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The University Archives: Preserving the Broad Historic Record

Chief Archivist Bryan Corbett is clearly not a man to relish a pat phrase, but in this case the phrase is too appropriate to sidestep, and he describes the University Archives as the “collective memory” of the University.

From the purely institutional — administrative records and documents (some as dry as the dust that archivist Corbett and his staff so assiduously protect them from) — to the more whimsical — lantern slides carried around the province in the early years of Extension, a shopping list prepared by Mrs. Rutherford for a Founders’ Day Tea — the Archives preserves the broad historic record of the University of Alberta.

It is also the repository for the papers of a variety of individuals whose lives have, in one way or another, contributed to the University of Alberta fibre. And over the years, largely as a result of circumstance, certain theme collections have evolved which transcend the Archives’ institutional mandate. Notable among these are bodies of materials related to oil sands development, Alberta land settlement and irrigation, and Northern Alberta and the Mackenzie River system.

The northern specialization to a large extent reflects the interests and involvements of the University’s first archivist, Jim Parker, who holds ’61 BA and ’67 MA degrees in history from the University. In 1968 he was hired to establish an archives to preserve the history of the University.

Under the direction of Mr. Parker and his successor Mr. Corbett, who came to the University in 1987 when Mr. Parker was named to the newly-created position of director of University Archives and Collections, the Archives has firmly established itself on campus.

The extent of its current holdings reflect just how much it has become integrated into the University’s institutional being. It holds well over 2,400 linear metres (a standard measurement used by archivists) of file material, 1,000 plus rolls of microfilm, more than 10,000 items in microfiche form, some 167,000 photographs, over 1,600 hours of sound recordings (including a number of oral histories done by the Faculty Women’s Club), more than 2,000 sketches, drawings and blueprints, and more than 130 hours of moving film and video footage.

In characterizing his department, Chief Archivist Corbett describes it as an “institutional archive,” as opposed to a “theme archive.” This underlines the department’s first responsibility to the University’s own historical record. From this responsibility, two basic components can be identified, he says: first, the official records of the institution; second, the personal and research papers of its faculty and staff.

In respect to the second, in practice this essentially means “those who made a significant contribution in the area of research and teaching, or in administration,” he says. A central collection here is the papers of the Office of the President, which give insight into this office and the individuals who have held it, beginning with the founding president, Henry Marshall Tory.

The Archives also contains a wealth of material from organizations with special relationships to the University, such as the Students’ Union and the Banff School of Fine Arts. And, as in the case of material related to the North, it has often been the happy recipient of materials less closely related to the University as an institution, but reflecting upon the importance of the University as a scholarly presence in Alberta. Some diverse examples are the assorted photographs and papers of William Pearce, superintendent of mines in Western Canada in the late 1800s; the papers of Kerry Wood, the popular Red Deer, Alberta author; and the documents which form the historical record of the Canadian Women’s Theatre Guild in Edmonton. Just recently acquired were the papers of dramatist and storyteller Elsie Park Gowan, a 1930 BA graduate of the U of A whom the University awarded an honorary degree in 1982.

After years of making do with imperfectly adapted space in the original Rutherford Library and using converted library shelving for their files, Mr. Corbett and his staff are looking forward to moving to the New Timms Collections Centre when it is completed. “For the first time we will see the University’s archives housed in proper environmental conditions with adequate research and reference processing facilities,” says the chief archivist.

The Art Collections: Examples of Excellence

In the early 1920s the Alumni Association of the University of Alberta commissioned portraits of the University’s founding president, Henry Marshall Tory, and its first chancellor, justice C. A. Stuart. (Both held office until 1926.)

The artist chosen for the commission was Frederick H. Varley. One of Canada’s Group of Seven, Varley shared the Group’s nationalistic interest in landscape but also retained a pen­chant for figure drawing, accomplishing a number of excellent portraits, of which the Tory and Stuart paintings are good examples.

These two portraits are also typical of the first stage of the evolution of an art collection at the University of Alberta. During this period the collection grew largely through the accumulation of gifts from individuals and organizations, even classes, along with the occasional commissioned work.

Helen Collinson, who was hired in 1970 to take charge of the wide variety of artworks the University had acquired in the 60 years previous, offers some insight into the early growth of the collection: “Any university was consid­ered to be a centre of culture, and there were those who thought it important to acquire examples of excellence in the form of tangible objects.”

“The wish was to give students an opportunity to expand their horizons — whether this was directly related to courses or broader than that,” she says.

An important proponent of this was J.M. MacEachern, who in 1909 taught the University’s first psychology course. He later became head of the department of philosophy and served as the University’s provost until his retirement in 1945. When Dr. MacEachern died in 1971 at the age of 94 he left a considerable part of his estate, including some excellent paintings and prints, to the University.

The University also benefitted from the am­bitious collecting of Emma Read Newton, wife of the University’s fourth president, who donated her collection of prints, paintings and objets d’art to the University in 1951.

The 100 paintings she collected are especially noteworthy. They are specifically Canadian, even Albertan, in emphasis, as it was Mrs. Newton’s desire to collect representative sa­ples of the painting done in Alberta prior to 1950.

The University’s first serious attempts at collecting with teaching considerations upper­most came following the formation of an art department on campus in 1946. From this period dates a   purchase which was to prove seminal: eight progressive woodcuts for a work by W.J. Phillips entitled Sharp’s Dock, Pender Harbour — included were all six cherry blocks actually used by Phillips.

These woodcuts, described by Mrs. Collinson as themselves “technically very interesting,” were to prove the inspiration from which would develop the international print collection that is today an important element of the University Art Collection.

Within the print collection historical Japanese woodcuts can be compared to works by contemporary Japanese masters. In addition to prints from Western Europe, the University has one of North America’s best collection of East European prints. Another 76 prints depicting Inuit games, contests and shamanistic rituals form the Clifford E. Lee Collection of Inuit Art.

It is interesting for students to trace artistic influences and within the print collection it is possible, for example, to view side by side the works of Marion Nicoll and the 1963-67 prints of her teacher Will Barnett.

There are more than 3,000 works of art catalogued in the University Art Collections. When pressed to choose some “gems” from among this vast collection, Mrs. Collinson complies reluctantly (“Everybody asks that, and it is really a difficult question.”) One of her choices, a personal one, again speaks to the matter of influence: a group of drawings by Sir Stanley Spencer. Probably the only collection of Spencer’s works in Western Canada, says Mrs. Collinson.

An English master of 20th Century figurative art (technically a realist, he used his imagination to create canvasses which, in content, approached the surreal) Spencer was a major contributor to the artistic milieu from which came some of Alberta’s important art educators.

One of these was Henry G. Glyde, who was involved in the establishment of the three most prominent centres for the teaching of art in Al­berta: the Alberta College of Art, the art depart­ment at the University of Alberta and the Banff School of Fine Arts.

Professor Glyde was associated with the University for more than 20 years and it has the largest collection of his works anywhere. This includes many of his important paintings, drawings and studies for murals — murals such as he painted for the Rutherford Library and Wauneita Lounge on campus.

In addition to gifts and purchases for teach­ing purposes, the University has two major sources of art acquisitions which are rooted in University policy. Ever since the introduction of the master’s program in visual art, the University has acquired representative works from each graduating student. And since 1972 the University has had a policy of purchasing art works for new buildings at a cost of up to one­half of one percent of the building’s capital costs. Artworks purchased through the latter program include silk hangings by Takao Tanabe for the Humanities Centre; a sculpture, Justice, for the Law Centre; and another sculpture, Kubos, by Bill Gregory for the Education Cen­tre.

Mrs. Collinson recalls that when she first took up her responsibility with the University’s art collection the biggest problem was locating everything: “I literally found stuff all over the place and it took years to have an idea of what we had. (There was, for instance, the Emily Carr under a Lister Hall staircase.) Now the curator believes it is time for a retrospective look.

“It is my personal feeling that we need to re­view what we have done in the last many decades and make sure that what we are carrying on with is what we want to carry on with into the future,” she says.

And the impending move of the art collec tion into the Timms Collections Centre may be just the time for it: “It’s an ideal opportunity to force ourselves to do something that very often art galleries and museums don’t get around to doing.”

Historic Costumes and Textiles: From Longjohns to Fancy Dress (and more)

Considering their singular lack of distinction, their indisputable ordinariness, we may well find it hard to think of Great Uncle Fred’s oft­mended long underwear as “historic.” But Anne Lambert and her associates who look af­ter the Historic Costume and Textile Study Collection at the University of Alberta have no such difficulty.

Professor Lambert, a professor of clothing and textiles and curator of the Collection, ex­plains that she and her colleagues can get just as excited over the clothing of everyday-an outdated set of longjohns or a well-worn housedress — as the more eye-catching creations designed for special occasions.

Professor Lambert is a’69 BSc( HEc) graduate of the University. Her involvement with the historic costume collection dates back to 1971, when she returned to Alberta from the Univer­sity of Washington, where she earned her master’s degree, to accept a faculty appointment in the School of Household Economics (now the Faculty of Home Economics). At that time she was given responsibility for developing a teaching collection for the clothing and textiles department.

As early as the first clothing and textiles classes (the department of household economics was formed at the University in 1918) instructors had begun assembling material to use as examples in their classes. There was nothing systematic about this, however, and when Professor Lambert joined the faculty the department’s entire collection (which was not catalogued) amounted to a closetful of odds and ends. And, recalls Professor Lambert with a smile, “by that time most of the items were historic, not contemporary.”

Under the mandate given to Professor Lambert the Historic Costume and Textile Study Collection has grown to the point where it is now an important University and community resource and an enticement to visiting scholars from around the world. Currently incorporating about 20,000 items, it has developed noteworthy holdings in a number of areas. These include fashionable dress from the past two centuries, Indonesian textiles (including batiks, ikats, and woven textiles), West African textiles, Guatemalan textiles and costumes, and Peruvian ethnological and archeological textiles (some of which are 1,000 years old).

Among the items of which Professor Lambert is especially fond are the native costumes and textiles from Guatemala, many of which she collected herself on visits to that country. This collection is particularly significant now, she says, because the disruptions caused in recent years by political turmoil and a devastating earthquake have brought changes to the traditional way of life in that country.

Other items which Professor Lambert sin­gles out for mention are a group of fashionable 19th century dress items from St. Petersburg, Russia and some beautiful costumes from a French dressmaker. On the textile side are some William Morris fabrics — very few of the textiles created by this English poet, artist, craftsman and utopian socialist are to be found in North American collections, she says.

As its name would suggest the Historic Costume and Textile Study Collection is indeed a “study” collection. It is drawn upon for teaching courses in such subjects as the history of costumes, textiles, interiors and furnishing, and for contemporary courses in textile design, clothing construction, textile science and textile conservation. It is also used for courses in the socio-psychological and cross-cultural aspects of clothing. In addition, research based on the historic costumes and textiles (as well as the many accessories and sewing aids which supplement the Collection) may encompass conservation technique and textile or costume techniques and styles.

A number of individuals and organizations from beyond campus have also discovered the Collection. These include not only groups such as embroiderers’ guilds or knitters’ circles but contemporary fashion designers and modelling agencies. The costume collection is also an important source of designs for theatrical costumes and is used both by the department of drama on campus and by private theatre groups.

Many of the historic clothing items in the Collection have been replicated, says Professor Lambert, who anticipates that the number of reproduction costumes will continue to grow. “We expect to do more of that — it’s important to see how clothing goes on a body and responds to movement, she says.”

Professor Lambert is looking forward to the increased visibility which will be afforded the Collection when it moves to the Timms Collections Centre, which will have high-quality exhibition space.

“It’s a nice thing to share with the public,” she says, admitting that there is a return benefit. “Awareness comes back in the form of donations. “

The Ethnographic Collections: Preserving Cultural Heritage

When the time comes to move the University of Alberta’s Ethnographic Collections into the new Timms Collections Centre, it will be a bit like unwrapping a Christmas present: while the artifacts are now well-catalogued and care­fully maintained, they are mostly kept under wraps these days.

“Most of the stuff is in storage in the basement here (Tory Building),” confirms anthropology professor Alan Bryan, who serves as curator of both the archaeology and ethno­graphic collections on campus. “It is in good shape and well cared for, but it will be much more useful once it is in the Collections Centre. As it is now we don’t encourage its everyday use,” he explains.

But he anticipates that changing. “Once proper storage and handling facilities are avail­able, we will be able to welcome its use, especially for thesis projects.”

At the heart of the University’s Ethnographic Collections — material relating to cultural her­itage and the description and classification of cultures — are three collections which actually predate the formal teaching of anthropology at the University. These collections are the O.C. Edwards Collection of Indian and Eskimo Artifacts, the Lord Collection of Eskimo Artifacts, and the Molly Cork Congo Collection of African Artifacts.

“These collections came to the University because of Albertans who recognized their value, and there was really no other place for them in the province,” says Dr. Bryan. “The University was about the only repository even though it had limited facilities.”

More often than not, those limited facilities turned out to be the geology museum, maintained by geology professor Charles Stelck, who came to the University following the Second World War.

Among the important collections to come into Dr. Stelck’s care was the Edwards Collection, regarded as one of the best surviving collections of Northern Plains Indian clothing. It is named after Dr. O.C. Edwards, the first civilian physician in Canada’s original Northwest Territories, who spent much of his life ministering to the Territories’ Indians.

He and his family lived on Indian reservations for many years, and he and his wife, Henrietta Muir Edwards, obtained the items that now constitute the collection named for him from three principal locales in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the 1880s, when his practice was centred at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, they collected a large number of Plains Indian items of clothing and decorative beadwork.

The other major source was in and around Fort Macleod, Alberta between 1901 and 1910. During that time Dr. Edwards was the resident physician for the Blood Reserve and it was in this period that the largest number of artifacts were obtained, including a painted steer hide and some very fine sweetgrass baskets traded to the Bloods by the Kutenai Indians from west of the Rockies. In 1900 Dr. Edwards went to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta and at that time collected a number of Athabascan Indian items.

The collection, numbering some 250 items, was purchased from Mrs. Edwards for the University Museum (in effect the geology museum) in the early 1920s. In fact, the collection had been housed there some time before it was purchased, probably through the good graces of her son, William Muir Edwards, who was one of the University’s first four faculty members.

Because of its location the University has naturally looked to the North and the collection of Inuit and Indian material from Canada’s boreal regions was given impetus by the acquisition of the Lord Collection of Eskimo Artifacts, 183 items collected in the Coppermine area of the Northwest Territories in the mid 1940s by Doug Lord, a school teacher.

The Lord Collection is particularly important from an ethnographic point of view because it contains a number of utilitarian objects, which broadly reflect the culture of the area. Included are a large number of hunting instruments and sewing kits.

The largest piece in the Lord Collection is a full-size kayak, complete with hunting equipment attached to it, which was transported to Edmonton in the 1940s by Max Ward, who lashed it to the pontoon of his plane.

Another ethnographic collection featuring a number of everyday objects comes from a region of the world as remote as possible from the High Arctic. The Molly Cork Congo Collection was brought from the Congo Balolo Mission in what is now Zaire by a missionary, Molly Cork, who lived there from 1890 to 1939. It was donated to the University by her brother in 1950.

Supplementing the three major ethnographic sub-collections are a wide variety of other artifacts accumulated by the University in the eight decades since its founding. Included is a collection of contemporary native Guatemalan clothing and artifacts assembled in 1970 by Dr. Bryan and his wife, Ruth Gruhn (also a professor of anthropology at the University), during a year’s leave spent in Central America.

Dr. Bryan, who will retire at about the same time as the Timms Centre opens, is also considering donating his personal collection of ethno­graphic items to the University. He would like to see other people do the same.

“Our hope is that once the displays are set up and the public sees them, and sees that the items are well cared for, they will consider donating to us,” he says.

Published Winter 1988.

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