Grad student labour puts 'Works' on display

By Adela Talbot
March 14, 2013

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This classic photograph from the London Street Railway repair shop, circa. 1907, is just one of the images associated with London Works: Labouring in the Forest City, an exhibition curated by students from Western’s Public History master’s program. The exhibit runs through Sept. 22 at Museum London, 421 Ridout St N.


You could say it is an interesting, if not welcome, change – temporarily shifting the attention away from London’s ever-fluctuating, seldom optimistic, unemployment rate to its rich history of labour. 

London Works: Labouring in the Forest City, a Museum London exhibit researched and curated by students in Western’s Public History master’s program and currently on display, takes a nuanced look at the history of working in the Forest City. It showcases a variety of artifacts that tell tales of the city’s industrial, professional and domestic labour past.

“I think a lot of people always focus on factories in London. There are a lot of factories, but we went inside the home and focused on professionals. It gives it a different dimension,” said Erica Gagnon, one of the students who contributed to the project.

The exhibit features close to 200 artifacts – a fraction of the museum’s collection of roughly 45,000 London items – among them bottles from Carling and Labatt breweries, a sewing machine next to various domestic items and a prosthetic leg that belonged to Londoner Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, a prominent Canadian psychiatrist of the late 19th century.

“The history of work and labour in London is massive,” said Michelle Hamilton, professor and director of the Public History program.

She noted the students honed in on factory work, the city’s doctors and lawyers, insurance companies and domestic work as a way of exploring the city’s intricacies of labour, and as a way of bridging the gap between the city’s workers.

“There was a time where women not only had to work inside the home, but had to go outside of the home to work and their options of work were limited. So, naturally, they became maids,” she said. “Some of the objects (featured) were used by women in their own homes, and some used by women working for richer families, those who are coincidentally the professionals, those working at Labatt’s.”

Jesika Arseneau, who also worked on the project, added the three dimensions of labour featured connect London’s past to its present.

“Focusing on these themes helps bring this into modern times. It’s not all about factories anymore. So now we can critically discuss professional work and domestic work and how it’s changed from what we’ve displayed to now,” she said, adding she has learned a great deal about London in the process.

“Learning about the longevity of some of the companies that are here was really eye-opening to me – companies that are household names I didn’t know had started in London.”

Hamilton explained the program has a long-standing partnership with Museum London and this year, its curator of education approached her with the idea of collaborating on a work- and labour-themed exhibit to fill a newly created case dedicated to the history of the Forest City.

“The students really decided where they wanted this (exhibit) to go. They did everything – the research, they picked the artifacts, they designed how it’s going to look, they wrote all the texts, and made a tablet catalogue,” she said.

Instead of having a write-up for each of the items in the showcase, the students designed an interactive tablet catalogue that allows visitors to learn more about an item by selecting it on a touchscreen image of the exhibit. This won’t overwhelm viewers, Hamilton added, as it will allow them to further explore whatever artifact they connect with most.

She’s thrilled with the overall end result and what it means for her students.

“The end product is not something I mark that goes into my filing cabinet that no one sees again. These are real world projects and I think the students take more pride in them because they can actually see nine months of their hard work here, now on display. And they get to interact with professionals and learn from those in the community as well.”

FRUITS OF THEIR ‘LABOUR’: London Works: Labouring in the Forest City runs through Sept. 22 at Museum London, 421 Ridout St N.























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