge enough, without adding the care of a digital copy of something which does have a physical entity.

Scans and digital photographs are super ways to share collections, but at present expect the archive to want the original.

My answer was, “How do you know that your granddaughter will always have a lifestyle sympathetic to care of old, original records?”  I  recommended that the client make good copies for her granddaughter and present the originals to an archive.  In years to come, the original letters and photographs can be accessed there by the family and fresh copies made, if needed.


Filed under Archives, Material culture, Museums