Friday, February 5, 2016

Tribute to David Dewar

Last Friday we unexpectedly lost David Dewar, Curator of the Wallace and Area Museum. Dave came to the museum world by way of the private and public sectors, and with a very stalwart belief in public service. Especially during his early years with the museum, Dave was a regular at workshops, conferences, meetings and heritage-related events. He was a recognizable face and voice, and while sometimes he would just sit quietly and take it all in, he was really taking it in. When he did speak, it was because he had a good question to ask or keen insight to share.

Walking into the museum when Dave was at the desk meant being greeted by a big grin and sincere welcome. He always asked how the drive was, how my day was going, and as my visit wrapped up he always asked where I was off to next. There was no talk of business until the personal pleasantries were over. And this wasn't just Dave being polite; he was just a very sincere man. Even though I was there to do my job, he made sure that we began and ended on personal, friendly notes. He also sometimes gave me ice cream or other treats, which made it even easier for me to have a soft spot for the guy.

It was impossible to hang out with Dave without smiling. If you didn't find his smile infectious, his quick, dry wit would get you. Dave wasn't a collections manager, so this quick wit often came out while I was at the museum and going through database updates or digitization recommendations. He'd get that little mischievous gleam in his eye and start cracking jokes and making smart alec remarks. Truth be told, I really enjoyed this. It made my visit more fun; more a visit with friends than a job. But I also found it really frustrating. I used to retaliate by telling Dave that we needed to download his brain. He had so much knowledge about the local families, history, and museum collection, but because he would rather share that with you in a conversation, this information wasn't always in the database records. Yes I can hear you squirming and see you rolling your eyes Dave, but I warned you that I'd out you about this some day. It's sad to think about how much knowledge is gone.

Like all community museums, Wallace relies on volunteers and summer students to do a lot of work. One thing I admired about Dave's approach to curatorship was how he took great pride in his own work, and was more than happy to talk about a research subject, exhibit that was in development, or future plans, but he never bragged himself up. Instead, he would brag up other people on his team. He really gave people the chance to embrace a project or task as their own. He praised people when they displayed an aptitude in a certain area, and encouraged them to pursue it further. While they may not know it, Dave was always talking people up, sharing with me how someone or other did such great work. The project that immediately comes to mind for this is the annual mural painting done by a local artist. For the past 15 years or so, Dave worked with the artist to come up with a theme for a new mural which would complement his new exhibit. He was so proud of these murals, of how they brought Wallace's history to life, connected something new with some very old things, and helped people understand and appreciate their community's history. I think this is also why he participated in some of our special projects, like the Made in Nova Scotia enrichment work and the Fleming College partnership project. He understood that everyone had something to contribute, and we all have a part to play in celebrating our heritage.

Dave could give you the generic stories and information about the different groups and activities that existed in Wallace. He not only knew all of the different businesses, but could regale you with a seemingly infinite number of details about each of them. And he could talk about the Mi'kmaq or Acadians or Loyalists for hours on end. But what he liked to do more was to share the personal, individual stories, and discuss how they connected with the bigger issues of that time and place. He loved to make history come alive. And he was really good at this. Not only did he share the stories of specific individuals in all of his exhibits, but he came up with some pretty nifty techniques as well. One of my favourite exhibits that he did was on shipbuilding in the community. We see a lot of shipbuilding exhibits in Nova Scotia, but what made his special is that he had a little corner of the room with glass bottles sitting on a barrel - smells of the shipyard. In these glass bottles were the different oils and materials of the trade. Nothing was toxic or remotely harmful, but in a whiff you were transported back to a pre-industrial work yard, and could really understand the materials of the trade, how messy certain jobs were, and how someone would go home smelling. Simple, but extremely effective.

In Dave's honour and memory, let's try to be better about capturing those wonderful stories; of the school teacher who refused to let a con man get the best of her, of the mysterious trunk that laid locked for decades, of the 18th century letters that fell out of a wall during renovations...I'm sure we can all think of really interesting, personal stories that need to be brought back to life.

To Dave, thanks for sharing the stories of Wallace and Cumberland County, for educating people in an engaging way, and for being so passionate about your community's heritage. I'll miss ya buddy.


Chris, Julie and Emily Johnson said...

I'm sorry to hear of this news. It is a real loss for the community of Wallace. He was an ardent activist for the Village's heritage and always a friendly neighbour. We will miss you David. Rest in Peace.

Laurie Treen said...

I visited the museum several times but most enjoyed it when David gave our recreation group a tour. He was fantastic! As said above in that great tribute, he KNEW what he was telling us about. David will definitely be missed!