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Behind the Scenes: Assessing WDM Artifacts in Storage

Since 1949, the Western Development Museum has been collecting artifacts from across Saskatchewan, Canada and the world. Thousands of these artifacts are being used in exhibits at our four WDM locations across the province. Thousands more are held in storage.

Anything can be an artifact, whether it is as small as a chocolate bar wrapper or as big as a tractor. Each artifact has a unique story that tells us something about the past ­- that’s why we love them! However, it means that the WDM must take on the challenging task of deciding what kinds of artifacts to accept, what artifacts in the collection should be prioritized for restoration and research and what kinds of artifacts might be a better fit for another museum.

To help answer these questions, the WDM created a tool called the Collections Development Plan. Since September, I have been using the Plan to assess the more than 500 pieces of furniture stored at the WDM Corporate Office warehouse. Each artifact is assessed according to 10 different criteria. Few artifacts can excel in every category, and so we take a holistic approach to assessing each one. Factors like artistry, scientific significance, rarity and the artifact’s ability to tell a diverse and inclusive story, all factor into the assessment process. At the end of an assessment, an artifact is placed into one of three tiers. A Tier 1 artifact is highly significant to Saskatchewan history on a local, national or even global level, whereas a Tier 3 artifact may have little known history at all. Since the WDM is dedicated to the history of Saskatchewan and its people, artifacts that are relevant to the province score higher in their assessments.

Many of the furniture pieces that I have assessed in the past three months have very little information on file. Some of these pieces have been in storage for more than 50 years. This project provides an opportunity for more research to be done on these artifacts, which will be helpful to future staff and researchers. In some cases, when an object is in very poor condition, or is a Tier 3 artifact because it does not have any known history, it may be considered for deaccessioning, which means recommending the artifact be removed from the WDM’s permanent collection. The permanent collection is the collection of accessioned artifacts that make up the core of the WDM’s research, exhibition and interpretation activities. It is made up of artifacts that illustrate the cultural and economic history of Saskatchewan and its people.

Deaccessioning provides an opportunity for an artifact to become a part of the WDM’s hands-on collection, go to another museum collection or, as a last resort, be sent to public auction to raise money for the ongoing care of the WDM’s collection. There are many steps involved before an artifact would be deaccessioned. Every five years, the Curatorial Committee sets deaccessioning priorities through the Collections Development Plan. Staff in the Curatorial Department implement the Plan and make recommendations to the Chief Curator – Director of Collections & Research to review. Artifacts the Chief Curator recommends for deaccessioning are then forwarded to the WDM Board of Directors for approval. If approved, the next stage of the artifact’s life begins.

Premier Frederick Haultain’s desk. Haultain was the first premier of the Northwest Territories from 1897 until 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. Haultain’s use of this desk during his time as premier gives it provincial and national significance. It is a Tier 1 artifact. Click on image to enlarge.

A Mennonite cradle from the Osler, SK area. It is significant on a provincial level as a representation of Mennonite culture and settlement in Saskatchewan. However, the craftsperson who made it and the family who used it are not known to the WDM. It is an example of a Tier 2 artifact. Click on image to enlarge.

This office chair has been at the WDM since 1973. There is no information on file about who owned it, when it was used, or where it was used. Because it is a common artifact with little known history, this is an example of a Tier 3 artifact. Click on image to enlarge.


By: Abby Vadeboncoeur, WDM Curatorial Assistant
YCW Building Careers in Heritage Intern

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