Collecting at the Turn of the Century
As we celebrate the efforts of the women featured here, it is also enlightening to consider what kinds of impulses kindled their involvement in collecting and museum work, and what fulfilment they found by engaging in it. Many of our women were working in and around the turn to the twentieth century, an era in which natural history, ethnology, and the study of human evolution enjoyed mounting popularity, while a Victorian passion for collecting and classifying animated the cultural sphere. School teachers stocked classroom cabinets with specimens of plants, animals and minerals for the edification of pupils, and ladies ornamented their homes with objects of beauty, curiosity and international "exoticism." Amateur naturalists, inspired by their grade-school lessons in observation, spurred by their local naturalist organizations and encouraged by the cultural climate, embarked on scientific explorations of local ecosystems. They returned with meticulously labelled specimens, carefully classified so as to demonstrate an order, hierarchy and design that governed all of nature – including human interaction. Descendents of United Empire Loyalists cherished their family heirlooms, preserved with nostalgic respect the relics of their predecessors' experience, or turned them over to museums for display and safekeeping. Travellers, tourists and missionaries carried back ethnic "curios" from "mysterious" lands, divorcing those objects from the context in which they were utilized, but intending them to represent those lands and corroborate the travellers' (sometimes moralistic) accounts of foreign peoples.
Among these collecting agendas – explicit or otherwise – lay some that were peculiar, but not exclusive, to early-twentieth-century women. Collecting and museum work offered opportunities for scientifically minded women to engage in high-profile cultural and intellectual activities in their communities, thereby offsetting as well as challenging their lack of political rights. Many women combined their museum work with other social welfare projects, all calculated to effect cultural uplift through education and self-improvement. Illustrative moral lessons could be dispensed through the study of divine handiwork and the comparative greatness of Western civilization. As their critical roles as crusaders for social progress bolstered women's public call for political equality, their scientific accomplishments supported their claim on legitimacy in the scholarly sphere, a claim to which society was gradually (if reluctantly) acceding. Women travellers and missionaries overseas paid particular attention to the position of women in other societies, frequently making comparisons between the "plight" of women in non-Western societies and the relative "liberation" enjoyed by their North American sisters.
By donating traditionally feminine items to museums – kitchen implements, clothing accessories, furnishings and handiwork, for example – women established the significance of objects that were habitually undervalued. And by contributing at all, women asserted their presence in a very visible and enduring way. Museum acquisitions and events were announced in the local papers, specimens bore the collector's name and a particularly generous gift might earn the donor a commemorative plaque on the museum wall. Such recognition brought women's collections out of the private parlour where they served an ornamental function and into the public realm where they served an educative one.
Women knew that whatever objects they donated to the museum would be protected and preserved for decades to come. When single women like Louise Manny and Catherine Travis died without descendents or strong familial obligations, they bequeathed large portions of their collections to the museum as a public offering and a personal legacy. For the women in these pages, the museum collection was anything but static. Each of them was on hand for the flurry of accumulation that would build the museum; there to create and shape the collection and to give it a voice that was partly their own.