Exploring the Reynolds-Alberta Museum

The Reynolds Alberta Museum just outside Wetaskawin, Alberta, otherwise called “the car museum” by my family, is one of our favourite places. This past weekend, in fact, my son had his birthday party there. It is a wonderful museum.

The front entrance to the Reynolds-Alberta Museum
A visit begins in the Entrance Hall, and four banners hanging from the ceiling here encapsulate the Reynolds’ experience.

The banners in the Entrance Hall or nave

The Spirit of the Machine

Corliss steam engine
The first banner identifies the key to the museum’s collection: this is a machinery museum. The permanent exhibits in the entrance hall show this clearly. We can imagine the main building to be something like a medieval cathedral: at the narthex a Corliss steam engine is sunk into the floor. On either side of the nave are permanent displays of hand powered machines and simple machines (inclined planes, screws, pulleys). In the middle of the nave are machines from whatever the current exhibit is (this year, “Dinosaurs of the Prairies,” about steam and other giant, early tractors). Finally, you look out onto the alter of the museum’s permanent display: a choir of farm implements surrounded by side-chapels along an ambulatory of cars, trucks and some other vehicles. A second building to the east of the museum houses an airplane collection and Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, while a variety of large machines including planes, tractors, construction vehicles and massive dragline excavators dot the grounds.
Road construction machinery, including a small version of a "Snort" as appeared in Are You My Mother?

 The simple machine display in the Entrance Hall is automated: examples of each type of machine are presented separately, and then combined in a stylized wood-chopper. The simple machine theme is replicated along the walkway in the exhibition gallery with simple machines you can test yourself to try to move a weight. The museum, however, is not really interested in simple machines: its focus is on the mechanical, and the main permanent exhibit really focuses on machines from the first half of the 20th century.

The permanent displays in the main gallery begin with a horse drawn carriage and several of the oldest self-propelled cars, including early gasoline, electric and steam cars (who knew?).  As you continue around the path that circles the main gallery you pass by many different generations of cars and trucks, with the largest concentration being from the classic era of the 1910s to 1930s. Included here are not just the standard cars (the iconic Model T, for instance) but vehicles that have been altered for other uses. The best of these are examples of home-made or purchased kits to convert cars into flat bed trucks or winter vehicles with skis instead of front wheels and two axle tracks at the rear. Most of the cars and other vehicles in the main gallery are from before 1950. At the end of the line,  though, as you near the drive-in, there are several cars from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Ambulatory with home-made or kit-based winterized vehicles along the left side
Interspersed around the cars are replicas of an early car factory, a grain elevator, a street front, a service station and a drive-in. At various times there are interpreter-led presentations in the first two, crafts in the garage, and a series of short films and car commercials from the 1940s to the 1970s in the drive-in (the last time I was there I saw a long car ad that featured Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T.Justice from Smokey and the Bandit).

The drive-in
Past the drive-in is a small display of a one-of-a-kind walking tractor built on a Case tractor body. This is a remarkable machine, designed to help collect logs on boggy ground.

Beyond it is a gallery devoted to changing exhibits. As you walk past this you come upon the conservation garage, which will be discussed below.

The Spirit of Discovery

My daughter figures out how a lever works
The museum has a great deal that is “hands-on”. Not only are there the simple machines one can test, there are several cars, tractors, a plane and a helicopter you can sit in. In  the replica of a grain elevator  you can play at moving the distributor to various bin or car spouts to get a feel for how the elevator worked. For children there is even more to discover. In the farm exhibit in the centre of  the main gallery is a farm house that contains a  changing selection of vehicle books and toys to read and play with. In the service station there are crafts that are related to the changing exhibits (this year you can make pictures of tractors combining animal stamp prints, glued on wheels, stickers, and drawings).
Looking up to the grain elevator distributor
Supplementing several of the displays are short films. For instance, the walking tractor features both a video of it moving and a song and cartoon that explains the tractor’s origins. The song underscores one of the themes of the museum: the refrain speaks of perspiration and inspiration, the character traits that helped build Alberta. The walking tractor is a pretty phenomenal example of this, but as will be seen below, the museum itself embodies these traits in its very being.
In the agriculture section there is a threshing machine and a board with several little video screens that shows what goes on inside various parts of the machine. This is a fantastic opportunity to see inside a machine that many of us have seen derelict in fields across the prairies but rarely seen in operation, let alone inside.

The Spirit of Community

By community the people responsible for the banners might have meant many things: as I will discuss in the next heading, this is a museum built on a great deal of volunteer work.

When I think of community, however, I often think about people. On the panels that accompany many of the machines and other displays, people are present in photographs or in the text. Along one wall of the grain elevator, sprinkled throughout the farm implement section, projected on the movie screen of a replica drive-in, and on a few other televisions throughout the museum films run that include people, named or not. The airplane hanger houses Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame; all around the main floor of the hanger and along a balcony that makes the second floor stand panels that contain sketches and photographs along with biographies of the people inducted into the hall of fame.
Example of one of the panels from the museum
For people my children’s ages (4, 2, and less than 1), however, such things are generally lost: they do not have the patience, interest or capacity to stop and watch the films or read the texts. I would be surprised if many older visitors don’t ignore all of these too.

Silhouettes "operate" an Oliver plow
What is missing are people, outside of museum visitors, interacting with the machines on display. In one section people in a generic sense are represented as life size silhouettes.  A handful of the cars, tractors, and other vehicles can be climbed on or sat in. Otherwise the machines stand alone, or in conjunction with other machines.

As the simple machines displays show, the purpose of machines is to help people do work faster or with less energy expended. The machines on display are mostly inert: they are not doing work, nor are they shown in a frieze of the process of doing work. The effect is to fetishize the machines themselves: what is spectacular is that a tractor could be this big, colourful and shiney, not that it revolutionised farming practice, and with it altered the size of farms (they grew) and farm families (they shrunk in total number, and in number of people within a family).

There certainly is an appeal in the machinery as object. Many of the machines on display are examples of wonderful industrial and consumer design. Some, like the pink Cadillac convertible, or the green “Johnny-Popper” John Deere Model D, are iconic. Others, like the unique walking car, are marvels of small-shop or individual ingenuity. These are worth seeing, but decontextualised from their daily use (or absence of use) the machines are only examples of design.

One of the conserved "dinosaurs"
The special exhibit in the summer of 2012 is called “Dinosaurs of the Field: Tractors that Built Alberta”. It focuses on the largest tractors, often powered by steam engines, that marked the first generation of tractors in the province (or anywhere in North America). Several times a day, museum staff do a presentation that tries to explain how revolutionary the tractors were. One way they do this is by explaining the horse-power of the vehicles. By dropping little plastic toy horses into a set of labeled beakers they visually show the relative strength of several of the tractors in relation both to the horse and to each other. It is wonderful. But, even so, the revolution represented by these machines is underplayed: tractors are compared to each other and to the previous “machine” in the form of the draft horse. The extent to which the tractors represented a complete conceptual and experiential break for farming life is lost.

The horse-power demonstration
Moreover, the celebration of these giant tractors perhaps over-states their value. As Paul Voisey noted in his book Vulcan: The Making of a Prairie Community, the large steam tractors were not widely adopted. Some farmers bought their own tractors, exclusively for their own use. Many more, however, either bought machines and shared them with neighbors, or hired (themselves out as) contractors to break up fields, to cultivate and to thresh (Voisey, pp, 146-47). Even so, the tractors were less than they appeared. As Voisey notes, “In agriculture the [steam] engine exhausted so much of its power simply lumbering across rough fields that little remained or other work. The steel wheels that supported its great weight packed and pulverized the soil. It manoeuvred cumbersomely. It gobbled tons of coal and water (straw made poor fuel), sometimes fetched from great distances. It often suffered costly breakdowns” (p. 141). 

If we return to the presentation on horse power, what we might ask instead is not how many horses the tractor was equal to in theory, but in practice: did the tractors, with their powerful engines actually perform farm work equivalent to a score of horses? Or, we might ask what the combined horse and people power the tractors and horse teams relied upon: were more or fewer people required for a tractor to plow a field or thresh its harvest? Or, we might ask what the relative cost was: how much did a tractor cost over a year or even over five years versus horses? All of these questions would refocus the issue away from the tractor as fetishized object to the tractor as one of many options in the work farm families did.

The Spirit of Preservation

The Reynolds-Alberta museum is named after Stan Reynolds, and as movies shown in the museum’s theatre detail, the museum is in large part his creation. He first embodied this spirit of preservation: after opening a car dealership after the Second World War, Reynolds began collecting cars, trucks and anything else: his motto was that he would take anything in trade. Surely most of the trade-ins were for resale, but slowly he accumulated a huge collection. In 1955 he opened his first, private museum of his collection. In the 1980s he donated some 1500 pieces from the collection to form the core for the new provincial museum, which opened in 1992.

Reynolds’ own impulse to preserve the machinery of 20th century Alberta is continued in the design of the museum itself. On one side is restoration shop that can be observed. The shop has both body and motor mechanics, a woodworker and a machinist working in it, and visitors can always see several projects on the go at one time. Many of the vehicles and other machines on display are restored to what appears pristine condition. 

Perhaps my favourite part of the museum lies just beyond the shop. Here a car sits, like Batman’s Two-Face, one half restored and one half conserved. What is remarkable about both the observation area of the restoration shop and the two-faced car is how they expose (some of) the work of museum curating to public view. In most museums the restoration areas and other workshops are hidden from view, while the changes that occur to objects as the move from being conserved to being restored are generally left unsaid or unacknowledged. 
One reason the restoration shop is open to observation (and the museum’s two libraries are open to public use) is that this museum plays an outreach role to other, private collectors and restorers of cars, trucks, airplanes and other machines. There is a direct line from the private collector (as Reynolds began) through the small, private or municipal museums made up of collections curated by amateurs and volunteers to the large, publicly funded museum the Reynolds-Alberta Museum is. At certain times of the year (its annual classic car show, harvest festival, or during the restoration classes they offer, for instance) the line is clear as amateur collectors come to show some of their own. At other times it is less obvious. The galleries are well organised and thoroughly signed, the machines on permanent display all restored, the ceilings high, the floors clean and uncluttered. But despite all this, the museum is very much like those long sheds filled with tractors, cars, clothing and dishware in various states of rust or repair that sit on the outskirts of many prairie towns. The preservation displays show what serious capital investment in preserving the past can do to transform a private collection into a modern museum.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like such a neat place, and by its very nature tailor made for kids to enjoy, particularly at a 4 year-old boy’s birthday party.

    I’ve never visited the museum, but from your description I get a good sense of how it highlights the chronological history of machines specific to Alberta or to prairie provinces generally. As an agriculturally-based community our needs over the years have been quite different than those of Easterners or West Coasters.

    However, one detail that struck me was the lack of interpreters on hand that, as you mention, could be interacting with the machines on display. This would certainly enhance the experience and place the machines in greater context. Fort Edmonton Park uses that approach, and I have found that the experience almost transports me to the time itself. Feeling like you've "lived" a bit of the history being displayed is, for me, an important sign that a museum or interpretive centre has done its job well. Perhaps the Reynolds-Alberta Museum could do the same to enhance an already positive experience.