This week I’ve been cataloging some of the items that belonged to Sir Frederick Banting when he lived at 442 Adelaide Street, now known as Banting House National Historic Site of Canada. I found some really neat stories on how some of these objects came to be a part of the collection at Banting House as I was going through the donation and accession records (the forms that are filled out when an object enters a museum). The records on Banting’s bed are especially interesting.
Banting woke up on 31 October 1920 with an idea for how to treat diabetes in the very bed that is on display upstairs at Banting House. This was one of the defining moments of the discovery of insulin and the bed helps us to connect visitors to that day when they are in the room. Banting did not leave his bed behind when he moved to Toronto to pursue his research, though, so how does Banting House have it in the collection now?
The Canadian Diabetes Association purchased Banting House in 1981 and the Banting House Committee (which was working to create a museum in part of the house) began collecting artifacts that were related to Dr. Banting’s life and experiences. Among the records about the bed, there are a series of letters from a Mrs. McDowell, who had Banting’s bed in storage. Mrs. McDowell had contacted the Banting House Committee to ask if they thought that the bed would be a worthwhile addition to the collection. The Committee was pleased to get this generous donation and the bed was shipped to London in June 1982.
In a letter that Mrs. McDowell sent after she had heard that the bed had arrived, she mentioned what she had thought of the bed when she took it out of storage. She wrote, “…I was slightly embarrassed when we got it out of storage to find it such a plain, unattractive piece.” I found this rather curious because of the value we associate with the bed today. Mrs. McDowell saw an old piece of furniture, but at Banting House it has been instilled with value through interpretation. It helps to add an air of authenticity to Banting’s bedroom and create a meaningful experience for visitors as they can actually sit on the bed where Banting came up with his idea and think about what that moment would have been like.
Banting House has reinforced the notion that it’s not always what something looks like that gives it value by putting the bed on display. Objects like Banting’s bed connect to his life story and where he was in his career while he lived in London. Banting was not immediately successful when he came to London and his furniture, such as his bed or desk with their plain design, reflect his financial situation and enrich the story that’s told at Banting House. Sometimes you have to look beyond an object’s physical appearance to truly understand its value.
This post was written by Taryn Dewar, Graduate Research Assistant at Banting House NHSC. Taryn is a Master’s candidate in Public History at Western University.