An entire life … on eBay

January 26, 2010

Museums are gateways to a myriad of artifacts – witnesses to our distant and recent past, each chosen for its historic and artistic value. And while our encounters with these objects can be surprising, exciting, moving, we never really know how these ‘pieces of history’ arrive there. Traditionally, means of acquisition have included archeological digs, donations, and auctions. But in our increasingly virtual world, a new source has emerged: the internet.

A cyber-goldmine

Working in a museum takes a certain kind of passion. It’s what often leads Jim Whitham, Acting Manager of Collections at the Canadian War Museum, to the massive catalogues of eBay. But do these online auctions yield worthwhile treasures?

Last September, Whitham came across an intriguing posting: a specialist in Seattle was selling a crate of diverse documents that had belonged to a Canadian soldier who had immigrated to the United States. A few mouse-clicks later, Whitham was staring at a virtual historic tableau: photos, notebooks, uniforms, postcards from the trenches, and some 200 letters that Canadian soldier John R. Clark and his fiancé had exchanged. It was a life story told through the turbulence of the First World War.

Saving his heritage

John R. Clark had emigrated from Scotland to British Columbia where he enlisted in the 13th Canadian Field Ambulance in July of 1915. Letters he mailed to his fiancée, Eva Auchinachie, shared an intimate diary of Clark’s military life – from his training in Camp Vernon to daily life on the front in France. After becoming American citizens in 1932, the Clarks’ love story endured for nearly 60 years.

The e-Bay posting garnered over 5000 hits, but it was Jim Whitham’s shrewdness that won the Museum the collection. And as the exciting secrets of this collection are revealed, you can bet Mr. Whitham is enjoying new cyber-adventures, taking full advantage of technological tools to write future pages of our past.