Students Examine Local Artifacts With a Gentle Touch

A class of Grade 9 students files into the Klondike Thawing Machine Company (KTM Co.) building on Third Avenue in Dawson City. The place has the feel of an evidence room from a 1970s police television sitcom—overhead fluorescent bulbs, matte gray shelves stacked with bankers boxes, a long tabletop resting on a series of wide, shallow drawers, the lingering scent of old things.

Fittingly, the students are here to investigate the past. The 14- and 15-year-olds from the local Robert Service School are part of a program about museum artifacts and exhibits developed by Jenna Roebuck, Parks Canada outreach and education officer. With a background in museum studies, Roebuck developed the program to encourage students to think more deeply about the way we choose to represent history.

“It’s important to think critically about the kinds of things we value and our attachment to objects,” says Roebuck. “It’s about introducing them to some bigger picture ideas, but using their own home and their own space.”

Originally built in 1899 as a warehouse to supply the goldfields of the Klondike, the KTM Co. building now stores some of the artifact collection associated with Klondike National Historic Sites. It is one of the largest collections in the Parks Canada system, with more than 250,000 objects housed in various spaces from Bear Creek to downtown Dawson.

The KTM Co. building is climate-controlled to prevent artifact deterioration. It contains some of the smaller or more fragile items in the collection, resulting in an eclectic mix of objects.

There are newspapers and typesets from the Dawson Daily News, Martha Black’s engraved school pins (one for “Best Essayist”) and archived samples of wallpaper from the Commissioner’s Residence and Ruby’s Place. There are business records from Billy Biggs’ Blacksmith Shop and a prosthetic leg from when the Courthouse served as a hospital. From Lowe’s Mortuary, there are embalming fluids, tags that just read “head,” and an unnerving set of eyeball caps that would have been placed under a deceased’s eyelids to prevent them from popping open during viewings. There are also more ordinary objects, like journals, letters and Christmas cards.

In a previous in-class session, the students learned about some of the world’s most famous museums and how artifacts are properly cared for and handled. Donning white gloves, they now follow their interests in exploring the drawers and boxes before them, a treasure hunt through items that can be safely handled and connect directly with their community’s history.

“I was actually really surprised with what they were drawn to. They blew me away with how willing they were to just get into the details and sit there and like, read an old love letter and get excited about that,” Roebuck says.

Students discuss the value of artifacts as a way to inspire and share knowledge, but also about their limitations as a complete picture of history.

“We talk about when people are planning exhibits that they’re people too, so the exhibit is a reflection of their worldview,” says Roebuck. “And just because a culture doesn’t preserve their history in that way, doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Just because you don’t have something tangible doesn’t mean that that history is of any less value to study or to learn about.”

Teacher Angela Tremblay appreciates the hands-on nature of the program and how it engages her students in their local history beyond the typical gold rush storylines.

“They really got to just explore what they wanted to explore. And that’s kind of key with working with kids and history, being able to engage them by using their own interests,” says Tremblay. “I’m just grateful that they have all these neat connections to be able to do these kinds of things in even such a small community.”

The last part of the program involves having students pick an object that represents themselves and tells a story about their place in history. Tremblay sees that as an opportunity for “a bit deeper of a conversation about why certain artifacts are representative of certain groups and why they would choose certain things to represent themselves.”

For Roebuck, being able to engage with the artifacts is key, bringing them from storage into the (fluorescent) light. Parks Canada protects and presents nationally-significant examples of Canada’s cultural heritage; the challenge with large collections is that only a small portion can be exhibited at any one time. Programs like this create new opportunities for sharing and examining history.

“For many people, I think it’s pretty thrilling to see something cool and old and get the chance to hold it in your hand … you can connect with something in front of you in a different way than seeing a picture of it,” says Roebuck. “We’re not trying to keep a time capsule, we want people to engage with things and learn from them.”

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