City of Edmonton Archives’ Virtual Exhibit on Ella May Walker

City of Edmonton archivists are launching our first edmonton.ca virtual exhibit on April 25, the first of many! We’re featuring Ella May Walker, a musician, artist, author and advocate for Edmonton’s history.

EAA-1-1 Walter House – Ella May Walker painted two of John Walter’s houses and campaigned for their preservation. The two houses are now part of the City’s John Walter Museum

EAA-1-1 Walter House – Ella May Walker painted two of John Walter’s houses and campaigned for their preservation. The two houses are now part of the City’s John Walter Museum

We chose Ella May Walker for our first virtual exhibit for several reasons;

  • She was a really interesting and active lady
  • We have a rich body of her records in the Archives (artwork, correspondence and manuscripts)
  • Several of her paintings are currently being featured in the Art Gallery of Alberta’s Exhibit Alberta Mistresses of the Modern: 1935-1975
  • She had a role in the Archives’ history as she was a member of the Archives and Landmark Committee in the 1940s and 1950s, crucial years for the formation of the City of Edmonton Archives

I won’t tell you too much more about her here, I’ll save it for the virtual exhibit. We also have a finding aid on her records in our catalogue as well as a webpage devoted to her.

Before we had our own online catalogue we used the online database provided by the Archives Society of Alberta (ASA). ASA member archives are able to upload both finding aids and scans of records. One of our contributions to the database was on Ella (just search for Ella May Walker to see it).

EAA-1-12 Edmonton Refinery – This is one of two Ella May Walker paintings that the City of Edmonton Archives has loaned to the Art Gallery of Alberta for the exhibit Mistresses of the Modern: 1935-1975, which runs from March to June, 2012.

EAA-1-12 Edmonton Refinery – This is one of two Ella May Walker paintings that the City of Edmonton Archives has loaned to the Art Gallery of Alberta for the exhibit Mistresses of the Modern: 1935-1975, which runs from March to June, 2012.

Since we launched our own online catalogue in 2009 we have been actively increasing the amount of content we have available, especially scans of our images. We have almost 28,000 images uploaded but we still have a way to go as that’s only about 10% of our catalogued images. The online catalogue also has finding aids for our private and civic record collections.

First Virtual Exhibit?

In one way or another, we’ve had material online in general, and about Ella May Walker in particular, for a while. So what makes this our “first” virtual exhibit? We’re calling it our first because it marks a new way for us to make our material available to the public. We collaborated with the City’s communication and web teams to develop the exhibit on the edmonton.ca website. Their expertise helped us translate our vision into reality. It’s also different because we’re not just providing a finding aid or a description of the records we have, and we’re not just putting up scans of records. We’re telling stories about Edmonton’s history, using the records we have at the City of Edmonton Archives.

It’s a bit like this blog, only more in-depth. A common goal in blogging and in creating the virtual exhibit is to show the different types of records we have at the Archives, ways that they can be used, and what kind of information you can get from them. A difference between them is that the blog is an opportunity to engage with people (comments make us happy!). There can be a lot of unanswered questions in archives and many archivists use blogs to tap into the knowledge of the community to try and answer some of them.

A virtual exhibit, on the other hand, gives us the opportunity to pick a topic (or a person) and really tell a story based on the records the Archives has on it. We’ll build our exhibits with the idea that you can get as much or as little from them as you want. If you are interested in seeing what Edmonton looked like in the past, you have an opportunity to do that. If you want to know some of the circumstances around the images and documents, we’ll be writing about them. If you’re interested in seeing an example of how the City operated in the past, you can get an idea by seeing the documents. And, if you want to know more, we will have a bibliography (the Archival Documents section) of all the records used in the exhibit. This provides the context that the records come from.

Context is important in Archives

Providing the context is important because we’re pulling together material from many different sources and this could make them look like they are a cohesive whole when they are not. They are related by subject but not usually through origin. This bibliography will show where these disparate records come from, grouping them by creator rather than by subject.  Our exhibit is only one way to tell the story and someone else may tell it differently, even if they use the same material. Having the Archival Documents section gives you the opportunity to look at the records from your perspective, not just ours, and to consider other ways that the story can be told. Another thing to keep in mind is that, by looking at our records this way, you can think about what’s missing. No archives is ever complete and we need to keep this in mind when we’re telling history from them.

EAA-1-5 Fort Edmonton in 1860 Plans to recreate Fort Edmonton were around as early as the 1940s. This painting is Ella May Walker’s vision of what the Fort may have looked like. The recreation of the Fort was achieved with the 1967 opening of Fort Edmonton Park.

EAA-1-5 Fort Edmonton in 1860 Plans to recreate Fort Edmonton were around as early as the 1940s. This painting is Ella May Walker’s vision of what the Fort may have looked like. The recreation of the Fort was achieved with the 1967 opening of Fort Edmonton Park.

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About the Author
Elizabeth Walker
Elizabeth has a Masters of Archival Studies from UBC and she’s been the City’s digital archivist since September 2010. She’s passionate about outreach and increasing engagement between the Archives and the community.
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