MY HERITAGE FOUNDATION YEARS 1982-1988 – THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS

The Heritage Foundation had accumulated a great collection – always being added-to – and it was my first wish that it be shared with the public in a very significant way. During my first year I met large numbers of people who complained bitterly about the Foundation’s aggressive amassing of thousands of artefacts, only to have them disappear in a warehouse.

Of course the Heritage Foundation, over the past 10 years, had displayed many of these artefacts in a wide variety of small exhibitions, both at Beaconsfield and at Eptek. As the Provincial Museum, it was expected of it that there would be both permanent and changing exhibitions on Island heritage in Charlottetown, the capital city. Putting on exhibitions in the parlour at Beaconsfield was a challenge with different aspects. On the one hand, exhibitions demand props such as backgrounds for titles, texts, graphics and picture artefacts. Cases, free-standing or shallow ones attached to a backdrop, were also needed. On the other hand, the parlour was used frequently for social events connected with heritage, where free movement in an elegant setting was desired, or for lectures when the space, divided by a heavy archway, was filled with chairs. This was the result when a small exhibition was mounted.

Without a dedicated space, all exhibitions would be dwarfed by the very grand and beautiful architecture of that parlour. Nothing could be done to damage that space so intervention in the form of large panels with accompanying display elements was simply not possible.

From the start I experienced the greatest frustration in trying to fit travelling exhibitions that were available into the dining room, which was dominated by a large mantelpiece and huge bay window. It simply didn’t work and looked awful.

I explored the large carriage house next to the house which at one time had been converted into a gym for the nurses who resided in the house. I proposed, again and again, that this should be converted into the desperately-needed exhibition space. There was absolutely no interest in my proposal. It was not until 1990 when I ghost-wrote A Five Year Plan for the Prince Edward Island Museum & Heritage Foundation that I was able, with the full support of the new Director who commissioned me to write that report, that a solid proposal was made to use the Carriage House as a gallery. Here are details of illustrations from pages 58 and 61 of that report.

There would be a generous lobby space with a loading/work area behind it, and the rest of the building would be dedicated to an open gallery space. To make the gallery as pure an abstract space as possible, it was suggested that a box-within-a-box be constructed to create a clean, highly flexible, modern gallery space that would hide, but not destroy, the lovely wooden finish of the interior. Paint colours could be changed at will. The Fire Marshall was involved in safety discussions to achieve this effect.

Without the spending of a huge sum of money it would have been possible to quickly gain a Charlottetown gallery for the Heritage Foundation in which, during the summer, fully articulated large exhibitions could take up the whole space, while in the winter, a different exhibition(s) could be mounted on the walls while the centre of the space was turned into a lecture hall for a winter programme of various heritage activities. It was all so simple and so desirable. The Heritage Foundation would have leapt ahead in its status as the provincial museum and visitors could have appreciated the many beauties and treasures of the growing collection.

The response to my proposal was completely negative and was never discussed at Board level until eight years later in the Five Year Plan. Eventually, the Carriage House was restored to its original gym space, with added facilities, and while it is the most wonderful lecture hall in which I have ever spoken (37 presentations to date!), it is not suitable, because of the suffocating colour and texture of the varnished wood, for serious exhibitions. Today’s standards require a sterile space brought to life by the artefacts.

Shortly after I began work at the Heritage Foundation in 1982 the Confederation Centre Art Galley got a new Director in the person of the late David Webber, whom I had previously met at a conference in Newfoundland. I post a picture of Webber because he was the most creative, supportive and kind museum professional I encountered during my time at the Foundation.

David was just old enough to join the army in late World War II and afterwards was posted to the Horse Guards, those splendid mounted soldiers who accompany the Queen. After demobilisation he studied design arts, a perfect direction for his extraordinary talents in design and as an artist. He gravitated to museums, historical interpretation and archaeology, and it was from such activities in Saint John’s that he was persuaded to move to Charlottetown.

After discussing my frustrations with him about the impossibility of mounting significant exhibitions of Island heritage in Charlottetown, he generously invited the Heritage Foundation to put on big shows at Confederation Centre. Furthermore he volunteered to help with design and interpretation and was always available to advise and inspire.

In 1984 the Heritage Foundation had its first joint exhibition with Confederation Centre. It was called The Signs of the Times and consisted of a dramatic display of shop signs from the Foundation’s large collection of them. Unfortunately I have no photograph of this exhibition. This was very popular with visitors crowding in to remember and talk about businesses that existed now only as signs.

The greatest exhibition the Heritage Foundation put on in association with Confederation Centre was a gallery-filling three-dimensional assemblage of four Victorian Rooms.

I had envisioned a huge cruciform exhibition into which four Victorian rooms would be inserted, possibly with inter-connecting features. It was the confident genius of David Webber who came up with this fantastic plan.

The periods of the rooms, based on close consultation with Trude Oliver, the Curator of Collections, were settled on achieving the following approximate effects: an 1850s dining room opening into an 1830-60 kitchen, an 1840-60 sitting room and an 1870s Renaissance Revival bedroom. The work required from Trude and her staff – who all pitched in! – was enormous and cheerfully provided. All artefacts had to be identified, set aside for cleaning and minor conservation and then packed for the voyage to the Confederation Centre, there to be unpacked and placed in their pre-determined positions which had been indicated in detailed drawings by David Webber.

The dining room, with material from the 1830-1850 period, was a smasher. If funds had permitted we would have had walls painted in suitable colours of the times, but we had to settle on modern wallpapers because of the plywood base and it was with the greatest trepidation that we dared exhibit our timid choices. The red blast triumphed.

Webber’s concept of space articulation was brilliantly demonstrated in a small but vital detail, the serving door leading into the kitchen.

Here we did not need wallpaper because I frantically plastered over the plywood base of the set so that it looked like rough plaster. That and the wainscoting gave us our most credible “historic” feel of all the rooms. We decided to emphasise the change-over from the great open fireplace of pioneer homes to a modern iron stove that became popular in the middle of the century. Collections Assistant Mary Burnett then took over to bring a sense of something-just-interrupted that we had decided we would aim for in order to bring a sense of intimacy to those who viewed the exhibition. She did this by creating pastry-in-progress on the pastry board and in the actual processing of yarn next to the chair that marked the outside corner of the kitchen.

The next room was a sitting room that represented the taste from the 1840-1860 period.

Everywhere, I tried to arrange artefacts so that visitors would see that a person had just got up and left the room. At the centre table somebody – probably a boy – is writing about his rock collection while consulting Dawson’s book Acadian Geology. A woman has just gotten up from the sofa and left her shawl and open book in disorder.

Finally there was the high-fashion Renaissance Revival bedroom with its splendid furniture now at Government House. Sadly, a mix-up with the company that supplied the wallpaper resulted in the substituted paper on the wall – reminding one of walking through a blizzard. Well never mind. The general effect is grand and fashionable. An officer has just carelessly discarded the full military regalia he was wearing, all braid and bullion, and has gone out, probably in his dressing gown.

The next exhibition followed close upon the heels of the first. This time the very large collection of chairs from various periods and ethnic groups would be explored.

For this exhibition, a large number of bases of varying heights were constructed upon which to display the chairs in various configurations. Although the collection featured mainly artefacts from the British Colonial Period, there were representative samples of Mi’kmaq and Acadian chairs. The various groups attempted to emphasise the relationships between old and new. For example, the chair in the centre of this group, possibly late Eighteenth Century, was the ancestor of the circa 1900 elegant dining chairs that flank it.

Another sequence of chairs explored the varieties of side chairs from the massive ceremonial Gothic-style throne to austere or intricate specimens.

Much sought after by collectors, chairs from various periods by the Wilt family were grouped together. Irene Rogers says, The Wilt family were our most famous chair-makers, beginning with Barnett Wilt in the 1830s and following with William, John, Hugh, and their brother-in-law William Batchilder There were so many Wilt chairs made that on Prince Edward Island a Windsor chair is regularly referred to as a Wilt.

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/17125/22871

Our next exhibition at the Centre was again in 1986, when, collaborating with Dr. David Weale from the History Department at the University of Prince Edward Island, we displayed a large number of photographs he had collected with the assistance of his students over the years that showed rural life in the first fifty years of the Twentieth Century.

Collaborating with the two Davids – Webber and Weale – to produce this show was a stimulating adventure. The Heritage Foundation provided a large collection of large country artefacts to create a central grouping to articulate the space between the wall and panel hangings.

When art photography is being displayed in a gallery it can be austerely spaced so that visitors can appreciate each work as a separate entity, with its own message from an artistic point of view. With collections of historic photos that try to recreate the feel of an era, the approach may often be different, with groups of related or contrasting subjects that involve an essentially emotional response. Intensifying this effect with three-dimensional artefacts that do not cry for attention is a successful practice.

Here are two photos that were favourites in the exhibition. Many visitors had picked potatoes on their hands and knees with Mi’kmaq baskets, just like the workers in the photo on the right. And what boy wouldn’t want to spread manure with his daddy!

David Weale has had a lifetime love of studying the kinds of photographs showing the daily lives of ordinary people. In 2004 he published many of the photos that were in this exhibition in this very lovely book that I never tire of going to as I explore aspects of the Island into which I was born.

David’s love of accounts of life in rural Prince Edward Island intensified to the point that in the winter of 2011 he launched the magazine RED, written by Islanders about their experiences. I had the very great honour of being invited to submit an article in the maiden issue, and have written about a dozen more articles in subsequent ones – all about my village in West Prince County.

I was delighted beyond measure when he chose as his cover illustration of Volume Fourteen this deeply moving photo of Matilda Knockwood Lewis, exhibited by the extraordinarily gifted Island photographer, Lionel Stevenson, tragically lost to us on April 3, 2017. In my previous post there is a picture of me at the Robertson Library at U. P. E. I. opening the exhibition of which this photo was a part. I remember selecting it for the audience as the most moving photo in the collection.

The collaboration with Confederation Centre for 1987 was a collection of historic documents and works of art that told the story of Charlottetown’s first hundred years.

This exhibition would not have been possible without the very energetic collaboration of the Public Archives with Nicolas de Jong and Harry Holman. They hunted the archives for rare manuscripts, prints and photographs that met the documentary requirements we were seeking to use as the basis for telling the story of the Island’s first hundred years – roughly 1785-1885. Their material, combined with pictures from the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and the Heritage Foundation collection gave visitors and the people of Charlottetown an amazing view of the evolution of the city’s topography and the individuals who moulded it.

Among the different documents and art forms were these rarely-seen watercolours.

This one, from the Heritage Foundation collection, called Keswick House is credibly attributed to Fanny Bayfield, wife of the naval officer who was responsible for the sounding and charting of the Island and Northumberland Strait. The date is about 1850 because the tower of the Kirk of Saint James on the right has just been rebuilt in a fashionable neo-Gothic style.

In the distance, on the left, is a vignette of Government House and its approach that is full of picturesque Romanticism. The painter stood at the intersection of Queen and Kent Streets and Keswick House was located where the Rodd Hotel now stands.

This anonymous not-very-skilled watercolour is of tremendous importance because it is the only view we have of a phase in the construction of Isaac Smith’s Province House at the time it was decided to build Ionic porticoes on the North and South façades. Here we can see the base already constructed but the columns have not been erected nor the pediment to top them built. This is also from the Heritage Foundation collection.

Shortly after this exhibition came down in the Spring of 1987 I was summoned by my Director, Ian Scott, who had some very bad news to deliver. The Chairman of the Board, Betty Howatt, had instructed him to inform me that all future collaborations with the Confederation Centre Art Gallery were to cease immediately. There were to be no more exhibitions. No reason was given.

My time at the Heritage Foundation was obviously drawing to a close. I had fought constantly and energetically to do everything possible in my power to fulfil the recommendations for the Foundation set forth by the Lord, Martin and Lemieux reports so that it might grow into the semblance of a provincial museum. It was not enough. My health began to break down.

Respite came in the form of an offer from Diane Griffin who was then Director of the Island Nature Trust, and who had of office next to mine on the third floor at Beaconsfield. Stan Vass, a distinguished civil servant with a powerful interest in Island topography, had drawn up criteria that could be used to classify the many hundreds of miles of Island rural roads so that the best could be designated for protection. Would I like to be seconded to the Nature Trust for a while, said the wise and kindly Diane Griffin, and take to the road with my monster four-wheel-drive truck and drive over EVERY rustic road in Prince County? I would. It was an exceptionally beautiful fall. I had already prepared an atlas of PEI, by photocopying over 100 overlapping pages of the most recent topographic maps of the Island which I used as a guide for my exploratory jaunts. Roads were provisionally classified with coloured markers.

For weeks I only checked into the hateful Heritage Foundation at night, after my days on the road with map, camera and truck.

I returned to my office to assemble a massive highly-detailed report on the state and aesthetics of the Prince County Rustic roads and presented it to the kindly Diane Griffin.

I then went on sick leave, and when that expired, I would be reborn eventually as a heritage consultant.