A Day in Collections – St. Catharines Standard Photographs

This week, Snowflake and Sven travel through a vibrant visual history of St. Catharines with a sneak peak of the Museum’s St. Catharines Standard negative photograph collection.

All those boxes and drawers store our incredibly vast St. Catharines Standard collection. Here's Snowflake for scale.
All those boxes and drawers store our incredibly vast St. Catharines Standard collection. Here’s Snowflake for scale.

They got to meet Will, Collections Technician- Photograph at the St. Catharines Museum. His job is to catalogue and care for the over 600,000 negatives taken by St. Catharines Standard photographers between the years 1936 and 1998 – all now in the Museum’s collection. Will tells us that it takes him and his team of dedicated volunteers (they put in about eight hours per week, each!) about 18 months to catalogue one year of photographs. So far, they have catalogued up to the year 1945 – only 53 years to go!

Due to its nature, the Standard Collection provides a fascinating pictorial history of St. Catharines and our community. As our local newspaper, The Standard documents the daily lives of the people who live in St. Catharines. As such, the photographs in our collection represent 62 years of everyday life; its photographers covering everything from festivals to minor sports, from royal visits to weddings and birthdays. It gives us a peek into St. Catharines as it used to be, about what was important to our community in the past. The collection also provides crucial insight into the role of the St. Catharines Standard in shaping and fostering our sense of community.

Museum work is kind of like detective work, we search for clues in an artifact to help us tell the story of our past. Any work with a magnifying glass is cool work for Snowflake and Sven.
Museum work is kind of like detective work, we search for clues in an artifact to help us tell the story of our past. Any work with a magnifying glass is cool work for Snowflake and Sven.

As part of his job to catalogue the negatives, Will and his team of volunteers also search through microfilm to find the St. Catharines Standard newspaper articles attached to each image. This helps us provide the context for the image – we learn the names of the people in the photograph, the place it was taken, and why. Having access to these newspaper articles give further meaning and value to the image. Just like in Candace’s digital work, making those connections helps us gain a more robust and thorough understanding of St. Catharines history.

Will’s most favourite images to work with are the aerial photographs, where different parts of the city are captured from the sky. It’s so neat to be able to view the city you know so well from an entirely new perspective, and it is fun recognize and point out landmarks like St. Paul Street, or the GM Plant on Ontario Street and see all the cars in the parking lots. You also get to see photos of buildings and places that are no longer here; it’s a chance to imagine what St. Catharines looked and felt like in another time.

You could say it was a “negative” experience for Snowflake and Sven (ha!) – but that couldn’t be farther from the truth!
You could say it was a “negative” experience for Snowflake and Sven (ha!) – but that couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Working with the St. Catharines Standard Collection also teaches us a lot about the evolution of photo technology in the twentieth century. Will works with 35mm, 2 ¼ inch, and 4 x 5 inch film and glass plate negatives. Each medium requires different techniques for care and preservation. It’s also neat to see trends in how different photography technologies impacted the types of pictures the photographers were able to take.

Snowflake and Sven agreed that digital photography is much easier – you just snap as many pictures as you need to get the shot you want and load it onto your computer – viola! But it may not be so easy from a museum perspective. Museums are already talking about the issues that may come with collecting and preserving digital images in the future!

We’ll leave you with this question – are online platforms like Facebook and Instagram our new way of archiving our everyday life for future generations? What does this mean for museum collections?

Join Snowflake and Sven next week as they uncover more secrets with a tour of the St. Catharines Museum’s archive collection.

Sara Nixon is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre. Sara thanks Will for his help in writing this piece and for giving Snowflake and Sven a positive experience with the Museum’s photographic collection. 

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