What Would You Save in a Fire?

A few weeks ago, Grant, the curator at Banting House National Historic Site of Canada, came across an article that talked about what a museum would save in a fire. He thought it would be a great to have the volunteers here at Banting House share what they thought should be saved if anything were ever to happen to the museum and why those objects are important to them. Over the next few weeks, there will be a series of posts from the museum volunteers on this topic. This first is below:

Hopefully there will never be a major disaster such as a fire at Banting House National Historic Site of Canada. If there was, however, and I could only rescue one thing from the burning building, I would have to choose the collection of “Dear Dr. Banting” letters. With everything I’ve learned this year from Grant, the museum curator, and in my courses, I know that the Level 1 objects in the collection should be the first ones to be saved in an emergency. These letters do not fall into that category. However, the sentimentality that comes through in these letters provides gives a great look into how visitors see Dr. Banting more than seventy years after his death.

People from all across the world wrote to Banting while he was alive, thanking him for his work that led to the discovery of insulin and how it had saved them or someone they knew. This tradition has been carried on at Banting House, where visitors have the opportunity to write a “Dear Dr. Banting” letter. The volume of letters that have been left over time reflect the lasting impact of Dr. Banting’s work. Some of the letters are funny, while others are much more emotional. They have been written by adults and children, people who have diabetes as well as those who have been touched by the disease. This just goes to show how everyone is impacted by diabetes in some way.

A letter written to Dr. Banting expressing thanks for all of the work he did to develop diabetes.
A letter written to Dr. Banting expressing thanks for all of the work he did to develop insulin.

These letters are also a great example of how visitors interact with the site. Going on a tour of Banting House, you can learn a lot about Banting and his life. Aside from the guestbook, however, there isn’t a place at Banting House to write about what you experience on your visit. The letters enable visitors to communicate their thoughts about Banting and his work in a very special way.

The letters are written at a small desk in Banting’s bedroom where he came up with the hypothesis that led to the discovery of insulin. This is one of the last stops on a tour of Banting House, so visitors have already learned about why Banting came to London and what he accomplished during his life. The letters give visitors the chance to reflect on what they have learned on their tour. To me, this setting helps visitors to think about the impact Banting’s work has had for so many people. Being in the place where his research on diabetes began, after hearing about Banting’s struggles in London, this is a very powerful setting that really reminds us that anything is possible.

The “Dear Dr. Banting” letters at Banting House may not be the most ‘valuable’ objects in the museum, but to me they reaffirm that people still care about Banting and his work. That’s what makes giving tours so enjoyable – being able to share Banting’s stories and learning about the experiences of visitors. The letters allow these things to come together in an inspiring way.

This post was written by Taryn Dewar, volunteer at Banting House NHSC. Taryn is a Master’s candidate in Public History at Western University. 

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