May 20th, 2018

Eye on the Esplanade: Quiet work behind the scenes

By Medicine Hat News on April 21, 2017.

You may know the Esplanade as a place where your child attends art classes and guided school tours. You may have attended a concert here, a workshop, or gallery opening. Perhaps you may have even done some research in our archives or asked our museum staff to look at something you uncovered while you were gardening or renovating. All of these activities are a part of our function as your community arts and culture institution, but this short piece isn’t about an event, a program, or strictly speaking, an offered service. It is about the quiet work that occurs behind the scenes.

I work in the Archives. I, along with other members of our cultural team, are entrusted with caring for your history and Medicine Hat’s collective story. As such, part of my job is to “process records.” Simply put, this means arranging, describing and preserving incoming records. It also means making them publicly accessible.

Processing archival records is an important part of what we do as an archives. Records, whether they be photographic, paper or digital, require organization and description in order to be properly preserved and easily retrieved. Imagine asking an archivist for access to Metis oral histories, or diaries of women living at the turn of the 20th century, and that archivist then brought you hundreds of boxes containing paper records and photographs, ledgers and film negatives, three quarter-inch film reels, as well as cassette tapes and simply said, “it should be in there somewhere.” Simply keeping records is not preserving them and does not make them useful. Arrangement, description and preservation ensure that records are useful and that they survive into the future. You can search Medicine Hat’s archival records with the aid of our reference archivist or on your own through the Archives webpage on the Esplanade website. Arrangement, description and preservation measures, including digitization make this possible.

An example of a collection I recently processed was the Bateman family records. It consisted of boxes containing more than 500 photos and nitrate negatives that were left behind in the basement of a house that had been sold. The new home owners decided against destroying them and instead donated them to the Archives. These images documented the lives of Harold and Janette Bateman (née MacDonald), as well as their extended family. The images capture family moments, pastimes, occupations as well as early views of Medicine Hat and nearby areas dating from 1910 to 1955. They are historically valuable both for the specific information that they offer on these individuals and also for the general insights they provide into the daily lives and experiences of our early residents.

Through research and processing of the Bateman records, I became familiar with Janette and Harold and their families. I began to know their faces, names and pieces of their life stories. I began to learn more about who they were and what their Medicine Hat was like. It is easy to develop a connection to the creators of archival records, especially when they are personal records. The witty hand- scrawled notes on the back of snapshots, the knowing or humorous gleam captured in a person’s eyes, the recounting of day-to-day concerns and future hopes in a letter to a friend, all created a tangible connection to the Batemans that seemed to bridge time.

While documenting their daily lives, they also unintentionally photographed their surroundings. The background of these images capture the Medicine Hat townscape as it was being constructed. They offer evidence of the gradual reshaping of the land to fit the residents’ ideals. Visible in these photos are lonesome houses, both simple and grand, along unpaved streets occupying areas that are today fully populated and developed. These images hint at the building resources available, early living conditions, and social reality. Among the collection are also early photos of prominent buildings, the construction of Fifth Avenue Memorial United Church and St. Patrick’s Church as seen through nearby rose bushes. They also capture strolls taken by neatly dressed individuals in a newly built, well-manicured park. These pictures hint at who the early residents were and what their vision of home was.

The processing of these records allowed the Bateman’s story to be told. It also gave us new pieces to add to Medicine Hat’s story. This collection is one example of the many quiet efforts that go on behind the scenes daily to preserve the past and to make your history accessible to you, because a good story is meant to be shared!

Candace Loder is an Archives Clerk/Tech at the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre.

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