The Power of Objects in the Great War Attic

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a wonderful WWI project completed a few years ago by City of Toronto Museums in partnership with Historica Canada and York University.   It’s a great example of how museums are increasingly inviting the public in to co-create experiences and share curatorial authority.

Called Toronto’s Great War Attic, the project invited everyday Torontonians to bring their family heirlooms from the Great War to a series of public sessions held at different locations throughout the city. Once there the participants told their stories and showed their heirlooms to museum staff, who in turn shared their expertise of the Great War and the heirlooms.

In many cases the participants had done a lot of detective work to piece together the story on these heirlooms since they had been passed down through generations.

One of the stories is told by a woman who is a nurse. She has the instrument bag from her great aunt who was a nurse in WWI. By using her contemporary nursing knowledge and by examining the antique medical instruments she pieces together an understanding of what nursing was like during the Great War.

She discovers the metal syringe with the needle still secured and contrasts this with the disposal ones used today. She marvels at how difficult the instruments must have been to clean. “How many bodies did these touch? How many people did she help?”

Another participant is a woman who finally opens a box of letters that her parents had stored in their basement and that her grandparents had stored in theirs.  The letters are from Flanders France and are from her great uncle. They had never been opened until she opened them just two years ago.  The letters had arrived in Canada after he was killed.

The best of the stories were made in to short 5-6 minute video. They are simple but moving.

What I find most interesting in watching these videos is the power of the objects— so much more powerful had I seen them in an exhibit about the Great War. The power of the story and the person telling it is what gives these objects so much more resonance. This project is a good example of how museums are sharing their curatorial power with everyday citizens to create better experiences.

Please have a look at the video with this post. What do you think of this method of serving up history?  I think it works because it uses a personal story to make us want to learn the bigger narrative. And it makes us feel part of a bigger community.

What do you think about citizen or non-experts sharing a part of the curatorial voice in museums?




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