Museum Musings: The joys of research

Daily Herald File Photo. The Bill Smiley Archive was toured as part of Archives Week at the Prince Albert Historical Museum in February, 2023.

I enjoy being a part of the Historical Society.  It is a pleasure to meet the visitors, lead tours, and share information about the history of the area.  But most of all, I quite enjoy doing research in the Bill Smiley Archives.  You can never be certain, when you arrive in the morning, how your day will go, or what new nugget of information you will stumble across. 

There is a wide variety of resources used to pursue the answers to questions we receive, not only from local people but also from across Canada and throughout the world.  I have to admit that the resource which I most enjoy using is the collection of old Prince Albert Daily Heralds.  Sometimes what I find reinforces just how much the world has changed, while other times I marvel at how ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

I was reviewing newspapers from 1946 last week, and came across a story about what resources the city could employ to provide housing for the homeless over the winter.  Not only were they planning to renovate and open forty units at the air port, but use was to be made of the cabins which existed in the city’s campground.

Other stories certainly pre-date the Privacy legislation which exists today.  In early editions of the newspaper, there was a daily listing of who was registered at each hotel.  Apparently, it was considered in the public interest to know who was visiting in the city, and none of the hoteliers were concerned about their counter-parts knowing just how well (or poorly) their business was doing.

I wonder how many readers remember the Herald printing Who Is Open Tonight?  City by-laws restricted the opening of drug stores and service stations, so the owners of these businesses would rotate evening openings.  The newspaper would list who was open so that if you needed a prescription filled (or your gas tank topped up), you would know just where to go for the necessary service.

I recently came across an interesting item in an early 1960s paper of which I had no knowledge.  Prince Albertans of a certain age will be aware of the acclaim which Jon Vickers and Lesia Zubrack received on the world opera stage.  But I was unaware that another local woman, Carmen Lasky, was also a noted operatic soprano.  Nor was I aware that she had been married for a period of time (from 1959 to 1964) to well known symphony conductor, Zubin Mehta.  After their divorce, Carmen actually married his brother, Zarin Mehta.

Several stories from 1961, about the Prince Albert Historical Society, caused me to think that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Throughout the 1940s and into the 1960s, the Historical Society struggled with a limited membership and without a permanent home.  On June 22nd, 1961, the Herald carried a page three story about the Society’s opening for the summer.  It mentioned that the historical museum, on the main floor of the Court House, would be opened the following Sunday for the first time.  The executive of the Society had decided that they would open the museum each Sunday afternoon over the summer months.  As the Society did not have sufficient funds to hire a curator, members of the organisation would take turns over-seeing the openings.

Ian Collins, vice-president of the Society advised that the hours would be from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and encouraged all Prince Albert citizens to visit the fine display of items “of historical importance”.

Apparently, this story in the Herald influenced some people to visit the museum, as on June 27th (the following Tuesday), the Herald carried a page two story headlines “Twenty-five Visit Museum”.  Arnold Agnew, the Society president, suggested in the story that it was hoped that plans could be implemented to ensure the museum could also be open on week days.

Continued support from the Daily Herald resulted in an editorial on July 3rd of that year.  It opined that, aside from a small minority of local citizens, little serious thought had been given to the establishment of a proper facility in the city in which the city’s history, past and unfolding, could be perpetuated.

Even though most agree that such a facility would be a worthwhile addition to the community, few were willing to go out of their way to ensure a museum’s continued existence.

Rather than a museum being a place where “dead” things could be displayed for the morbidly curious, it would be a place of education for both children and adults, for members of the community and for visitors from elsewhere.

The editorial then went on to quote the province’s Education Minister, Allen Blakeney (later the Premier of Saskatchewan), from a speech he delivered in Regina to the Canadian Museums Association.  In it, he said that a museum is a centre for the gathering and propagation of national knowledge to extend the “frontiers of man’s acquired facts”. A museum is a cultural institution, it was said, and can be regarded as a public utility which enhances the area in which it is located.

A problem encountered by all museums is that of finance.  Throughout Canada, no one department deals with cultural concerns.  At the time, it was expressed that Nova Scotia museums looked to it education ministry for support.  Nationally, the Northern Affairs Department looked after museums of national importance.

Locally, the editorial concluded, much difficulty has been encountered in enlisting sufficient support, both vocal and financial.  The need for action is recognised, but too few were ready to shoulder any share of the work load.

 Over sixty years later, the Prince Albert Historical Society has a permanent home in the Historical Museum on River Street and Central Avenue.  A full-time curator and some part time staff manage not only the Historical Museum but also three other museums (the John and Olive Diefenbaker Museum, the Police and Corrections Museum, and the Evolution of Education Museum).  All four museums are open daily throughout the summer, opening each year the day after Victoria Day until the beginning of September, and in the winter the Historical Museum is open weekdays, while the other museums are open by appointment.  Although there is staff for most tours, we are still reliant on volunteers in the off-season to provide some coverage.

Compared to the 25 people who visited the Historical Museum in one day in 1961, our visitor count up to the end of October has been 10,763, with over 2 million social media hits (something of which the 1961 society executive could never even have conceived).

We are fortunate to receive financial support from the city, as well as from some provincial funding agencies, but much of our programming can be delivered only as a result of grants.  We are still uncertain, from year to year, whether we will be able to continue in the provision of the majority of our programmes, including those we deliver to seniors and to educational facilities.

We continue to be, as Allen Blakeney suggested, a place of education, a centre for gathering and propagating knowledge, and a cultural institution.