A Visit to One of Hamilton’s Civic Museums: WHITEHERN

The city of Hamilton is known for many things, including being:

     With regard to heritage, Hamilton is known to possess a vast amount of historical sites and civic museums. By definition, heritage is known as the basic human need that connects a particular group of people, community, or culture to their past. As something that is handed down from the past to following generations, the management of heritage generates a sense of identity, tradition, and belonging. Perspectives of heritage may also differ depending on its context – I will be focussing on the local perspective of heritage. 

     One particular civic museum located at the heart of downtown Hamilton is known as the Whitehern Historic House and Garden. Originally the property of the McQuesten family (from 1852-1968), but bequeathed to the city of Hamilton after the remainder of their family members passed. 

MY VISIT 

     As per request, I rang the doorbell and waited for an attendant to let me into the house. To my surprise, a lady in a servant’s costume answered the door, gave me a warm welcome, and introduced herself. Her name was Katherine (Fig. 1). I had explained to her the purpose of my visit and so she offered to give me a guided tour. After giving a brief history of the house, she took me to each room and talked about what they were used for, when they were occupied, and who used them. I was impressed at how well-kept the place was, and even more so when I was told that everything in the house was original, except for the wallpaper in the parlour room (Fig. 2). The interior design and decorations were very telling of when this house was mainly occupied in – the eclectic Victorian period. 

    The second floor was where all five bedrooms were located and in the main hall was a family tree of the McQuestens (Fig. 3). Katherine gave a run-down of each family member, describing their occupations, hobbies, and even causes of death. Some interesting facts include:

  • Dr. Calvin McQuesten (1st generation) – moved to Hamilton from New York to get into the steel and iron industry. 
  • Thomas McQuesten (2nd generation) – received a degree in Law at the University of Toronto and was a member of the Hamilton Tigers.
  • Calvin McQuesten (3rd generation) – was part of the Ministry of Highway and opened up the QEW. He also helped with the construction of the Rainbow Bridge, along with other roads, parks, and recreations.

Following that, Katherine led me to the rest of the house even taking me to a mini exhibit found at the basement (Fig. 4). After the tour had ended, she had advised me to search online for more information about the Whitehern and the McQuestens. 

HERITAGE: Management, Community, and Accessibility 

    Establishing the Whitehern Historic House and Garden as a civic museum is a good example of contemporary archaeology through its involvement in heritage management, community stewardship, cultural tourism, and accessibility of knowledge and information.

Heritage Management.  It is evident that the city of Hamilton is taking the right measures in maintaining the Whitehern civic museum. Extra precaution is being taken to continuously maintain the artefacts and objects found within it. This includes making the rooms off-limits by having a fence placed on the doorways, only allowing employees in proper attire to enter the rooms (i.e. clean footwear and gloves on), as well as moving more fragile artefacts to a more secure warehouse to prevent damage due to time, weathering, and bad conditions. Essentially, heritage management is put into effect by actively preserving the tangible artefacts.

Community Stewardship.  Events and activities are held in the Whitehern house throughout the year, involving members of the local and surrounding communities. Such events include school field trips where children are taught how to scrub with a washboard, roll dough, or  mending/sewing (i.e. a good way to experience the daily activities that people took part in in the past). Other activities also include “Wednesdays at Whitehern” where live music is set up on the lawn, for local musicians to perform, and where tea and lemonade are provided. This active engagement with the community embellishes the importance of this site, especially since the original residents, the McQuestens, were key members of the development of history in Hamilton. 

Cultural Tourism.   This civic museum gets especially busy during the holidays, with local residents and other tourists visiting. It seems that the Whitehern Historic House and Garden is involved with the Ministry of Tourism in some way as it has its own page on Tourism Hamilton

Accessibility. Although the hours of operation seem to be limited (12PM-4PM; closed on Mondays), admission costs are fairly reasonable. Being a McMaster student, one benefit was that admission was FREE. The one thing that this building lacked was a ramp to provide access for those who are in wheelchairs. This however is understandable since adding a ramp would require reconstruction at the site which could potentially damage important artefacts. To compensate for this, a virtual tour is available online. However, this could bring up issues and concerns as to why admission is required from those who visit the site whereas the same tour online is provided for free. It could be argued that the full experience is not received through the virtual tour, especially since the exhibit is not included. Also, the virtual tour does not provide the same sensations one would get on the actual tour at the house, with a tour guide dressed as a servant and music from the earlier time periods playing in the background (Fig. 5).

All-in-all, the Whitehern is a fine-example of a historic home. It is a perfect place to discover and explore the heritage of Victorian ideas and possessions as well as the heritage of the city of Hamilton. 

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS

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References:
Atalay, S. (2012). Chapter 2: Origins of Community-Based Participatory Research. In Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities, pp. 33-52. University of California Press.
Cultural heritage: a basic human need – Sada Mire at TEDxEuston. (2016). YouTube. Retrieved 6 March 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4UQYem6Dvc.
Rix, J., Lowe, T. and the Heritage Forum (2010). Including people with learning diffficulties in cultural and heritage sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(3): 207-224. DOI: 10.1080/13527251003620743.

My Archaeology: Issues Around Repatriation

I have decided to make a blog in response to Doug’s Blog Challenge, which asks the question: What are problems with your archaeology?

Problems with my archaeology have to do with contemporary repatriation. I am very proud of my Greek heritage and it saddens and disgusts me to know that many of the treasured Ancient Greek artifacts are situated in the British Museum. At a time when Greece was oppressed under Ottoman rule, Lord Elgin received permission to remove many of the marbles from the Parthenon and around the Acropolis in Athens. These artifacts had no cultural resonation with the Ottoman Turks, and although they had legal precedence to permit Lord Elgin to remove them, they had no cultural basis. Greece has sought to re-obtain cultural heritage that unquestionably belongs to them, but have been met with much resistance by the English. This is a problem that is much bigger than Greece and their marbles. Indigenous populations within Canada and the US have had similar issues with repatriation. Due to cultural differences, they have had difficult times proving to their respective government, and to other indigenous groups that specific aspects of their culture belong to them.

Both Canada and the United States have taken steps towards the repatriation of indigenous heritage. The US established the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) in 1990 with three ways in which an indigenous group can claim remains or artifacts: Lineal descent (a direct ancestral line), Indian tribe (a tribe, band, or nation recognized by the US Government), or cultural affiliation (there must be a link reasonably traced between a present-day tribe and an identifiable earlier group). This within itself is problematic; what are the standards for proving descent? Does the United States Government recognize every single tribe, band, and nation? What about those that aren’t recognized? These and other issues were brought up in the discovery of the Kennewick Man.

Kennewick Man
Photo of the remains of the Kennewick Man, the cause of Native American repatriation controversy.

Although the United States has taken steps towards making repatriation of Native American culture a smoother process the flaws within their system are evident and still hinder many groups from access to their own artifacts. Canada has taken a bit of a different approach towards repatriation. The first treaty to have provisions for repatriation of indigenous artifacts came into effect in 2000, returned to the Nisga Nation of British Columbia. In the beginning of repatriation, it was the museums which had obtained these artifacts that worked with the indigenous groups to return them. Currently (as far as my research tells me) there is no Canadian equivalent to NAGPRA and each instance of repatriation seems to be on a case-by-case basis.

What happened to the Greeks could have happened to any other group, another example being the Jews in Israel. When Jerusalem was under Palestinian rule, the Palestinians could have sold ancient Jewish artifacts to any museum in the world – they have the legal right to do so. However, now that Jerusalem is under Jewish law once again, they would have been facing the same problems as the Greeks. There are many issues around repatriation that need to be addressed.

Politics is complicated, so I don’t expect there to be any straight forward answer.  The recent economic crisis in Greece is further cause for speculation that Greece is unable to maintain and care for their cultural heritage. However, if given the opportunity I do not doubt that they would maintain care of them just as they are currently taking care of all the artifacts they currently have in their possession. In fact the Acropolis Museum has spots waiting for the caryatids upon their return.

Erechtheion caryatids
Image of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

The hesitation the Greeks and Native Americans are being met with by the respective governments is like a cultural colonization. The resistance to return these artifacts is a backwards step in societal progression. This is an example of the continued commodification, and in the case of the Indigenous groups, westernization of other cultures. These artifacts are seen and treated, essentially as objects without meaning. Yes, I’m sure that the museums that currently house the Greek and Native American heritage understand their importance, but it is very difficult to understand their meanings without displaying and treating them exactly as their respective cultures would.

It seems to me that those same cultures and groups are being tossed aside by the respective governments’ lack of care regarding the meaning of these artifacts to these groups. These same items that are seen as a commodity and objects of desire to the cultures and nations which possess them have a deeper historical, cultural, and patriotic meaning to the cultures from which they come. My archaeology, the issues of repatriation, although having had steps taken towards rectifying, has a long way to go.