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Museums, curators and collectors - some thoughts

September 12 2007 at 1:01 AM
Colin Stevens 

Response to Response To Museum Labels

Sadly I agree that some Curators are just there for the paycheques. There are many people like myself who have museum skills (I have been a museum curator or deirector for 35 years) and military knowledge (enough so that I was invited for an interview for the job of Director of the Canada Aviation Museum - I did not get it but was honoured to be among the select few to be interviewed.) but good paying military museum jobs in Canada are VERY few and far between, especially in places where people want to live (OK, so no one REALLY wants to live in Ottawa, but the resources there for research are great.) I was offered the job as Curator of the Canadian Military Engineers Museum in a competition, but had to decline it as the pay was far too low and I had a family and mortgage. Some of the museum jobs seem to have the other official language (French or English as the case may be) as the first prerequisite rather than knowledge of the subject - a similar situation occured when the RCMP Security Service had to conform with government practice and eventually handed over to CSIS - with predictably declining results in spycatching when language skills mattered more than spycatching skills.

Some people who get into the museum system put their heart and soul into it and yet others frustrate collectors to no end because to them it is not a passion, it is just a job. I suppose it is no differeent from other fields in this regard - be it a doctor, police officer, housepainter etc. Curators are often sitting on treasures that are for the most part inaccessible and some of them do not care if they don't get it right. For some, "close is good enough". Vehicles and aircraft are a good example. The Canadian War Museum has some excellent staff BUT they have been guilty of sloppy labelling and research in the past. I wrote many memos to staff over the years. Some errors were fixed and some were not. I could list some problems with their military vehicles but I also know that there is only ONE (1) person on staff to take care of ALL of the military vehicles and artillery! Likewise ONE person for uniforms, and 1 person for small arms and body armour.

The Canadian Forces preserved two C-47 Dakotas. One was painted up to represent those that served in the Far East in Burma. The other was painted to represent the D-Day invasion. Some problems that will likely NEVER be corrected because people would be embarrased.
1. Canadian squadron in Europe became operational AFTER D-Day so would not have had the stripes I believe on the wings and fuselage. (Perhaps these were continued on in use?)
2. The C-47 painted as D-Day one was actually used in Burma, and is presently at the RCAF museum in Comox. Photo on my web page at:
3. The C-47 painted as a Burma one, was actually used in North West Europe - likely for Arnhem etc. and it at the RCAF Museum in Trenton, Ontario as I recall.
Someone did NOT do their homework! That was air force's doing though, not museums, but now the museums perpetuate the errors.

The funniest and yet saddest example was a few years ago when the CWM's selected war art travelled across Canada before the new CWM building opened. It was shown in Vancouver, BC, the last stop I believe in a cross-country tour. The family of a locally born and raised official RCAF war artist (Paul Goranson - see my web page on him at ) were not even invited nor was he, a local man, even acknowledged. He had died but his family were there at the opening - mystified that he was ignored. One of his works "Bombs Away" was hanging on display, but was not mentioned by the speakers. Here it is as it should be:

It showed a bombadier lying on the floor of his bomber and one could see through the floor windows, the bombs dropping away. It looked odd to me as the bombs appeared to be going up. I had met the late Paul Goranson (he lived 2 doors down from my Mom) and he told be how fussy he was about going on combat missions (against orders) and his desire for technical accuracy. The painting worked but knowing what I did about the artist and the RCAF, it seemed odd. I tried to figure out where the artist was "sitting" when he sketched the scene. It did not make sense until I leaned over and looked at the painting UPSIDE DOWN! He was siting in the nose, looking aft and down at the bombadier.

It was mounted in the frame upside down and had been displayed that way all across Canada! The mix-up likely occured when the paintings were removed from their frames for cleaning before the tour. The identification was a plaque on the frame, not a signaure on the painting. It does say wonders for the artist that his realistic painting worked both right side up AND upside down! One can expect that for a worrk of "modern art" like the three stripes of "Voice of Fire" and apparently many galleries have to mark on the back of modern paintings which way is up! I notified then Diretor of the CWM, Mr. Joe Guerts and his staff verified that it was wrong and they had it corrected within 4 days.

The Museum of the Regiments has a CIVILIAN CJ-2A jeep (I believe that is the model) on prominent display on the left and down as you enter the building. It was there when the Queen opened the building (I spotted its inappropriate presence from the news clip at the time). WWII jeeps are around (I have two and have owned 1/2 dozen others), but the msueum has apparently never sought one out to replace it, so MANY THOUSANDS of visitors to this very successful and overall very good museum, have been misinformed.

The 12 Service Battalion Museum in Richmond, BC has several vehicles outside "on display" (i.e. rotting). One has a label identifying it as an M38A1 CDN2 jeep, painted in supposed UN colour and markings. The markings are wrong and the jeep is a military contract CJ-7 Military Police jeep! Ironically the only known genuine surviving UNFICYP (Cyprus) M38A1CDN2 jeep came surplus out of the same 12 Svc Bn and was bought by friends of mine. It is now preserved by the Canadian Military Remembrance Society. The markings are now 95% correct - the Canada flags and the "UN" on the hood should not be on it.

Now, regarding collections... there are two sides to this and lots of grey area.

I do think the museum in Petawawa should have accepted that rare FSSF collection as it sounds like a definitive reference collection in a field that is of great public interest (though Petawawa like several other large Canadian Forces museums is way out in the boonies). Having said that, as Curator of a large city museum on 10 acres with a 1920s museum village, I was offered a collection of .... wait for it .... HEARSES! These ranged from the Middle Ages ("Bring out yer dead!") to the 1960s. I turned the collection down. We might have been able to use ONE hearse. To have accepted the whole collection would have changed the nature of the whole museum. While I was Curator of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regimental Museum (volunteer, unpaid of course) I was offered a large collection of Lee Enfield rifles - including rare experimental models, Indian Army models etc. The museum was and is very small (1 display room and crowded inadequate storage space). We only wanted about 5 basic types as used by our regiment (SMLE/No. 1 Mk. III*; No. 4 Mk. I*; No. 4 Mk. I (T); P-17; C No. 7 Mk. I) but understandably the owner did not want to break up the collection. We wished him "God Speed". Another regimental museum accepted the collection and it dominated half the museum, took up most of their budget I suspect on security improvements and changed the nature of the museum from a regimental museum to a Lee Enfield Collection and smaller regimental museum. Another collection I declined was a razor collection. The village museum already had more than enough razors and did not need a thousand more.

One curator can accept something into a collection and a successor can decide to remove it - through channels usually. I would love to get rid of a colleciton of huge ugly modern dolls that a predecessor accepted into the collection (I still do not understand why). I note that many modern young curators are anti-military and would happily purge that stuff from their museum collections. Guns are a hassle and are to them "icky." The Vancouver Museum many years ago had a Director who ordered staff to transfer ALL military artifacts to the nearest military museum - the Canadian Military Engineers Museum in CFB Chilliwack. The next Director realized the folly of this and asked for the military items back - and was apparently rebuffed by DND. The base and museum were later closed and the museum was relocated to CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick! So now if Vanncouver Museum wants to borrow any of "their" artifacts, they have to arrange to ship them across Canada!

Bottom line is that museums should have collections policies. Getting stuff is usually not a huge problem and museums MUST be more selective about what they accept so they have resources to care for it (staff, space, shelter.)

Sometimes it is difficult to understand the logic. I offered the CWM a collection of original Canadian Army paper maps (in two scales) covering the path of First Canadian Army from Normandy to Germany 1944-45. General Crerar was General Officer Commanding. His ADC was Finlay Morrison (South Sasks) (in famous photo of Crerar in his jeep with Monty as passenger and Monty's Union Jack flying, Finlay is the chap in the back seat with the map board.) It was Finlay's job to brief the General everfy morning using maps in his office trailer. It is Finlay's office trailer which is preserved at the CWM (with its post-war DND number showing instead of its wartime WD number) even though they call it Crear's trailer. [Note: It does not show up on a CWM data base search because thay have done the war art but not the vehicles] At the end of the war, Finlay went to the RCE detachment there and asked for a full set of maps - note that this is within the advanced HQ of First Canadian Army which consisted of General Crerar and his top generals (head of engineers, head of artillery etc.). Many of the maps had been used by Crerar and or his immediate subordinates in the HQ. CWM refused the donation offer saying that I could not prove that the maps were General Crerar's (I never said they were) and beside thay had lots of maps. My logic was that these maps were the personal souvenir set of the fellow whose office trailer they have! I doubt that they would get as good an historic set offered again - unless Vrear's family donated a set. CWM turned down the donation of the Crerar sleeping caravan just after WWII - the cab and chassis Diamond T have disappeared but the rest was found and saved by Dr. Bill Gregg and is now at CFB Shilo where staff reportedly DESTROYED a restored Diamond T Wrecker (rare Canadian Army tow truck) from the Gregg Canadian Collection to fake the cab and chassis for the caravan. The cab is open instead of closed and they had to lengthen the frame! Anyway, I later donated the maps to the RCA Museum at CFB Shilo.

Exercise Musk Ox in 1946 used 15 converted Ferrand & Delorme Canadian Armoured Snowmobiles (now called PENGUINS) to travel from Churchill across the arctic and down to Dawson Creek in BC (then to Edmonton by train). ONE of those machines had survived, intact except for a missing track. It ended up going from a collector to the Bombardier Museum. I later discovered that a large "8" was painted inside the roof hatch. The DND number was not recovered. This leads me to believe that this was Machine # 8 on Ex. Musk Ox which was commanded by Capt. Bob "Beanie" Inglis - my late former father-in-law! Now, it would seem fortunately and I might like to take my son to see his grandfather's snowmobile which was preserved in a museum in Quebec. Sadly when I phoned them, they told me that it had been scrapped! [I deduce because it was not made by Bombardier - but then in that case, this VERY HISTORIC AND SIGNIFICANT CANDIAN VEHICLE should have been transferred to the CWM].

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