In 1992 I was invited by the West Prince Industrial Commission, in the person of Scott Harper, to work with Peter Ratelle to plan an interpretative centre at North Cape. This involved producing a concept, a storyline, graphics research, original photography and production supervision.
North Cape had long been for me the most mystical place on the Island, a barren jagged point of land dominated by a soaring white lighthouse built in the 1860s. Going out to sea for three miles, it was said, was a deadly reef first observed by Jacques Cartier in the 1530s. It is not known how many ships were wrecked there, but in the cobbles and boulders that make up the reef are hundreds of pieces of European flint that were the ballast of those smashed ships.
Behind the lighthouse was a spruce forest that quickly turned into a huge bog of sphagnum moss, floating in a post-glacial depression. Insectivorus plants like the pitcher plant and sundews, looking almost like wild strawberries, flourished there.
Beyond the Black Marsh was a grove of Hawthorne bushes, probably planted there by the Irish settlers who came in the early 1800s and this produced a second name for the bog, the Hawbush. A fire in the 1960s seems to have killed off all the bushes, leaving only spiny skeletons reaching to the sky.
Legends, of ghosts, balls of fire and buried treasure abounded. The sheds of local landowners were filled with curious objects rescued from the shipwrecks. This article, from the November 2, 1962 edition of the Guardian by Neil A. Matheson enlarges on this story.
The tall red sandstone cliffs, bearing evidence of millions of years of geological activity, even had evidence of high-pressure volcanic liquid intrusions in very ancient times.
Crowning all this natural glory and tales of danger was the presence of the lighthouse itself, and the stories of the many lightkeepers who warned those on the sea of the terrible fate awaiting them on the reef.
The Coast Guard had provided a list of thirteen lightkeepers that spanned over 100 years. One of them was Everett Morrissey, the second last before the light became automated.
This was one of my favourite pictures in the whole exhibition, showing the young Everett Morrissey lighting the burner at the core of the huge polished glass Fresnel lens that shot the beam of light out to sea. He spent a whole afternoon with me, going through his rich photo albums, while outside a thunderstorm raged. What a charming and knowledgeable man he was.
The Western Development Commission of Prince Edward Island was an amazingly energetic and effective government agency that brought much-needed development, in many forms, to the west part of the Island. One of their projects was the complete renovation of the Wind and Reef Restaurant at North Cape that would have a 1500 square foot addition built to house an interpretative centre. This is what I was invited to create and define with the help of Peter Ratelle, who made all my ideas into tangible reality.
The interpretative centre was to be housed in the lower right portion of this building, seen in this conceptual drawing.
I presented Peter with a storyline, which various experts had vetted for accuracy, and without any difficulty at all, he produced this maze that incorporated all the panels and cases required to tell my story, and at the end, provide a section of the blueberry industry which was growing fast at that time, and a separate theatre/display area for the huge wind test site project what has been under construction in that place since that time.
It was a very elegant set-up where, in the gift shop vestibule, visitors were funnelled off to the right to go through the story maze, emerging, having seen everything, on the other side of the gift shop!
Peter proposed a solution for the basic panel design used for interpretation that we would use again in other projects we collaborated on.
It was based on the major text – graphics -artefacts model that had emerged as the most practical and aesthetically pleasing in our O’Leary Potato Museum project.
We chose to introduce an aura of mystery that matched the general mystery of North Cape, and Peter stained the walls a dark forest green. Spaces were articulated with mouldings and text and graphics stood out very well.
Peter Had a gift for incorporating artefact cases that were, in themselves, remarkable exhibition furniture. This was especially visible in this walk-around case for a model of the lighthouse.
Throughout the exhibition, I tried to select as many old photographs of local interest as I could find.
This happy social time on top of a wood sled, showing young Morrisseys with some of their friends out working in the woods, is an all-time favourite of mine.
Our work at North Cape no longer exists because in the passing of time it was replaced by a new exhibit. Well, never mind. I think that what we accomplished there was the most advanced interpretative techniques seen anywhere on the Island up till that time. We would go on in Summerside and Tignish and do even better, as new digital printing techniques made design and panel assembly so much easier. There would no longer be hundreds of pieces of individual display components, but just a beautiful story, attached to the panels from the colourfully printed roll.
Work continued to pour in faster than I could meet deadlines. That is always the problem with a one-person business when the going is good. I had to practice my powers of diplomacy – with much personal distress – when I had to extend completion dates yet another time. The clients were almost without exception, gracious.
In the midst of success and a growing reputation, I had to escape to my other world, that of the history of art, just to re-adjust my perspective and fulfil a lifelong ambition to study in Rome. So, in December of 1992 I set off for Rome and returned on New Year’s Eve with a violent flu. But Rome was Rome, and I sought out all its famous monuments, seven days a week with no break and found special places like this, the Pegasus fountain (with the water turned off) in a hidden corner of the great gardens of the Villa d’Este near Rome. I knew it only from a Sixteenth Century engraving.
So in no time at all I went from a draft horse and happy men in the Black Marsh to a celestial horse causing a spring to erupt when his hoof touched the mountaintop.
Rome ravished me. On Christmas Day 1992 I went and sat inside the great Pantheon built by the Emperor Hadrian and cried. The rain outside echoed my tears, not of sadness, but of joy.
I then spent the rest of that day wandering through the streets of Mediaeval Rome that were so narrow that no car could pass there.
The city seemed empty. Everybody was celebrating Christmas. For supper I ate a lot of pizza, and incongruously, drank a half bottle of the most wonderful wine in the world – Montepulciano. The shop keeper accompanied me out into the street to show me how to carry the bottle.
At college one of my greatest teachers ever had told me about a great wine called Montepulciano, and that before I died, I would have to go to Italy and taste it. He also told me about a poem, written by an Italian biologist called Francesco Redi (1626 –1697) who had disproved the theory of spontaneous generation. The poem, a jolly thing, has a stanza end with Montepulciano d’ogni vino è il re or Montepulciano is the king of all the wines. That Christmas Eve, alone in my pensione room, I quite believed it.
I returned to Charlottetown, deadly sick with the flu, but rejuvenated in so many ways that I could throw myself back into my work with an energy I didn’t know I could ever muster. I was on a Rome high for months after that.
My next major job was the most demanding I ever had. It had long been acknowledged that Island community museums lacked basic organisational documents such as statements of intent and policy in areas of collections, conservation and exhibition/educational intentions. From July 1993-December 1995, The Community Museums Association hired me to visit EVERY Island museum and, working closely with members of their boards, arrive at fully articulated documents in these vital policy areas of concern.
Fourteen community museums participated, and each of these places required at least three separate visits, often more. People seldom realise that a clear statement of intent and clearly articulated policies in vital areas are their ultimate protection, and position from which to argue the present and the future. I was very good at writing policies and still have a complete set of the work done during these 18 months. The travel and stress of dealing with so many different individuals with so many different ideas, and bringing them all together in similarly formatted policy documents wore me out.
The next project, in July-August 1993, was another collaboration with Peter Ratelle to plan and coordinate the production of an exhibit for an interpretative centre at Spinnakers’ Landing in Summerside. We produced, in our now familiar pattern, an exhibit on the history of Summerside, guided by Allan Rankin’s very fine book on the city.
I also did a very brief section on the fox industry in the area which sent the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame into a tailspin. They accused me of stealing their entire story! That such a tiny exhibit component, whose information was gleaned from public documents, could cause such trauma to an international museum left me utterly confused.
In time, with new developments in this wonderful waterfront compound, our interpretative centre was replaced by something else. Things come and go.
I had less than five years to go before everything in me that was my driving force gave out. I will describe the projects of those years in my next and last section. I have never stopped marvelling at the privileges I was given during my consulting years to work at such varied, and sometimes massively important projects. I wish that I could sing grateful doxologies to all those wonderfully kind, generous and understanding clients.