Behind the scenes: A glimpse at life in a museum’s archives

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Archives Student Brooke Keirstead in the Canada Science and Technology Museum Archives.

When I first started my four-month student placement at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, I had no idea that I’d get the chance to work in two different climates, visit every province across the country, and see a giant artifact roll across the museum parking lot. Museum life sure can surprise you!

My colourful journey with the museum began in January 2019, when I started a school placement in the collections department as part of my final semester of the Applied Museum Studies program at Algonquin College. During my placement, I learned so much about the museum industry, caring for museum collections, and being a part of a large team working towards the same goal: To prepare the museum collection for a move to the new Collections Conservation Centre. Following my placement, I was able to begin work in the archives. The team in the archives had the same goal — to prepare their collection for the move to new facility.

During my first week in the archives, I was introduced to my summer projects. My largest assignment was to pack and inventory the Canadian Airlines film reels, which are kept in cold storage to prevent chemical degradation. Over the course of the summer, I inventoried and packed 382 film reels as part of this collection. I would spend about ten minutes at a time in cold storage (3.5˚C), while wearing my winter jacket, and photograph a sample of films to record the information from the film to put into the inventory list. After using the information to fill out the inventory list, I would go back into cold storage to pack five to ten films in a box, depending on the size of the box.

Three photographs of the same steel film canister, taken from three different angles. The canisters have information on them regarding what is on the film reel inside.

This is a film reel from the Canadian Air Collection. I recorded as much information as possible from the reels by taking multiple pictures, so I would not be in the cold storage room for too long.

A large ledger with a broken spine. It looks worn down.

One of the HK Porter ledgers, ready to be wrapped.

Wrapping the H.K. Porter Specification books — large ledgers with specifications for train locomotives built by H.K. Porter Company — was another one of my projects. These ledgers are quite large, and are deteriorating. The leather on the corners of the covers has red rot; this is caused by acids found in air pollutants. Red rot appears in the form of reddish-brown powdery leather. Wrapping the ledgers in acid-free paper keeps the powder contained, as it is very messy. In addition, wrapping the ledgers makes them much easier to handle when getting them ready to move to the Collections Conservation Centre.

A row of 18 ledgers that have been wrapped in paper and placed vertically on a shelf.

A series of HK Porter ledgers on a shelf, wrapped and ready to be moved to the Collections Conservation Centre.

Another project I worked on was packing the map cabinets. The archives has many map cabinets containing hundreds of technical drawings, pieces of artwork, large photographs, and prints. The majority of the map cabinets are being kept and moved directly to new facility, with the contents remaining in the drawers. We used a combination of polyethylene foam, acid-free tissue, acid-free paper, and acid-free corrugated board to support the contents of the drawers, so that when the cabinets were being lifted by a forklift they would not shift and get damaged.

Seven rows of shelving units; the first two sections of shelving have boxes, the next five sections have albums.]

The CN album project in progress; about one-third of the albums have been packed.

My final big summer project has been packing the Canadian National (CN) Images of Canada Collection. This is a massive collection of photographs taken by CN employees, beginning around the 1940s. The collection includes images of railway stations, train yards, locomotives, resorts and hotels, inside passenger cars, and many different destinations and activities from across the entire country. Two bays of albums have been packed already, and there are five bays left to go. So far, 409 albums have already been packed.

A black-and-white photograph of three women in winter wear, leaning against their skis and ski poles that they have put in the ground, relaxing on a sunny day.

These are two of my favourite images that I have come across so far in the CN Images of Canada Collection

A black-and-white photograph of Times Square in the 1950s or 1960s

These are two of my favourite images that I have come across so far in the CN Images of Canada Collection.

Another summer highlight occurred outside of the archives — seeing the CP 1201 locomotive travel from a storage facility to the new Collections Conservation Centre. It was very surreal seeing it move in person, when I had been looking at photographs of trains from the CN albums collection for the previous few weeks. It certainly lived up to the expectation.

When most people think of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, they think of the iconic trains and the Crazy Kitchen. From now on, I will always think of film reels, cold storage, CN Albums, seeing the CP 1201 locomotive travel behind the museum, and the lovely people I got to work with over the past four months. Thank you to the staff in the museum’s library and archives for all of your help and support this summer!

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Brooke Keirstead

Brooke Keirstead has a Bachelor of Arts with Specialization in History from the University of Ottawa, and is a graduate of the Applied Museum Studies Program at Algonquin College.