What To Keep If The Museum Goes Up In Smoke?

Howdy again folks! Sam Pitre here and in case you didn’t get a chance to read my last post, I am the new student hire at the Banting House National Historic of Canada. A student of history by trade, I go to school at the University of Western Ontario for my first year in the History Department’s Master’s program. My particular interests line in all things military, so please forgive me if I’m a little too heavy on the topic. You’re going to be hearing from me every week with a collection of Banting related facts and topics, doing my best to cover all aspects of the man’s life through research, projects and presentations.

               On my first day of service with Banting House, I was asked to find a single item that I thought would be worth preserving over all others.  “If the Museum was on fire and you could pick only one thing to save,” asked Grant Maltman, the curator of the site (and my new boss), “What would it be?”. Though this was a standard question for all new volunteers and staff, it was one that caused me to pause. Out of this treasure trove of physical history, what would be worth saving over something else? Immediately my practical mind started to race: what can be found here that can’t be found outside of its walls? Immediately, most of the medical instruments were struck out of my imagination. Only one of them was ever used by Sir Frederick himself, the others being period pieces with other stories. Furniture then? The desk that he opened his practice with and the bed frame that he slept on were things that were in contact with the man throughout his stay in London. However, to me these were simply utility items, things that he himself would not have particularly noticed even when had used them.

What to do then?  Something meaningful and symbolic perhaps? I briefly considered the medals that he had been awarded. Despite their importance to the Banting mythos and the fame of the House itself, they seemed to have little to do with the personal life of the famed scientist. Even the Military Cross seemed inappropriate. Banting himself was a man that seemed to eschew pretension, distancing himself from the glory of his creations with a desire to move on to his next project.  As I was moving past the military collection, fretting over what I could possibly choose, I found it; a small, unadorned medal that seemed to pale beside the large and glorious tributes to his service in the First World War. Yet the small sterling silver medal seemed to me as an award that Banting would have appreciated it to his later years as a symbol of his youth and physical prowess before he had truly began his professional life.

The medal itself had been earned through his performance at the Canadian Officer Training Corps, or COTC, Niagara Camp in 1915. It was a trophy that the scientist had earned not through his fantastic work in the lab or as a figure of fame, recognition and national pride, but through physical effort and ability. To someone outside of the Banting legacy, it can be seen as a watermark of Canada’s long nineteenth century, of the joys of masculinity in the twilight of youth, and a remnant of Canada’s tradition of a hobbyist militia, even as the nation was in the throes of the First World War. The medal was also a connection back to Banting’s status as an Officer in the first class of the University of Toronto’s COTC. The organization’s concept as a university based military unit is rather foreign to today’s Canadian students, as it had lost popularity and disbanded by 1968. As a result, to me the medal represents a bygone age of Canadian youth culture, separated from the current social norms by six generations! It was an element that certainly contributed to the man Sir Frederick would eventually become, shaping him and many of his compatriots for greatness. medal 1

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