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Western Canadian History: Collections

There are more than 75,000 artifacts in the Western Canadian History program. As with most social history programs, the collection embraces a broad spectrum of artifacts that represent Alberta's post-contact era—communication artifacts that range from radios to computers, trades artifacts such as wheelwrighting and blacksmithing, paintings and porcelains, furniture and industrial machinery. Below are some of our larger or significant collections that are in addition to the broad categories mentioned above.

The Textiles Collection

The textiles collection comprising almost 22,000 artifacts represents the textile and costume history of the people of western European origins who settled and have lived across the prairies. Textiles range from those used as household furnishings/management to articles of personal clothing used for work, special occasions, and community ceremonial events. The collection has a strong work clothing component (especially Great Western Garment Company collection) and a diverse collection of children's historic dress. There are over 60 quilts that illustrate a range of styles and techniques. Accessories are represented by an excellent women's hat and shoe collection. Contemporary collecting has always been a part of the Museum's mandate and the collection represents innovations in textile technology and fashion for men, women, and children.

The Medical Collection

In addition to a small but good collection of surgical instruments, the Western Canadian History program has acquired a significant collection of medical equipment and accessories from the Alberta Hospital, Edmonton and the University of Alberta Hospital. The Alberta Hospital collection of restraining devices, intelligence tests and therapy equipment documents the growth of and changes to psychiatric care in the province. The University of Alberta Hospital collection includes dialysis machines and urology equipment as well as a number of respirators and an iron lung that speak of the polio epidemics that swept through North America in the 20th century.

Medalta Pottery

The longest running company and the largest producer of household crockery and hotelware in Canada was Medalta Potteries of Medicine Hat, Alberta. Abundant natural gas and quality clay made Medicine Hat attractive to entrepreneurs interested in establishing an industrial ceramics industry. Operating at first under the name Medalta Stoneware (1915-1924), Medalta Potteries produced 700 different pieces during its 40 year history. The company's successful crockery ware became a secondary line after Medalta began importing a white burning clay suitable for hotelware from Willow, Saskatchewan. By the 1940s, restaurants, hotels and both Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railways all used Medalta's tableware. By the late 1940s English porcelain was flooding the Canadian market and in 1954 the company closed its doors. Although there were several attempts to revive the industry, all proved unsuccessful.

Today, Medaltaware is highly collectible. The Western Canadian History program has in more than 2000 Medalta artifacts including a fine selection of hotelware consisting of plates, cups, saucers, and creamers. Our colourful homeware pieces include crocks, jugs, vases, water pitchers, lamps and some of the rarer items such as 'Toby' jugs, 'Buffalo Head' book ends and advertisement pieces.

Altaglass

In the early 1950s a Czechoslovakian, John Furch, established a glass making industry in Medicine Hat, lured by plentiful and cheap natural gas to heat his furnaces. Over the years, the company's product line ranged from vases, bowls, buttons, and candlesticks to artware. It successfully penetrated the western Canadian gift store market; one of its most important clients was Eaton's. Changing public taste and the high cost of fuel after the National Energy Programme in 1981 forced the company to shut down its furnaces. The company struggled for another seven years, producing small ornaments using pyrex glass rods heated by blowtorches instead. But, in 1988, Altaglass was forced to close its doors.

The Museum's Altaglass collection of more than 300 pieces shows a wide range of product line and of the moulded and blown freeform techniques.

The Edmund McDougall Collection

The Edmund McDougall Collection of 647 pieces of furniture, paintings, porcelains and other artifacts represents a by-gone age of elegance, a time when great wealth could be achieved even on the Alberta frontier. Edmund McDougall's father, John, had moved west in the 1870s and worked as an itinerant fur trader. He eventually settled at Fort Edmonton in 1876 where he built a general merchandising business and speculated in real estate. He also formed a business with another Edmonton merchant, Richard Secord. Moving into the wholesale trade to more northerly communities, McDougall and Secord were by the turn of the century two of the wealthiest people in Alberta. John McDougall began acquiring furnishings for his new home at the end of the 19th century. On his not infrequent business trips to eastern Canada and the United States, he purchased some of the Collection's 40 pieces of furniture, while most of the 66 Asian artifacts, some of the paintings and a few of the 183 porcelains were purchased by him on his European holidays in 1899, 1913 and 1923 and during the family's 'round-the-world trip in 1906. His son, Edmund, continued the family tradition of collecting. Artifacts from the Edmund McDougall Collection were displayed in The Gilded Age exhibit between January 1993—January 1997.

Each year we receive numerous research enquiries relating to our collection. For information on working with the collection, just contact the Curator, Western Canadian History.