T
he Canadian Museum of Civilization recently acquired the John and Heather Harbinson Collection of Canadian historical furniture and related items. This was perhaps the most complete and best documented collection of its kind in private hands. The editors of Ornamentvm thought our readers would be interested in learning about this acquisition from both John Harbinson as collector and David Morrison, Director of Archaeology and History at the CMC, who represented the Museum’s interest in acquiring these objects.


Ornamentvm – How did you and Heather begin collecting?
John Harbinson – When we were first married back in the 1960s we needed to furnish our apartment in Toronto. Funds were short and used furniture was much cheaper than new. As an example, our first dining room was a made-up set of a table, six chairs and a sideboard from the 1890s. I think the total price was less than $100.

O. Did you have a particular interest in styles or materials at that time?
J.H. Not really. What we wanted were things that were comfortable, affordable, and I guess you could say distinctive or more personal than new furniture. Things from the past such as country stone houses (we eventually wound up in one some years later) and old furniture had character and appeal, although I don’t think we could have articulated it that way at the time.

O. How did you go about collecting?
J.H. In 1968 we moved to London so that I could do an MBA at Western. We moved into a townhouse with more space than our old apartment and we started to go around to the small town antique shops in the London area looking to add a few more inexpensive items. We also went to local auctions and as we became hooked on this extra-curricular activity we began to bring surplus things back to Toronto to sell to family and friends.
Before we knew it we were buying and selling and even refinishing in a modest way for extra income. I was still an MBA student after all.

O. After forty years of collecting do you have a single favourite piece?
J.H. A difficult question to answer, although I have to say that the John Doan secretary desk has to be the cornerstone of the collection and probably the one piece I favour most. It has provenance directly back to Doan Hall and was made by John Doan for use by his own family so that gives it a particular historical interest as well.

O. Are there any circumstances of purchase
or provenance that you found amusing or
strange when you acquired a certain piece?
J.H. Well, there is a painting by W.E. Wright of the ship
“City of Toronto” that ended up accidentally with the
black sheep of the family. He used it, apparently his only
asset, to seduce and set up his elopement with a much
younger woman of “substance” as she was described.
I suppose “trading up” is how a dealer might have put it.

O. What are your hopes for use of the
collection now that it has found a home
at the CMC?
J.H. Back in the 60s we were fortunate enough to be
part of a scene of young dealers and young collectors
all starting out together and you might say learning
together about all this wonderful stuff that was
beginning to appear from country auctions and old
houses. Canada’s centennial in 1967 raised awareness
of the country’s history; there was a lot of enthusiasm,
energy and interest in the discovery of these old objects.
We went from shop to shop looking for what was out
there. When Niagara Peninsula furniture was getting
hot, and this was before most of the books on early
Canadian furniture had been published, we were in the
thick of it. Now there seem to be fewer collectors and a
smaller circle of interested followers. We need to expose
young people to these things so that they learn to
celebrate them. Possession is a particular way of being in
the world, but to increase understanding and
appreciation of our material past without necessarily
collecting is also an essential part of our collective
identity. We hope the CMC will be able to deliver on that.

O. How does the museum decide on
whether to accept a collection or even
a single piece when offered as a donation
or for purchase?
David Morrison – The first step is to find a curator
interested in “sponsoring” acquisition of the object(s)
or collection for a particular area of collecting related
to the museum mandate. Discussion with the potential
donor is then followed by a two stage committee
process, at first through the division directly involved
(history/archaeology, folk art/ethnology, etc.) and
through wider consideration by other divisional
directors and the director of research before a final
decision is taken. This procedure is meant to assess
not only the intrinsic values of the objects involved
but to consider the financial costs to buy, appraise,
conserve, research and use…

O. Does the museum actively pursue
collections and pieces it may find out
about accidentally through word of
mouth, auction advertisements, etc.?
That is, things not offered directly?
D.M. Yes, but since there is no acquisition budget
per se, although divisions do have their own limited
funds, the process is ad hoc. We hear from individuals,
other institutions, and through newspaper articles
and periodicals about the shifting cultural scene.

O. We have the impression that CMC is
first and foremost an historical museum.
Is that an accurate description? And if so
how important is the historical aspect of
provenance in relation to the ethnographic,
the social, the aesthetic, the political?
D.M. Well, history and culture are central to what we
do, but all the perspectives you mention are part of our
interest in and use of the collections we have.

O. I want to ask you now about the
recent acquisition of the John and
Heather Harbinson collection.
Why did the museum decide to acquire
this collection? Are the piece s o f
particular interest because of provenance,
by that I mean by association, specific
makers, ethnic origin, etc.?
D.M. This collection of about 260 items is of enormous
value from an historical, material culture point of view.
To begin with, it has all the elements you mention and
more. It is entirely Canadian in origin and use, and it is
our responsibility as a museum to preserve and promote
our national heritage; it comes with excellent
provenance for almost all items – ownership, maker,
region and ethnic origin.

O. How does it fit with present collections
and the museum’s mandate?
D.M. As you know our mandate was established by an
act of Parliament and everything we do is derived from
collections as the material record of our past. The
Harbinson collection extends and gives greater depth
to our present holdings. It focuses on the eastern half
of the country although not exclusively (the Maritimes,
Quebec and Ontario) for obvious reasons, as the earliest
settled part of the country. The Harbinson collection
is also more high end in terms of style and finish than
much of our present material, and as already noted it
has better provenance in almost all cases.

O. How will the collection be used
in future?
D.M. We need to get these materials on display
physically and also available electronically as soon as
possible. The museum has done folk art shows on a fairly
regular basis but very few exhibitions about furniture as
such, despite our quite extensive collections of Canadian
historical materials, now more extensive than ever.
We also expect these great examples of our material
past to attract more research and publication in a
field that is still underdeveloped. Along with the Nettie
Sharpe collection of Quebec folk objects and furniture
recently acquired and now the Harbinson collection,
mainly Ontario, with significant pieces from Quebec
and the Maritimes, the possibilities for serious new
research both specific and comparative have
increased tremendously.

O. Do you see any other consequences as
a result of this acquisition?
D.M. Well, overall – new fields for in-depth study, more
use of the collections by outside researchers, greater
possible joint projects with other institutions, further
gifts and donations attracted by the geographic scope
and variety of our collections.

O. On a personal note: As an archaeologist
/ anthropologist do you see similarities
between your own use of material objects
and items such as furniture and domestic
utensils? When and how does the material
past become the primary means of historical
study? What does it give us that documents
can’t supply?
D.M. For me, objects from the past convey an emotional
importance as nothing else can. They provide a real
physical contact with another world that can’t be found
in documents. They embody peoples’ ideas and the
material conditions of life and activity in a directly
sensuous way that photography, texts, and the electronic
media can’t duplicate. That’s why collections must
remain the essential core of museum activity.
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Image: John Doan’s desk, c. 1820-30,
bird’s eye maple and white pine
Height 172 x width 102 x depth 56 cm.
All photographs: James Chambers