At the start of next summer, Western’s Medical Artifact Collection will be moving along with the rest of the history department to the building formerly known as the Stevenson-Lawson Building.
And one important artifact – a beaker used by Sir Fredrick Banting – will not make the move, but will instead become one of the assets at Banting House National Historic Site of Canada in London.
Part of the “spring cleaning” process for Western’s collection includes making executive decisions about which medical artifacts will be transferred to the new space and which will be deaccessioned, or removed, from the collection.
Included in the deaccessioning is an average-looking beaker with a small strip of lined paper identifying it as one belonging to Sir Frederick Banting, the famed co-discoverer of insulin.
This historic gem was previously used by the young struggling doctor during his days of teaching at Western’s Medical School. His idea for insulin as a treatment of diabetes came while living in London.
Upon leaving London to work on his conception of insulin in 1921, the young doctor left his belongings to Professor Crane, head of Pharmacology at the time. They were subsequently transferred to Western’s medical collection.
So why would the Medical Artifacts Collection want to deaccession an object with such an historic association?
In the world of museology, there exists a “public trust doctrine” that puts every collecting institution under a certain obligation to educate – collections are held for the benefit of the public and should, therefore, always be managed in such a way that is most advantageous to the public and to posterity.
Banting’s beaker is of little value to the public if it remains in the Medical Artifact Collection.
Because this institution is mainly a teaching collection, that is, its artifacts are used to teach medical and public history, it would be most beneficial to transfer this artifact to an institution in a better position to care for it, interpret it, and make it more accessible to the public.
Banting House National Historic Site of Canada is the proper place for this artifact. In continuing the fine tradition of support and partnership over the years, it was recently transferred from Western to the Banting House collection.
Bearing in mind that this site only contains about a dozen artifacts from Banting’s time in London, this beaker — of little significance to Western’s collection — is a “high priority” artifact to the Banting House collection.
The mandate of Banting House is to preserve this national story for the benefit of the Canadian people—and national significance is the highest level that can be assigned to a cultural resource.
In addition, the artifact could not have come to the collection at a better time! October of this year will mark the 90th anniversary of the defining moment in the discovery of insulin at 442 Adelaide Street.
It is common for the public to view museums as a static conglomerate of highly valued artifacts, when the reality is that museums are constantly collecting and looking for new items that fit their mandates. After all, a museum is only as strong as its collection.
This overlooked fact should be kept in mind as we all do a little spring cleaning of our own this year. Just as one person’s trash is proverbially another’s treasure, so it goes that one family’s dust collector could be an institution’s high-priority artifact.
Spring cleaning has certainly proven to be a valuable process in the field of collections management. Deaccessioning artifacts can help museum staff to uncover their true historic worth and place them in their rightful museological homes.
In this case, the artifact, although insignificant to Western’s collection, reminds us of our contribution and the role this university played in the discovery of insulin.
The writer is a master’s student in the Public History program. She is currently working at Banting House National Historic Site of Canada in London.