Obituary / Nécrologie - Garth Wilson, 1960-2010

Obituary / Nécrologie

Garth Wilson, 1960-2010

Sharon Babaian
Historian, CSTMC

1 On November 13, 2010, the museum world lost a passionate advocate with the untimely death—after a two-year battle with cancer—of Garth Wilson, curator of land and marine transportation at the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation.

2 Garth Wilson cared deeply about museums and their collections. He knew that collections were the heart and soul of the museum and devoted much of his life to studying, understanding and explaining artifacts. He knew how much they mattered and, through his work, sought to persuade others of their importance. It was a constant struggle but one he refused to abandon.

3 Garth combined his interest in material culture studies with a love of the history of technology, especially transportation. In his creative hands, these two fields became one and the results were truly remarkable. As curator, first of marine transportation (1989) and then of land and marine transportation (2003), at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Garth set out to enhance the national collections, to study and interpret them and to produce exhibitions and publications that challenged audiences (and some museum colleagues) to see technology in new and surprising ways.

4 Garth brought imagination, intelligence and discipline to collecting. He carefully assessed the merits of any object before acquiring it and resisted pressure to take something for purely expedient reasons. As a result of his efforts the transportation collection grew to include more examples of working vehicles (the pointer boat, the Shelburne dory, the salmon skiff), more Canadian content (CCM bicycles, Mercury Montcalm) and more critical infrastructure (Precise Integrated Navigational System). He was particularly proud of his acquisition of the Rice Lake Canoe Company collection.

5 In exhibitions, Garth’s work was equally distinguished. Whether producing a small temporary display or a major installation, he took the challenge seriously and brought all his skills to bear on it. His exhibitions were notable for their meticulous selection of objects, meaningful text and captions and thematic coherence. His two most important efforts were his most recent: Canoes: The Shape of Success (2000) and In Search of the Canadian Car (2010). In both of these exhibitions, Garth explored questions of identity and, in doing so, confounded our preconceptions of what a transportation exhibition could be.

6 Garth’s publications were also innovative and challenging and always focused on objects and their meanings. Whether writing for the public in a Curator’s Choice pamphlet or for a professional audience in Material History Review, he invariably found a new and interesting way to pose a question and a fresh approach to answering it. His last published article is a fine example of how his mind worked. In "Designing Meaning: Streamlining, National Identity and the Case of CN 6400," Garth once again explored issues of identity by focussing his attention on a locomotive that has long been a fixture, albeit a somewhat silent one, on the museum floor. His research brought to light the fascinating story behind this remarkable piece of engineering.

7 The museum community benefited enormously from Garth’s commitment to museology, material culture studies, transportation history and public history. During his career he contributed to scholarship in these fields through a wide variety of journals. He acted as English review editor for Material History Review from 1991 to 2006 and, in that role, helped to enhance and extend the reach and reputation of the journal around the world. Garth also taught courses and arranged seminars and workshops in material culture studies for various groups. In 2004-05 he played a leading role in organizing the Canadian Museum Association’s Museum Research Summit, which brought together museum-based researchers from across the country to address the challenges facing collections-related research. It was a huge success. Garth also organized conferences at the Canada Science and Technology Museum including Technology and the Body (2004) and Transportation and the Environment (2008)—the annual meeting of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M).

8 During his career, Garth was active in a number of organizations, all of which benefited from his intelligence, creativity, dedication and forthrightness. He was a Councillor of the Canadian Nautical Research Society (CNRS) and served on the boards of the Museum Small Craft Association and the Atlantic Challenge Canada Foundation. He acted as an external advisor to the Adirondack Museum. In recent years, he had become deeply involved in T2M, an organization that he thought could bring a much needed broadening of perspective to transportation collections. At the time of his death, he was a vice-president of the organization.

9 Garth’s unwavering commitment to museums and their collections was shared by many, but his particular combination of skills and interests was unique and it will be sorely missed. His honesty, integrity, creativity and intelligence are irreplaceable. His enduring legacy will be his example, which will serve to inspire many and to remind us all of what can be accomplished through dedication to the highest standards of museum scholarship.

Wilson, Garth. 2008. Designing Meaning. Journal of Design History 21 (3): 237-57.