Saturday, December 17, 2011

Interview with Museum Curator Gary Hughes - New Brunswickers at War 1914-1946

Interview by Cynthia Wallace-Casey,
PhD Student,
University of New Brunswick (Fredericton)

I recently had an opportunity to chat (electronically) with Gary Hughes of The New Brunswick Museum. Gary curated the exhibition New Brunswickers in Wartime, 1914-1946 which opened this week at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

New Brunswickers in Wartime, 1914-1946 presents the touching and dramatic stories of fellow New Brunswickers during the First and Second World Wars, at sea, on land, in the air and at home. It is an adaptation of a highly successful exhibition created by The New Brunswick Museum in 2005.

In the transcript which follows, Gary provides some interesting insights into the curatorial world of historical interpretation. In our chat, we touch upon concepts of epistemological interpretation, historical significance, perspective, collective memory, personal memory, and historical empathy:

Thanks for agreeing to this interview… I suspect you’re very tired after the long drive back from Ottawa...

I hear (via Facebook) that the exhibition opening at the National War Museum was a great success. About how many people were in attendance?

It was very successful. About 250-300 people were in attendance and all enjoyed the event. We hope for a good run until the exhibition closes 9 April.

Were there many from NB?

We had Minister Holder, M.L.A. MacDonald, Senator Joe Day, the Carty family from Fredericton, John McAvity, the Labillois family from Eel River Bar First Nation, the Devine family from Darling’s Island (last three had Fathers in the show) and others from N.B. and still living there and some born in N.B. but living in Ottawa. Hard to say, about 50 at least.

Nice! I’m quite certain that many more (with NB roots) will make a point of visiting the exhibition while it is there in Ottawa...

To begin our question, can you briefly explain to me how it came to be that New Brunswickers in Wartime, 1914-1946 opened in Ottawa? What was the original intent of developing this exhibition? And when did you begin working on it?

I began in late 2003 with an application to the Museums Assistance Program for funding support which proved successful the following spring. Work continued through 2004 and the exhibition opened to the public in November, 2005. It toured the province the next year going to Moncton and Edmundston and then came back for a return engagement at the NBM. It was then dismantled and put in its packing crates. Attempts to interest the war museum began in 2007 and in 2009 the CWM Board met in Saint John in which a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the museums. Approval in principle from the CWM came the next year and ended with our opening. The original intent of the exhibition was to showcase a regional perspective on the two wars and counterbalance years of message control from the centre of the country in terms of the storyline.

Interesting… Perhaps this is why the exhibition has sparked such interest here in the province... Could it be that we (in NB) often feel a bit left out of the national storyline?

We can definitely see aspects of our military history that have been ignored in the official history of the Canadian Army and in other media.

How would you describe your epistemological lens on the past? What type of historian would you describe yourself as being?

I would describe myself as a material historian who looks at both cultural and technological aspects of the history of artifacts.

How do you define material history? And how does that differ from – say, social history (if at all)?

Material history is the study of the object, its physical properties, its form and design, its symbolism either inherent or added which leads to a widening view involving its provenance, documentation of similar objects in printed sources and the context of the times in which it was created. It can reflect technological advance at the same time as a cultural pathway. I have an article, for example, coming out in the spring edition of Material Culture Review in which I examined Loyalist sword belt plates in our collection and compared these to the Adam brothers design revolution in England. My research suggests that the influence of the Adams’ Neo-classicism style produced a reaction in Loyalist New York which reflected a desire to maintain the Anglo-American cross Atlantic connection. There’s no way you can reduce this type of research to just social history. Material culture touches several bases all at once.

So perhaps the difference is that with material history you START with the objects – and contextualise from there? Is this an accurate observation?


Thanks… Now moving on to my next question..(and returning to the exhibition itself)... What was your research question for this exhibition?

Our exhibition followed four themes – motivation to serve, impact of war, variety of experience and the idea of sacrifice. These were subjects and questions we wished to ask of those represented, based upon their objects in the exhibition, survivors recollections, and print media. Our interpretation took the form of the personal story, rather than a strict chronological view of the war. This was implied. In the four sections we subsequently devised – Joining, Overseas, the Home Front and Life After War – we grouped First World War experiences and Second World War experiences together, in close contact, with only tangential mention of pre- WWI; the 1920s or Depression between the wars; the post war world beyond the immediate return of the service men and women in 1945-46; and wartime housing etc.

So the interpretation was focused upon the positionality of the individual NBer? Both Wars through their eyes and their memories?

How were the artifacts selected?

Yes, through the individual story. Selections were made based upon research in our collections, but also upon satisfying the themes which meant creating an exhibition in which a wide variety of service was represented, as well as experience, such as on the home front. Army, navy, air force, merchant marine, war industry, rationing, entertainment, air raid wardens, and life in a new war time house are all represented.

Did the collections speak to you first – and then the themes established? Or was it the other way around (you sought out artifacts to fit predetermined themes?)

We had a good idea of our artifact base at the beginning and knew the objects that could form the core of an exhibition and from there developed the basic themes. No use going the other way around and then be disappointed. Beyond that, however, we did seek loans from individuals and institutions which would increase our level of wide representation of the thematic package.

Nice… I look forward to seeing the exhibition... I must admit, I missed it when it was circulating within the province. A national venue certainly brings a highlight of interest.

One thing that comes to mind, when reading your words, is that while the perspective of the individual is always important, it also somewhat limited (ie, as Margaret Conrad has noted, the perspective of the poor soul occupying a trench in Vimy was very different from the perspective of a General at central command). How have you grappled with the multiple perspectives of War? Are there multiple narratives present?

True. This was not a history of the wars and couldn’t be in the space provided. One person’s experience could not be relied upon to tell the whole story of a platoon or section of the production line but it does give first hand evidence of that experience. As in our case on the 26th New Brunswick Battalion in the First World War. We knew we had several objects related to the Officer Commanding, Lieut. Col. J.L. McAvity which were private purchase articles – trench periscope, field service note book – the type of object an officer would carry in the trenches. Each appeared to be little used, perhaps more a vanity purchase next to the worn trench clubs and chipped helmets of active service by junior officers in the rank and file. McAvity’s belongings hinted at class structure and the pre-war militia that had no idea of what they were about to enter – a cataclysm of fire.

So the multiple narratives are there – which is often the case with museum exhibitions – less in actual words; more in actual objects and images...

Might we be so bold as to consider this exhibition a "peoples’ history" of war? New Brunswick’s peoples’ history of war?

Yes it is a people’s history.

Which brings me round to the next question...

Do you see the regions (of Canada) as having a role to play in shaping the national memory of the two world wars?

The regions have a role to play for they are a mirror to other parts of the country in terms of the human response to war. They complete the national picture from a regional perspective, a building block to that end. Museum collections by their nature tend to be regional – even our national museums simply by virtue of their location – for the most part Ottawa. If, for example, you were to visit the furniture collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization you would find the majority of examples come from Ontario and Quebec. It is impossible to be rooted in one spot and not be more heavily influenced nearer that spot than farther from it. That’s why our view and that of other regional museums should be heard. One day in 1994, Jim Morell Sr. of Fredericton brought up three insignia of the 1 SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler which he had gathered on the battlefield at Carpiquet near Caen after a courageous defence of that position by the North Shore Regiment on July 5, 1944, an engagement that didn’t make the official history despite the fact that this division was considered the best in the German Army and this was its first experience of battle against Canadians. Here was material proof of that engagement. It is available in other sources, but not the official history and these pieces reinforced that occasion.

Thank you for these words Gary… this demonstrates so clearly the profound personal connection that can come from object collections (provided that their provenance has not been lost). I’m certain that day in 1994 is well etched into your memory. Do I sense a feeling of personal duty (on your part) to have these solders’ stories told? Perhaps the memory of war means so much more (to museum visitors) in that people like Jim Morell Sr. wanted to make certain that his memories would be preserved in The New Brunswick Museum. Do you have more to add here?

And I agree with you fully – that the regions have a essential role to play in contributing towards a multiplicity of national narratives. Let’s hope there’s more opportunities for partnerships such as this one.

In closing, what message(s) are you hoping that visitors will walk away with after viewing New Brunswickers in Wartime, 1914-1946 ?

It’s important to have their stories told on one plane, but the combination of media, through a museum exhibition with objects and other forms of evidence – such as film and diary excerpts - does it with maximum impact and so will remain in the memory the longest, or at least stands that chance.

I hope visitors will applaud the heroism of these veterans and others on the home front for their courage in facing danger, or in waiting on the word of loved ones. And while this can translate to the national stage, there are particularities of region involved – in the case of New Brunswick the danger of U-Boat attack, or spies dropped on beaches, and escape attempts from the Ripples prison to the sea. We are a maritime community and our geography must translate to others in the central and western regions of the country. And, since I don’t think any other Atlantic regional museum will be mounting a show on the same themes as ours in the near future, we, as best we can, will be that voice for awhile.

Thank you Gary!

New Brunswickers in Wartime, 1914-1946 continues at the Canadian War Museum until April 6, 2012. Be certain to check it out while in Ottawa!

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