The Joiner Story: Making History More Interactive

Stroll into a museum and you enter a rarefied world where precious works of art and artifacts are delicately preserved. Special lighting, air circulation, protective glass and cordoned spaces ensure that works from centuries past can be safely viewed in their splendour for all to see.

To see but certainly not to touch, which is understandable, particularly where priceless artworks are concerned. These objects remain safe and stationery within their pristine yet static confines.

Not all museums have the luxury of functioning this way. In fact, many historical museums, responding to customer demand, have had to become more animated and diversified in order to attract more visitors and provide a hands-on, interactive experience for their customers.

Living history sites in particular are facing this peculiar challenge---to orchestrate ways of allowing visitors to get up close for a 'touchy-feely' experience without putting at risk a valuable collection of original artifacts and reproductions.

This particular quandary recently confronted Shawn Patterson, Collections Team Leader for Fort William Historical Park, a living history site that depicts the Canadian fur trade in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Shawn has the job of overseeing over 10,000 original and reproduced pieces displayed in the 42 re-constructed buildings situated on the massive 25-acre site.

Certainly, there are countless items to look after but there was one display that was particularly worrisome for Shawn--the Fort's Great Hall. This high-profile building served as the banquet hall for the partners of the North West Company. Consequently, the building features elegant and impressive furnishings reflecting the lifestyle of the wealthy and privileged--ornate glassware, Wedgwood china, portraits, opposing fireplaces and sundry other items which are occasionally carefully handled and used in interpretive demonstrations.

Due to the presence of these items and its banquet function, the Great Hall is specially outfitted more so than other Fort buildings with air conditioning, a furnace and state of the art heat sensors. A serving kitchen and washrooms are in the lower level. Reproduction portraits of famous Nor'westers take the place of originals that could not survive the challenges of being on display in an 'open-air' museum. The Hall also features a concealed elevator to aid with food service and provide access for physically challenged visitors.

However, the explosive growth of new evening programming for the building--reflected in the Fort's expanding mandate--including feasts, concerts, banquets, murder mystery dinner theatre and large-scale special events required that the display be taken down almost every day of the week.

The continuous up-and-down routine was creating some logistical havoc, putting tremendous strain on limited manpower resources and greatly increasing the potential for damage and loss. "The degree of handling for the antique items was inappropriate," Shawn said. "We were faced with the prospect of either damaging the artifacts by continued handling or simply storing them which of course would result in denying access to our visitors."

While scrounging through the Fort's inventories of 1816, Shawn found a possible answer to his dilemma---a reference to "two long dressers" in the 'vicinity' of the Great Hall. Here was something that was not included in the building's re-construction but now potentially provided both an aesthetic and practical remedy to the problem.

This was still a tall order to fill. The cabinets had to be historically accurate, with the proper size and dimensions. They had to mesh with the existing display items and the Great Hall environs. They required locking mechanisms for display doors and large, transparent glass portals for visibility. They had to be stable and sturdy for safety and longevity. And they required a usable pie shelf that would be utilized for serving food during banquets and other hands-on activities.

However, the inventories provided no further details on what these 'dressers' looked like. To assist with research and construction, Shawn enlisted the aid of some of the Fort's artisans, including Tinsmith Joe Winterburn, Armourer-Blacksmith David Else and Joiner Barry Wolframe, all of whom are sticklers for period detail.

The group sifted through lithographs and woodcuts from the 19th century, Diderot's period encyclopedia and books on period patterns and antiques. One bonus was the time period. "Cabinetry from our period was very individualistic," says joiner Barry Wolframe. "It varied from maker to maker." This variance could allow for some modifications that would maximize security and visibility but retain the authentic flavour.

From the research emerged an acceptable composite design for a two-piece unit. Drawing upon his 21 years of experience as the Fort's joiner, Barry Wolframe sketched out over a dozen pages of drawings. Among various details was the integration of a hidden internal locking mechanism for the separate shelving and cabinet components to ensure stability for the items and safety for the visitors. Eventually, the combined units would measure 92 inches in height, 68 inches by width and 22 inches deep.

Barry ensured that construction materials were authentic and practical, from the local hardwoods (birch) to the "Windsor green" paint to wavy-grain cordelle glass from the St. Juste Glassworks in France. Typical of the Fort's methodology, Barry combined the modern and historic to do the job. While machinery was used for cutting and shaping, all visible surfaces were painstakingly hand-planed and brush-painted for the authentic veneer. Overall, the job took about 420 hours to complete.

The end result is pleasing for all concerned, especially for Shawn. "Before, everything had to be taken down and put away for protection but now the artifacts can still remain safely on display even during banquets and other public functions," Shawn says.

Their presence will enhance the atmosphere of any function staged in the building, he says. Now visitors can get up close to see the authentic detail of the china and glassware without posing a risk to anything or anyone. Patrons familiar with the Hall will also see a difference in appearance as portraits and other wall hangings have been moved to accommodate the two new additions to the buildings.

Maintaining standards of aesthetics and authenticity while ensuring visitor enjoyment and safety are the hallmarks for success at Fort William Historical Park, where history is interactive.