This Old Bag: The Importance of Provenance

As Collections Manager at WDHM, I see a number of donations come in on a regular basis. In fact, they seem to add up faster than I can enter them into our system! But what do we do with a donation once it is given to us and all the important paperwork is filed out?

The first task is to get as much information and history on the item as possible. We refer to this history as provenance. Gathering this information helps us connect our donations to our museum mission and overarching goals of keeping our collection For the Community, From the Community. Depending on the item itself, the next step is research – we look into all kinds of areas in this step, including manufacturers, uses, dates, significance, and lastly, whether anything like it is already in our collection.

Once this is complete the donation is brought to our Accession Committee where its fate is decided. It is in this process that we decide IF we keep it and HOW we keep it. Our collection is divided into four tiers to help us make these tough decisions. This is where provenance becomes so important because it can determine our decision on particular items. There is no better object to help emphasize this than our “bag of mystery” pictured below.

This bag came in a donation of several items that a donor had brought in after cleaning out her late parents’ house. She was unsure of what the bag was or how or what it was even used for – she simply found it in her parents things and had no recollection of it. I’ll admit, my first reaction was – this old dirty bag has no history or significance, why would we keep it?

The committee pondered. They questioned. They examined. We had several ideas as to what it may have been used for but no concrete answers, so it was left in the Valley of Indecision as to whether we would add it to our collection or not! Then our ideas shifted to just how significant the bag might be. It was an unusual make and could have been thought to be a WWI piece. Suddenly, this dirty old bag became much more important! We took to the worldwide web to see if we could determine its use and find its story; we posted photos on our Facebook page and asked the experts at other institutions (The Military Museums of Calgary and The Canadian War Museum). After several guesses and photo shares it was concluded that it was not a WWI item, despite its similarity to rifle or tripod cases.

Ruling out the bag as a WWI gem caused new thought processes to take place. If not WWI, what then? Although it lost its value as an important relic from the Great War, it held significance in the fact that it was unique enough to have so many questioning just what exactly it was and what purpose it served. It brought a group together to share ideas and question the history of such a simple artefact.

We decided that the destiny of the bag belonged in that of our third tier – Usable Gifts. We would share this item with the community to engage in conversation and invite people to take part in assigning its history and helping us piece together its provenance. We put it out as a “What’s it?” where we allow people to make educated guesses and enter draws; this yielded more thought into its history and use. Many guesses were similar to what we had originally surmised, but it didn’t matter anymore, the bag had already proved its importance and worth; it had brought a group together to take part in seeking out information and questioning antiquity.

Although we will never really know the story of the bag, it has already taught us not to overlook any items that come in or judge a book by its cover, so to speak. As our collection continues to grow, we continue to seek out the importance in everything that comes through our doors and share these stories with all our visitors.

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