By Abigail Parsons and Paige Milner
(OWHN Conference, Fall 2022)
For most undergraduate history students, the majority of their university career is focused on essay writing. Between the two of us, we have written almost sixty individual essays over the first three years. And while these can be educational, our experience working with archival material for a third-year history course, led us to discover the importance of integrating archival work at the undergraduate level!
Taking a full year, third year history course entitled “Public History” by Professor Mike Dove, we were exposed to historical work that is typically overlooked. The final project for this class was a self-led research project that explored all things related to public history – a virtual exhibit, a walking tour, or any other way of presenting history in a creative and accessible format. We decided to research something local to London and Western – Western University’s No. 10 Stationary Hospital which was established on April 28, 1916 when Western University offered the Canadian government the personnel to furnish an entire hospital. The unit’s commanding officer was Western alumni and professor Dr. Edwin Seaborn and was made up of fourteen officers, twenty-seven nurses, and 118 other ranks.
The unit was responsible for providing medical care for wounded Allied soldiers who came to the hospital with initial treatment from a casualty clearing station. Once admitted, patients were often operated upon, treated, and sometimes evacuated to England. Just between January 1918 and April 1919, in Calais, France alone, the hospital treated 16,712 patients – one of just three other hospitals in France who had helped that large a number.
We selected the No. 10 because of the remarkable amount of archival material from the unit, and from Seaborn, that is held at Western University Archives. We discovered that much of the No. 10’s story had been overlooked in the secondary source material that had been published. In fact, there was so much material, that we decided that we wanted to design a theoretical exhibit. After spending hours combing through the archival material, we decided which items should make it into our exhibit and we were lucky enough to have the chance to make our theoretical exhibit a reality. In doing this additional piece – that was not required for our course, we had to reassess the objects we’d initially chosen for the exhibit and make the themes and overall story fit with the exhibit space available. We really had to think about how to make this material digestible and interesting to those with no history background!
We also learned what goes into the preservation of archival material and how to best protect it both while in storage as well as when on display. We learned about different frame options, the fragility and size restraints of objects, as well as how to safely display objects long term.
The research also provided us the opportunity to connect with a number of female members of the unit, especially the nurses of the No. 10. When we got into the archives, we found an abundance of material including their application letters, photos, and war diaries. We were able to fill an entire case (out of five) with just material telling their story. For example, Nursing Sister Helen Woolson, donated hundreds of photographs to Western Archives, including many taken during her time overseas during the First World War, and they formed the basis for many of our exhibit panels.
The experience of working with archival material has been so impactful, that it led us both to reconsidered our post-graduation plans and led to new opportunities – like presenting at the OWHN Conference. It has also allowed us to share what we do with those we love. While it can be hard to share what we study with family members through complicated and dense essays, the exhibit gave us, for the first time in three years, the chance to show our families the true impact of our work! This project is an example of what can be done within undergraduate history programs to enhance the established curriculum. When students are pushed to create exhibits instead of just writing essays with online secondary source material they become more deeply involved with their research, and therefore grow into better historians. Working with archival material is vital to undergraduate students and their research, as is the handling of artifacts and primary documents. They create a deeper connection to a complex history and create a unique experience not always offered in a classroom.