Dean's Update: Curators never know who might value an archive
October 11, 2018
Last week, I was traveling through the Canadian Rockies. I admired amazing views of mountains and valleys, some beautifully covered by the heaviest snowstorm ever recorded in the region for this time of year. I also toured several unique museums and archives, filled with artifacts, costumes, photographs, and documents. I became very aware of the juxtaposition of represented histories—ancient, old and relatively young—when learning about the region’s geology, its indigenous people, and entrepreneurial settlers.
One stop, the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives, was the smallest museum and archive I visited on this trip. Although small, it left me particularly sympathetic to the big challenges and unforeseen impact of pursuing a sense of responsibility to preserve the evidence of presence by starting an archive.
The Jasper Historical Society first met in 1963 and began working with the Jasper National Park to protect heritage items at a local ranch and cemetery. Fifteen years later, after becoming the Jasper-Yellowhead Historical Society and operating from the basement of the town’s library, the organization began working toward creating a museum “to save from oblivion the memories…to obtain and preserve narratives…of the original inhabitants of the area, including missionaries, fur traders, explorers and settlers.”
Today, the museum includes a 1,100 square-foot Historical Gallery with exhibits on the fur trade, the railway, and early exploration and tourism in Jasper National Park. It displays survival items individually attributed to early known residents and international hikers who explored the area, as well as saved photos, diary notes, and stories handed down by people in the region.
The museum director welcomed our group, warned us that he had only three jokes to tell and proceeded with an enthusiastic narrated walk through the room, highlighting stories of the people who built Jasper and explored the parklands surrounding it. He shared accounts of the forming of the museum collections, brought as discrete family objects that were stored under beds, in closets and in attic boxes until a place was established for their care.
As we concluded our visit, the director noted that he was returning to the meeting downstairs where a group regularly gathered to review donations and select those to be added to the museum. Though many of the artifacts dated back to the mid and late 1800s, they were linked closely to local residents and their friends. The Jasper culture embraces a pride of its past and a desire to share its heritage with others who come through town. With over two million people annually visiting the Jasper National Park [in 2016], the museum sees people from all over the world stopping in and learning about this region’s histories.
My Canadian trip came shortly after initial conversations with Richard Schramm, past chairman of the Philadelphia-area drilling manufacturer Schramm, Inc., and the final confirmation of Drexel’s receipt of carefully organized and gathered records of the company his great-grandfather founded, less than a century after the town of Jasper was established in western Canada. Yet, the desire for preserving the events, achievements and human stories that each organization experienced is very similar: each brought historic evidence to a setting where many others–decades later and miles apart–will uncover casual imagination and formal study of life in the past.
Perhaps the excitement of learning about Schramm, Inc. and its long-standing influence on Drexel and the region prepped me to appreciate the founding of the Jasper museum. Or maybe, stopping to read the short accounts of trappers, fur traders, guides and early entrepreneurs, seeing the tools and resources they had, along with the pictures and stories they passed within their families raised my appreciation even more for receiving a special collection of business records and accounts from a local company that anticipates the value of their heritage to future generations and trusts our archive to care for them.
October is American Archives Month, and this month’s issue of In Circulation features several ways the Drexel Libraries brings attention to this specialized area of professional and citizen work to bring history to life. Enjoy reading about the Schramm collection donation, other activities and upcoming events in this month’s newsletter.
May you be inspired to look through your own family heirlooms and documents and think what a library or historic archive might value in curating the heritage they represent.
Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries