What are the Museum Staff Doing?
Readers of e-Veritas will know that the Fort Frederick Martello Tower has been closed, and might well be tempted to think that the “RMC Museum has closed”.
But a museum is a lot like an iceberg. Most of what goes on is below the surface, only revealed when weather and water have done their work. The iceberg tumbles, to display previously unseen shapes and structures.
Weather and water have taken their toll too on Fort Frederick Tower and so the Museum’s prime display space has indeed been closed. But the work of the Museum goes on, and with the Tower – the public museum – shuttered, this is an excellent opportunity to think about that less visible, but all important work.
The RMC Museum is not “closed”. Far from it.
In broad terms, the mission of the Museum is to collect, conserve, research and interpret the tangible and intangible history and heritage of the College.
The heart of the RMC Museum is its remarkable Collection: the artifacts, relics and significant items that continue to accumulate long after Col. Hewitt began collecting objects in 1879. They range from the smallest- fish bones from archeological digs- to the largest- Fort Frederick Tower itself- but the sense is perhaps best conveyed by the 2016 publication of RMC Treasures-Trésors du RMC (available from the RMC Club Gift Shop).
One of the first duties of the curatorial staff is to care for that Collection, care that extends well beyond dusting old uniforms. Every new acquisition (the Museum receives about ten donated items every month) must be researched, dated and catalogued. Many donations must be appraised before a tax receipt is issued, and finding suitable appraisers can be an art in itself.
Conservation, the preservation of aging artifacts, demands particular attention. Even when the Tower was open, most artifacts remained in storage, hidden away from the public eye. It is the Curator’s job to select and organize items from the Collection within a chosen context, and exhibit them to tell some of the story of RMC and Point Frederick. This is all demanding work, and requires a professionally credible and competent, energetic Museum staff.
Equally interesting are the frequent research requests that make every day different. Here’s a brief sample: “There’s been an enquiry about the Leinster Plate, can you provide me with background details?”; “How old is the Commandant’s House?”; “It’s the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid. How many ex-Cadets were at Dieppe, and who were they?” Many of these requests come from external researchers, while others involve local projects, for example the major refurbishment of Currie Hall. This kind of work is fascinating and often rewarding, but it has its frustrations too. Institutional memory is surprisingly fragile and College records are not always complete. Responses to these research demands do much to sustain and even enhance the College’s records and its institutional memory.
With or without a central display space, the role of the Museum abides, to reflect the “Story of RMC” and of its graduates, especially the Ex-Cadets, with their contribution to nation-building at home and abroad. But without a physical centre at a defined address, this is a formidable challenge.
For our young and enthusiastic Museum staff, that challenge is to find ways to stay relevant, and to be in the public eye. They have made admirable efforts: organizing RMC exhibits at Fort Henry, assembling displays at various sites throughout the College, and showing an RMC presence at the pop-up museums sponsored by the Kingston Association of Museums, Art Galleries and Heritage Sites as part of Canada 150 celebrations.
These commendable examples of Museum outreach should continue, but they alone cannot tell all that should be told about RMC.
Long before the Tower was closed, the members of the College’s Heritage and Museum Committee held the view that the Collection was not reaching its full potential to tell the College’s story.
The closure of Fort Frederick Tower has only brought into sharper relief the need for a modern Museum facility.
The case for a new RMC Museum has been presented in a series of e-Veritas articles in November and December of 2016.
To summarize briefly, there are four key factors. First, the Collection has grown far beyond what Fort Frederick can sustain. Second, even when repaired the old Fort will never meet the necessary environmental conditions of a professional museum. Third, it is not located where the public has easy access, and fourth, it will not meet modern accessibility requirements.
The building of the new RMC Museum has been on the College wish list since 2014. The project has not progressed as rapidly as was hoped when the 2016 articles appeared, perhaps because the proposal presents some novel features. On such matters, it appears that the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly indeed.
For the purposes of this article, it suffices to note that the Museum proposal is alive and well, and that the Museum staff are enthusiastically engaged in developing the Functional Plan for the new Museum building, working to resolve the many practical questions that will decide the structure and layout of new display areas. That work will be key to a Design-Build process, as it will describe the needs for the display spaces and the storage areas in our new Museum.
It is appropriate to close this short article by recognizing the RMC Museum’s always-busy curatorial staff. Curator Lena Beliveau (presently on maternity leave), Acting Curator Ashley Mendes and Assistant Curator Miranda Riley have cheerfully faced the daunting problems that accompany the loss of our physical museum. Thanks to their initiative and hard work, the RMC Museum remains “open”.
FJN and AJB 27 Jan 2018