Monday, November 7, 2011

Museums and Remembrance Day - 2011 Edition

Last year I wrote a Remembrance Day post in honour of my grandfather and his contribution to the RAF in WWII. While my grandfather and his brothers all returned home safely, my grandmother's family was not as lucky. The biggest blow to the family was when her youngest brother was shot down over Belgium during a bombing run. The stories and objects associated with Grenville have now become part of the Stanley family lore.
All too often this kind of information is excluded from museum collection records.

the musician
Grenville was elevated to a sort of immortal status in the family, having two nephews named after him, and a few semi-shrines established in his parents' and siblings' homes. He was the promising youngest son who never got to live out his potential or truly experience life. The stories that have been passed down about him reveal him as a very kind, caring individual, full of life and love for his fellow man. He played the clarinet in the Salvation Army band, volunteered with youth, and planned on becoming an Anglican minister after the war. His nickname was Bumps. His cheerful personality made him very popular in his squadron, Bomber Command No.76, and when that terrible letter arrived at my great-grandparents' door, his courage, skill, and popularity were all referenced.

young love
We also know that he had a special lady friend who he was planning on marrying. Her name didn't make it on any of the photographs, but there are enough images of these two to know that they had something special; that they looked forward to building a life together when the fighting finally stopped. The story goes that he was on his last bombing mission before heading home for his wedding. I don't know what happened to this poor girl whose heart was broken - the family didn't maintain that tie and she has now faded from memory.

the wireless operator
His military record sheds a lot of light on his war-time activities, but also has a lot of blacked-out sections that leave the reader guessing.  We know that P/O Stanley served as a wireless operator on Halifax bombers, making night-time runs into Germany. We know that when his plane went down, only one man survived and became a POW. Grenville was buried in Schoonselhof Cemetery, Antwerp Belgium, alongside many other promising young men whose lives were cut short. He was only 23 years old.

Having suffered the sudden and unexpected loss of a very significant person in my life, I understand how difficult it is to talk about it. You want to focus on those good memories and silly quirks that make you smile. Those things that used to drive you crazy seem far less important, and so you let them slip from your memory. It's just natural that certain aspects of the story are maintained, others are lost, and some are altered slightly through retelling. So when museums interview donors to find out the stories behind the objects, we always end up with a slightly altered truth - the lore of that object.

Artifact records will always have loose ends and unanswered questions. Some purists will refuse to include family lore in their records because they want only the proven facts, but in my mind these stories are a valid and important part of the object's history. The museum exists to provide answers about the past. Sometimes we will have wonderful proven facts to include in our records, but other times we will have fascinating stories that have been passed down for generations. Maybe the story isn't always 100% accurate, but there is something very special about reading a record that tells me how the family talked about and treated the item.

I don't know what Uncle Gren was really like, if he truly was on his last bombing mission, or what all of his plans were for after the war. But I do know that we cherish the family memory of him; that we will never forget the sacrifice that he made. And one way that we can pay tribute to him is through the sharing of the family lore. 
lest we forget

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can see how an institution might shy away from including unsubstantiated yarns and merely deal with the unvarnished facts. However, I've always found the lore of an artefact culturally contextualises it and it's something that I find intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. I guess what I mean is that knowing the story or mythology of an object gives you information about how the artefact was culturally important from the past to the present. It tells the story of why the artefact was preserved in the first place so there is real intellectual value in having this information. Also, as the museum is the current caretaker of an object they are now part of that object's history. If they are to be the heirs to an object's form, substance and information they should also be heirs to it's emotional value. If people are motivated to study and understand the past, I would think that they would want to honour it as well. If that makes any sense.