Adam Abraham “Ab” Chervinski had donated dozens of unique items to the museum and told museum staff impressive stories about the histories of those items. One such object was a weathered wooden chair with a cracked seat. Ab related to staff that the chair came from an alleged brothel that operated in Lethbridge decades prior. It is perhaps the only object affirmed to be related to the Red Light District in the museum's collections.
Ab donated the chair and other objects in the 1980s and 1990s, and when he died in 2013, much of the cultural context of his donations passed with him.
Collections Technician Kevin MacLean felt the loss of that precious information keenly. Determined to avoid another such loss in the future, MacLean implemented a new standard for accepting donation offers to the museum: all donations must be accompanied by a recorded interview with the donor.
Collections Technician Kevin MacLean stands in the collection storage at the Galt Museum Archives. Photo by Galt Museum Archives / Graham Ruttan
MacLean’s dedication to the objects in the Galt’s collection led him to develop innovative methods of capturing the “voice” of those objects being safeguarded by the museum.
“Museums collect objects because of the stories those objects can tell—what they were a part of,” explains MacLean. “The best people to give voice to those stories are the donors themselves. By recording the words of the donors in their own voice, we can preserve much more of those stories than we could with a few carefully written and edited paragraphs.”
“We began recording interviews with some donors starting in 2005. The interviews added rich layers of story, information, and context to those particular donations. But it wasn’t our standard process for every donation until 2013. Since then, every single donation that has been accepted into our collection has been accompanied by a recorded interview with the donor.”
“Kevin and his team of staff and volunteers have placed extraordinary emphasis on capturing objects’ intangible stories,” says Curator Dr. Aimee Benoit. “This collection of oral history interviews with donors means that the Galt stewards a collection of objects with many layers of meaning. It also offers educators, researchers, and visitors multiple points of rich, personal connection when they access the collections.”
The donor interviews allow staff to call on the words and voices of donors to speak on behalf of the objects that are in the Galt's stewardship, rather than requiring that staff act as the authoritative voice for the objects. Featuring the voice of donors as the primary experts on their own objects is part of the way the Galt is fulfilling its goal to share stories of local history and culture, and not gatekeeping the histories represented by those objects.
Glenn Miller indicates significant portions of a recent donation. Photo by Galt Museum Archives / Graham Ruttan
The Canadian Museums Association noted that the process that has been developed by MacLean since 2005 and refined since 2013 is a remarkable undertaking in capturing the oral histories behind their acquisitions.
“[This] approach allows for unique and human stories to be told about each and every item in their collections, giving them new life and personality. The Galt and their wonderful team of staff and volunteers have been implementing this practice for over a decade to help sustain a living memory of their collections and of Lethbridge as a whole.
“Through interviews, the museum collaborates with the donors and their families to help shape the way that narrative histories are told. The artifacts’ backgrounds help identify important events in personal histories, whether the item is a wedding dress or a pillowcase! Every requisition and donor has a story and the Galt Museum wants each and every one to be heard.”
Not only are the donors of objects interviewed about the story behind their objects, but those interviews are also then transcribed word for word by a team of trained and dedicated volunteers. These transcribed interviews are rich documents that allow researchers, teachers, community members, and others to discover more about the objects and about the personal histories of southern Alberta.
“The contribution of these volunteers to the historical record of southern Alberta is, frankly, staggering,” raves MacLean. “To date, these amazing volunteers have transcribed over 1.5 million words of oral histories. Substantial portions of the transcripts are uploaded as public descriptions on our online database, making the unique and often powerful stories of these objects available to our community and the world.”
MacLean and his team have made oral history the cornerstone of the Galt’s collection practices, and have extended that process to the existing collection of thousands of objects taken into the collections prior to 2012.
Collections assistants are assigned to locate and interview previous donors or their surviving family members to give voices to these voiceless objects.
“Oral history interviews have been a resounding success at the Galt Museum Archives and have added a wealth of rich documentation to the collections,” notes CEO/Executive Director Darrin J Martens. “This invaluable resource is no longer being lost as donors pass away, taking their memories with them. We retain and care for them through this crucial and trailblazing work.”
Call to Action
MacLean has words of advice for others considering starting to record interviews with donors: "Do it, and do it now."
"Don't wait to find the perfect equipment or to prepare a perfect system. Don't worry about how to transcribe the interviews. Don't worry about how to make them public. The knowledge that donors can share with the community about their objects is a temporary resource that you can't ever recover once they are gone. Recording their reasons for donating the object and their memories are crucial. If you can capture those in a recorded interview, you can figure out the best way to process, store, and utilize them at your particular institution as you go. It took a decade and a half to evolve the Galt's process to where it is today. Start now.”
"Museums collect objects because of the stories those objects can tell—what they were a part of,” explains MacLean. “Record those stories when you accept the objects. Don’t take your donors and their knowledge for granted.”
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