Traces from the past

Text by Ingrid Birker. Photos by Torsten Bernhardt.

Wooden column showing the marks of time, Redpath MuseumTypical of a museum junkie, my favourite things in life are leftovers from the past. Most often these historical items are not large or monumental, or even striking. Often, the relics that I am most attracted to are small, rough and left behind by unknown sources. At the Redpath Museum in Montreal, where I have worked since 1981, some leftovers are imbedded into the pillars of century-old columns that hold up the lecture hall. These marks were made by students who listened to countless hours of discourse, and were compelled to leave behind a remnant of their own existence. So they carved their initials into the wood. Often they noted their degree and the year it was granted. For instance, SB Fraser, proudly capitalized his name and graduating degree in “MED” in 1907. Above his inscription is the scratching left by HL Snyder from Shawinigan Falls. He carved his rank as “#2 C.A.U.C. ’44”. It seems that he was training for the army as well as studying and probably served in WWII. Other engravers were clearly sardonic such as: “Chris Columbus 1492.”

Redpath Museum wood panelling, showing traces from the past

Another leftover trace imbedded into the museum‟s walls is a sandstone slab laid down near Perth, Ontario, about 530 million years ago. It shows tracks and trails embossed as stony bumps and ripples on a large, crispy crystalline matrix. This trace fossil catches the raked northwestern light every morning and makes me think of the simplicity of life on an ancient Canadian beach. The animals that walked this beach are long gone; one was the ancestor of slugs, the other was related to Horseshoe crabs. The beach they crawled across covered most of eastern and central North America long before James McGill started farming and trading at the base of Mont Royal.

Sandstone slab with fossilized tracks

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