December 10th, 2019

Eye on the Esplanade: The weight of history

By Thomas Hulit on November 15, 2019.

Photo courtesy Tom Hulit
The Museum’s off-site storage after the move.

In the darkness, a line of cast iron stoves sit, cold and empty of all but traces of ash. No eyes have lain upon them for many months. They and 1,200 more artifacts sit waiting; some of stone, some of iron, some of brick, most of them heavy. Now I have to move them.

Not all museum artifacts are fragile and valuable. Many are large, heavy, and are problematic to move. Most of the Esplanade Museum collection is housed downtown at the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre where we have sophisticated storage and climate control to care for the artifacts. However, like many museums, we also have an off-site storage facility where we house the large and more robust items. These items include cast iron stoves, industrial equipment, an upright steam engine, architectural elements such as windows and prison cell doors, stone items, and many smaller items like gardening tools and cooking pots.

In its early days, the Museum stored many of the large, heavy items such as industrial artifacts outside. Recognizing that this was not appropriate for the long term, staff moved them into an old hangar at the airport. But the hangar was not heated and had a problem with mice, so a better storage solution was needed. In the early 1990s, the collection was moved into a disused part of the old City Electrical Line Shop in the Marshall Avenue yard. This became a dedicated, heated space and was adequate for almost 30 years. Several other city departments also used the building, but as it aged and decayed, it became unsuitable and they moved to other locations. The city has recently decided to demolish the building, so the museum off-site collection is on the move once again. The museum will also be looking into deaccessioning and disposing of some items that are damaged or do not fit our collections mandate.

After considerable discussion and planning with the city in the past year, the museum has a newly repurposed storage location in the municipal works building at Kipling Street, only a few blocks from Marshall Avenue. Though slightly smaller than the old Line Shop, the location and layout are much better. One of my tasks over the past few months has been packing and moving this collection. The artifacts were wrapped, packaged, and inventoried into 387 separate move units, more than 330 of which have now been moved. The heaviest items still remain, but will be moved soon. There is still much work to do; shelving needs to be adapted and set up, and the artifacts need to be unpacked, sorted, shelved and inventoried. It is a lot of work, but it will provide us with a much better environment for our collection and a more accessible space, which makes utilizing the artifacts for research and exhibits much easier.

Despite the off-site collections move being a weighty problem (please excuse the pun), it really has been an interesting experience and it will benefit the museum greatly. We will be able to better care for our collections and access them more readily. It also has had me out from behind my desk and physically active, which I have really enjoyed. Moving those cast iron stoves is a good workout!

Thomas Hulit is Museum Technician at the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre.

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