Our history in clay (photo gallery)

The recent floods in Medicine Hat left many homes and businesses in the city grappling with serious damages.

Although Medalta no longer produces pottery in the volumes of its heyday in the early 1900s

Although Medalta no longer produces pottery in the volumes of its heyday in the early 1900s

The recent floods in Medicine Hat left many homes and businesses in the city grappling with serious damages. Of great concern to many Canadians was the threat of damage to two of Canada’s Registered National Historic Sites that are important tourist sites located in the city near the South Saskatchewan River. Fortunately, both Medalta Potteries and the Historic Clay District escaped the worst of the damage and are still open for business.

Medalta Potteries was designated a Canadian National historic site in 1985 and Medicine Hat Clay Industries, featuring an operating brick plant and two pottery factories, followed with official designation in 1999.

During the early 20th Century, Medicine Hat was the major centre for the production of clay products in Canada. Many clay and brick factories popped up in the community, employing hundreds of people. Medalta Potteries, one of the original clay factories, once produced more than 75 percent of the pottery in Canada and many of their sturdy crocks, bowls and artware pieces have survived to become collector’s items.

When you consider that chimney flues and sewer pipes were made of clay in those times, the production of these products from Medicine Hat was vital to the growth of Canada. So much so, that Medalta Potteries and Medicine Hat Clay Industries were both deemed national historic sites.

If you visit, you can explore the original factory, see pottery being made, and view an extensive collection of Canadian-made pottery and clay products in the museum. There is also a craft area where kids can work on a real potter’s wheel and create clay items that can be fired and mailed back to them. An international artists in residency program lets you catch a glimpse of real artists at work.

If you go:

• The Medalta Potteries National Historic Site is now an interactive museum that is open daily from 9 am until 4 pm through the Labour Day weekend in September. A guided tour is recommended at this site.

There is a great deal of history that interpreters share on the tour and you can only see the original factory and walk inside a real kiln if you are with a guide. Admission will cost $10 per adult, $8 per youth, $8 per senior, or $25 per family. For more information on these unique national historic sites, visit: www.medalta.org.

Wedgwood for families

Wedgwood china makes me think of my grandmother.

A collection of Wedgwood tableware was the ultimate middle-class aspiration for women of my grandmother’s generation and I can still picture those garlanded plates displayed carefully on a thin wall shelf above the dinner table. Many Wedgwood aficionados are now little old ladies with hair dyed as blue as the trademark colour of their favourite dinner service, so when the Wedgwood museum described itself as “one of Britain’s best days out with the family,” I had doubts.

I was sure my grandma would love the place, but I couldn’t imagine a Wedgwood China museum appealing to kids. Turns out I was wrong.

Located next to the Wedgwood factory in the Staffordshire countryside of Middle England, the Wedgwood Museum has won a number of awards including receiving the UK Art Fund Prize, an honour bestowed for being the most imaginative and original museum in the UK in 2009.

Josiah Wedgwood began producing commercial pottery in 1759 and his innovations led to his being dubbed “The Father of English Potters.” He was an artist, a scientist, an inventor, and an incredibly astute entrepreneur who became a pioneer of the industrial revolution.

On display in the museum are more than 8000 objects of unique Wedgwood pottery and china pieces that showcase the 250-year history of the company.

While the Wedgwood Museum definitely appeals to adults, it has a lot to offer kids too. Curators have taken time to carefully consider the needs of younger visitors by creating a special collection displayed at a lower level.

It’s more than just appealing objects in display cases though, the museum and the adjacent visitor’s centre contain an abundance of hands-on activities that make a visit there fun for everyone.

When it comes to hands-on participation, the visitor’s centre is definitely the highlight of the visit for most kids. After viewing a film on the history of the Wedgwood firm, you can go into the craft demonstration area and observe Wedgwood craftsmen performing many of the skills that Josiah Wedgwood mastered himself.

You can watch hand-painters, ornamenters, master potters, figurine painters, jewellery makers and others creating Wedgwood products and even ask them questions about what they do.

Even more fun, is the opportunity to try your hand at creating your own souvenir by throwing a pot, painting a plate, making a Christmas ornament, or applying ornamentation to another pottery item.

When you are finished, your creation is fired and mailed out to your home address – even if it’s an international one.

For my take-home craft, I chose to throw a pot. Since I had never used a pottery wheel before, I received a few tips from master-craftsman, Jon French about how to take an unshaped lump of clay and form it into a beautiful blue Wedgwood vase. I must confess, as Jon stepped up to the pottery wheel beside me to lend a hand, I felt a little like I had stepped into the pottery scene from the movie Ghost – only a little though. With Jon’s helpful tips, my lump of clay became a beautiful little bud vase about 10 cm tall. For the first time in my life, I felt crafty and artistic. It was a good feeling – no wonder kids like this stuff.

There’s no doubt that my grandma would have enjoyed a visit to the Wedgwood Museum, but surprisingly so did I. The visitor’s centre was packed with kids enjoying themselves and we all went away with a new appreciation for this unique form of art.

Grandma probably would have said, “I told you so.”

If You Go:

• The Wedgwood Museum is located in middle England at the Wedgwood factory, in the heart of the Staffordshire countryside, just 10 minutes from Junction 15 of the M6. Just follow the brown tourist signs from Stoke on Trent and it will get you there. For more detailed directions and information, visit the museum’s official website at: www.wedgewoodmuseum.org.uk.

• Museum admission will cost £6.00 for adults and £4.50 for children aged 5-16 years. A family ticket for two adults and two children will cost £18.00. Throwing a pot, painting a plate or participating in another hands-on activity will be an additional charge.

• We stayed at the Best Western Stoke-on-Trent Moat House. Located in Stoke-on-Trent, this hotel is actually connected to the original Wedgwood family residence. It is also a short drive from the Wedgwood Museum and several other pottery museums. If you stop in Stoke-on-Trent, be sure to visit the Wedgwood factory outlet store for good deals on Wedgwood pottery and ceramics.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.