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Eclectic museum display reflects Red Deer’s growing diversity

Upon Further Reflection exhibit runs to March 11
Melanie Berndt, collections coordinator at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, stands in a living room display from the 1960s or early ’70s. It’s part of the exhibit Upon Further Reflection: Highlights from the Past 50 Years. (Photo by Lana Michelin/Advocate staff)

Fifty years of collecting has led the Red Deer museum and Art Gallery to some strange and remarkable finds.

An eight-foot artistically carved narwhal tusk is one of them, bequeathed by a local Inuit art connoisseur.

Another is a lavishly illustrated Jesuit “ladder,” used by Father Albert Lacombe to proselytize Christianity to Cree and Blackfoot people during the 1880s.

Paintings and prints from Canadian masters can also be seen in the latest museum anniversary display — Upon Further Reflection: Highlights from the Past 50 Years.

There are also personal effects brought back by soldiers from the two World Wars, including a specially tailored uniform made for a local three-year-old, and some soldier’s boots that belonged to Dr. Richard Parsons.

Visitors can behold the museum’s oldest possession — a 6,400-year-old displayed stone bowl, which was found near Red Deer’s water treatment plant. How it ended up there is mysterious because the stone is from British Columbia, said the museum collections coordinator Melanie Berndt.

With so many little-seen museum treasures at hand, what’s Berndt’s personal favourite item from this latest display?

She admitted it’s the living room set from the 1960s or early ’70s.

Berndt has also noticed a lot of museum visitors immediately gravitating towards this turquoise couch and chair, made of a long-extinct upholstery fabric immediately recognizable to anyone who’s lived through the mid-Century era — or watched the TV shows All in the Family or Bewitched.

In the corner stands a Jetsons-like lamp. There’s also a console TV set with a rabbit-ear antenna. And on the wall is a ubiquitous print of a sad-eyed child, which Berndt said was rescued from the now demolished Arlington Hotel.

The museum used to present entire room settings from different eras before the display style changed, so the nostalgic appeal is strong, she admitted.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘My grandmother had a couch like that!’” Berndt said, with a chuckle.

Across the aisle is an array of clothing worn by Red Deerians over more than half a century — including a banana-coloured Fortrel midi-skirt, worn by Morris’s wife Hazel Flewwelling to the museum opening in 1978.

There are also some award-winning Indigenous dance regalia; a knit training outfit worn by local Olympic speedskater Kevin Sirois (who was tragically killed by a motorist in 1972, while cycling); and a plaid shirt and archery equipment belonging to the late naturalist Kerry Wood from the 1940s and ’50s.

Berndt feels many people will be surprised to learn that Wood — the namesake of the nature centre — was a renowned archery supplier who distributed bows and arrows all over the globe.

More contentious Red Deer history is also reflected through two displayed protest placards — one proclaiming “no more hate” and the other touting the Reform Party as being against “gays, Indians and poor people.”

Berendt hopes the latter sign was written as satire, since its provenance is unclear.

But she noted some anti-immigrant sentiment has arisen, most recently after a 2017 fight between students at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School led to protests from both sides.

The museum has some 90,000 artifacts and is, by necessity, becoming more selective about what is now accepted. Berndt said items have to be directly related to life in the city and Red Deerians.

However, museum officials are still looking to fill in the collection with more representation from Indigenous and Metis people, recent immigrants, LGBTQ-plus residents, persons with developmental disabilities, artists and makers, as well as with items with strong provenance to this area.

Berndt said she hopes visitors who view all the eclectic items in this latest display will appreciate what a truly diverse community this has become.

Upon Further Reflection: Highlights from the Past 50 Years, will be running until March 11.

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