Thursday, 18 September 2014




“Enlisting your help!” 
“Answer the call!” 
“We need you to do your part!”

These are some of the headlines that are encouraging communities across Newfoundland and Labrador to contribute to a 2016 permanent exhibition at The Rooms, in commemoration of the First World War centennial.

WWI recruitment poster "Your school chums have all done their bit, now it's up to you. With illustrations of soldiers flanking the text.
Advertisement from the Great War

If you’re unfamiliar with this wonderful provincial museum, please allow me to enlighten you! It is located on a hill overlooking the harbour of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and was opened in 2005. Referred to by locals as “the box that the basilica came in” (in classic Newfie humour) because its hyper-modern design drastically contrasts the many historic buildings surrounding it. What makes it so special is its progressive fusion of a museum, art gallery, and city archive into one grand cultural centre. An afternoon visit may just have you pondering contemporary art, Newfoundland traditions, the mass Irish exodus, and even local biodiversity!

The Rooms Museum overlooking the colourful city of St. John's Newfoundland

While museum crowd sourcing is rapidly becoming a popular strategy for engagement in museums, this project is relying heavily on public donations including family artefacts, photographs, and other First World War memorabilia to enrich the existing collection. Under the guidance of museum director, Anne Chafe, a team of researchers visited fourteen communities across the province to collect valuable oral accounts from descendants of those who fought in the war.

The outpour of support and contributions were overwhelming!  Medals, notebooks, boots, uniforms, a prosthetic leg, and even a practice gas mask were donated to the museum. What makes these items special however, are their stories and histories passed along by the families. Museum staff have a rare insight into the provenance details of these artefacts.

Recruitment advertisement illustration of soldier holding British Flag from WWI in Newfounland, with For Victory as caption.
Recruitment Advertisement

What makes the Royal Newfoundland Regiment particularly interesting is their unique position in North America. During the First World War, Newfoundland and Labrador were a colony and dominion of the United Kingdom. The colony swiftly assembled a zealous 500 soldier regiment in 1914, who were eager to join forces “for King and country”. Sadly, the majority of the regiment was killed during the Battle of the Somme at Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916. Their courage is honoured every year across the province as they willingly took position above a ravine, despite the obvious presence of German soldiers below.

The memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at the Beaumont Hamel battlefield site in France.
Jeff Thorpe, For Postmedia News

In addition to collecting oral histories and objects in various communities, the Rooms has set-up an interactive exhibition space that encourages community involvement and interpretation. They’re hope is to gather as much information as possible, before it is lost in the passing of generations.

The exhibition space contains the following features:

1. A collection of couches that encourage visitors to comfortably share their stories.
2. A printer and scanner, for those individuals who want to retain original photographs and documents. Museum staff work in the gallery and offer assistance.
3. Message boards that encourage visitors to share their interpretations or their impressions.
4. A list of specific artefacts in which the museum hopes to acquire for the exhibition.
5. Images with unidentified soldiers. Their hope is for visitors to come forward with information.
6. Select artefacts on display.
7. A clear container full of replicas of blue wool socks worn by Newfoundland soldiers (this was part of an interpretive programme). These objects are of particular importance to Newfoundland, as their soldiers were the only regiment to sport blue puttees.
8. Postcards that encourage message writing.
9. Posters evaluating the eligibility for the recruitment of visitors (i.e. age, height, weight, health, etc.)

The Rooms Museum "Call for Artifacts" for "Collecting the Great War"
Photo by Jaime Clifton-Ross
The Rooms Museum "Do you recognize any of these recruits" for "Collecting the Great War". historic image of royal Newfoundland regiment
Photo by Jaime Clifton-Ross

The nature in which this exhibition is conceived will most certainly instigate an emotional impact for many Newfoundlanders. Considering the immensity of community support required for such an exhibition, local visitors will likely feel a sense of ownership of the exhibition. This innovative method of museum development has ultimately united a new community, who will collectively share, interpret, and educate museum visitors. In a sense, they’ve transformed 100 year old history into living history. Talk about community engagement!


  1. Thank you for this great take on museum communication; I have been thinking a lot at fonts lately (as all of you in MSL 2331 know) and I could not but notice the font of the advertisement from the Great War. The first thoughts I had was "Western" combined with propaganda-like boldness. It is so fascinating to understand all cultural networks that are put together in one cultural text, from the message to the visual vocabulary.

  2. I'm so pleased that the Rooms has created this wonder exhibition of artifacts. It speaks highly of Newfoundland's contribution to WW1. Jaime, I am also happy that you are keeping in touch with your roots. Newfoundland is a province with a lot if history. Jane Clifton