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Summers of Scanning and Finding Silences in the Archive: Part One

The Western Development Museum (WDM) is pleased to be an institutional partner on the Building London with Canadian Resources: An Immersive History for Learning the Limits of the Earth’s Carrying Capacity Partnership Development Grant, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (2021-2024). The project brings together historians, museum professionals, educators, students and augmented reality developers to create new historical resources and digital experiences that will help visitors explore the transnational history of London’s extraordinary growth in the 19th and early 20th centuries, revealing the city’s reliance on Canadian timber and wheat. As part of this project, parts of the WDM’s photographic collections are being digitized. Photographs that depict early settlement, grain production, cultivation, livestock production and rural and urban growth are being digitized and recatalogued for use in the project and to improve their preservation status and records at the WDM. Ray Morstad has recently completed a BA in History at the University of Saskatchewan and has been digitizing these photographs for two summers in the Digital Research Centre at the U of S Murray Library. Ray shares his reflections on this work in a two-part blog series here, on Museum Stories.      

Woman and two children making ice cream outside, undated. WDM Collection, 5-D-12. Click on image to enlarge.

In 2022 Dr. Jim Clifford at the University of Saskatchewan emailed students about work as a research assistant for his various projects. I applied and was accepted for my previous work transcribing medieval magical texts. I started working at transcribing letters, but the following summer, I began working on this project for the WDM. The project started with digitizing photos; I did about 800 that summer. My work continued this summer and expanded to entering metadata in a spreadsheet for each image. Now that I’ve finished that, I’ve been back scanning a new set of photos and entering metadata for them.

Tents of Barr colonists at Saskatoon, 1903. WDM Collection, 5-A(a)-7. Click on image to enlarge.

Although my historical periods of interest are Medieval England and the Ancient Roman Empire, this project still resonates with me on a level of historical and personal interest. My studies usually involve reading texts that are hundreds or thousands of years old and looking for sources to help understand the culture of this period. With this project for the WDM, ranching, and farming in Saskatchewan is my culture. I come from a family of farmers that originated in 19th Century Norway. Going through these photos is familiar; it often reminds me of going through photo albums with my parents and looking at how our homestead developed over the years. These lives were not easy, especially having to live in sod houses or shacks in the middle of the prairies. While I spend my time scanning and entering data, I cannot help but wonder what aspects of these lives are missing. We only get the photos and some information behind them, but we only get part of the picture. I’d like to know what pieces we are missing as historians and whether we can recover them. 

As someone who studies Medieval and Ancient History, I am constantly plagued by the notion of contextual audiences and voices unheard. We often look at what we have and consider what we are missing. Why some things are present and others not, or why some voices are heard, and others silenced. In the case of this project, I see so many people, like my family, who started new lives here, and yet I can’t help but wonder what is missing.

First home. A frame tent-like structure. Four men, two women, two children, cattle, chickens and a cart, 1908. WDM Collection, 5-A-8. Click on image to enlarge.

What aren’t we seeing? What has fallen between the cracks? Can we understand more by acknowledging what we are missing? I’m using the perspective I usually take with the history I study and applying it here. In doing so, I ask: where are the Indigenous communities? There are likely other collections where Indigenous communities are present and are absent in this one due to categorical reasons. If that’s the case, is there a way to integrate regional museum, library and archive collections in a way that more accurately represents life in early Saskatchewan for all people? European immigrants were not the only people adjusting to a life of agriculture on the prairies. However, they did not face the same restrictive economic and political barriers and assimilative policies Indigenous nations did. There may be photos of Indigenous agriculture in this period in other archival or personal collections that could more holistically illustrate this time in Saskatchewan history. Moreover, there is oral history that speaks to the experience of Indigenous farming in this period that provides valuable context to understand early settlement photographs more fully. A combination of these approaches could represent early 20th-century homesteading across multiple cultures to give a better grasp of the period and the treatment some communities suffered. This would go a long way to decolonizing and rectifying these archival silences and gaps. 

By: Ray Morstad
University of Saskatchewan

CLICK HERE to read Part 2.

  • This is a very interesting project and I would like to learn more about it. I love the term “archival silences and gaps”.
    A couple of years ago during COVID, I assisted the WDM staff in Saskatoon to try and provide meaningful information such as names of people and locations to a large number of photos in the Earl Dodds collection. Many of those images were silent, but many were astonishingly full of historical detail.
    I congratulate you and the WDM on embarking on this initiative.
    I would only add, don’t forget about the wealth of images that we have of Indigenous people, their life ways and travel ways in northern Saskatchewan.,

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