Interning at Jardins de Metis/Reford Gardens was truly a highlight of this summer. As someone passionate about looking at history “from below,” the Reford Gardens’ effort to make historical information accessible to the public and recover marginalized voices resonated with me. Throughout the three months, I had the opportunity to work on a project of Anna Lois Dawson for the Reford Gardens, a Canadian historic site located in Grand Metis, Quebec. Anna was a talented female artist and natural scientist in the 19th century. Born as the eldest daughter of the renowned scientist John William Dawson, who was also the long-time McGill principal from 1855 to 1893, Anna displayed extraordinary talent in art and science and produced an extensive collection of artworks now housed at the McCord Museum. So much of this history, however, has long been silenced; and it was not until recent decades that female voices regained their historical agency. My tasks, which involved examining a collection of correspondence between Anna and other Dawson family members and providing descriptive metadata for Anna’s watercolours, allowed me the chance to get a glimpse of Anna’s artistic journey and the life of the Dawson family. During this process, I was able to re-discover some of the long-underestimated talents and contributions of women in the 19th century, which for me was a pleasant experience.
What I enjoyed the most during the internship was the joy of discovering interesting content from deciphering handwritten letters. Anna recounts daily events, artistic ideas, beliefs, and personal emotions in the large collection of letters to family members. I was able to organize the content into a report, including aspects of gender, familial bond and responsibility, artistic inspiration, and many more. Hopefully, this information could be used and become available to the public in the Reford Gardens’ future exhibitions.
Going through first-hand materials is always a fascinating process for a history student, although the process itself was by no means an easy task. As a non-native English speaker, I found the process quite daunting initially. However, as I was able to practice with more letters and get more familiar with handwriting letters, the task gradually became less time-consuming and easier to handle. I find it very fascinating to be able to learn about Victorian letter-writing conventions, older English expressions, and formatting. What I found most interesting is seeing Anna’s appreciation for the natural world and daily life, the inspiration she gained from the surrounding environment and the forms of restraint, and her effort at balancing maternal responsibility and personal endeavour.
In addition, I also engaged in providing metadata for Anna’s watercolours - most of them are landscapes captured from the Lower Saint-Lawrence area - identifying their date and location and writing short descriptions for the scenes. From time to time, I was able to match contextual information in Anna’s letters, in which she described the scene she intended to paint, with a particular watercolour. During this process, I was able to see Anna’s valorization of local landscapes, her attachment to the local environment, and her endeavour to capture them through the materiality of paintings. More importantly, I was able to treat these watercolours as part of Anna’s identity and connect them with the artist’s expressions of inner self, her thoughts, feelings, and values.
Although not without difficulties, the internship was a lovely experience. A difficulty I encountered was that the internship was remote, and setting up a regular schedule without a physical boundary between work and leisure was somewhat challenging in the first month. As the work proceeded, I eventually found a much more balanced and scheduled routine. The remote environment has indeed pushed me to organize time segments and prioritize tasks more efficiently.