Canadian Craft and Museum Practice, 1900-1950

Article excerpt

Sandra Flood, Mercury Series Paper 74, Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2001, xv + 335 pages, ISSN 0317-2244 (paper).

Reviewer: Cory Silverstein Willmott University of Manitoba

In Canadian Craft and Museum Practice, 1900-1950, Sandra Flood investigates the relationship between craft and museum communities in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. Her thesis assumes that museum collections are influential in "assigning cultural and economic value to practice" because they function as the collective memory of a nation's material culture. She therefore asks to what extent these two communities share an understanding of "craft," and to what degree Canadian museums recognized craft activity by collecting and displaying craft works (p. 1). She pursues these two questions through a survey and analysis of contemporaneous published discourse on crafts (chap. 2), a survey of Canadian craft production arranged according to socio-economic contexts of production (chap. 3), a series of detailed case studies of institutions that supported craft production and/or display (chap. 4) and of educational institutions that offered advanced training in craft skills (chap. 5), as well as an overview and case studies of museums that housed and displayed craft collections (chap. 6).

In the first chapter, Flood reminds readers of the fragility and infancy of Canada during the early 20th century. The unification of the fledgling nation was merely a matter of political and economic convenience rather than common cause or enemy. Its development was impeded by vast geographical distances, as well as regional, ethnic and religious differences. It was not until the early 20th century that Canada achieved a cohesive form. Even so, it was still a "Dominion," that is, a politically autonomous colony of Britain. The sense of "Empire" was reflected in the influence of the British Arts and Crafts Movement on the formation of craft advocacy groups and the immigration of master craft workers from the Mother Country. As well, preferential tariffs and British guilds ensured that the influx of British craft products undersold those produced in Canada.

In order to grasp the meaning of "craft" during the period under discussion, Flood undertook a quantitative analysis of themes that occurred in 92 contemporaneous publications on crafts. These themes are: "concerns about skills and traditions and their loss; the contribution of craft production to the national economy; the contribution of craft to industry through the improvement of design; the benefits of craft as an occupation; handcraft as embracing a universal, participatory community; and craftspeople's role in the establishment and constitution of a distinctive, inclusive Canadian culture;...the link between craft and rural life;...[and] the changing location of craft in relation to fine art" (pp. 31-32). Flood's analysis shows that despite rhetoric about the universality of Canadian craft production, the majority of literature emanated from an educated, well-to-do elite centred in Montreal who were primarily interested in the picturesque "folk arts" of the rural Habitants (pp. 54-55).

Recognizing that publications do not adequately represent the extent and scope of craft production during the period, in chapter 3 Flood turns to newspapers, magazines and agricultural exhibition prize lists for additional information. These sources proved fruitful in discovering both the variety and quantity of craft production across the nation. Flood presents her findings for various types of craft, which include textiles, woodworking, metalwork and glass, under several categories of craft production: "Crafts for a living," "The Domestic Economy [sic]," "Leisure activities," "General craft education and therapy" and "Community projects." Flood observes that a disproportionate amount of the craft activities reported in these sources consisted of women's textile arts. Although these were undervalued in the public realm, in the domestic realm they were used to destruction. …