This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada
Article by Tom Spiller, IACC Member
On March 9, 2017, our guest speaker was Dr. Colleen Skidmore, Professor in the Department of History and Classics, Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta. She relayed to us how her experience researching archives about women in history demonstrates the timeless value of photographs. Dr. Skidmore’s presentation used examples from her books to show us how we can learn about societies and cultures from photographs.
Early women explorers in the Canadian Rockies produced photos and drawings for some of the most respected photographic and geographic societies in the world. Dr. Skidmore showed us how hand tinted glass lantern slides were used to capture their experiences and bring meaning to times and places. Her studies focused on Mary Schaffer, Mary M. Vaux, and Molly Adams in the late 1800's and early 1900’s. Tremendous botanical knowledge and interactions with Aboriginal peoples were documented forever through their works. A very classic example is a photograph of “The Beaver Family” by Mary Schaffer in 1906. The first photos of Maligne Lake also come from Mary Schaffer’s explorations in 1908. A later example of women in the Rockies included Georgia Engelhard, and her amazing climbing accomplishments. The photograph of Mount Assiniboine in 1931 conveys size, wilderness and the presence of Indigenous people.
Dr. Skidmore’s technical knowledge in selecting well-composed photos in her books and exhibits stems from extensive archival research. Thanks to Catharine Whyte, there is now the Whyte Museum in Banff, where many of these archives reside. A special exhibit featuring This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada will be presented from June to October this year.
Now we know where the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes from.
Please note: Whyte Museum's Archives & Library collection include several works by Mary M. Vaux and Mary Schaffer.