Timeline of the first 50 years of the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Canadian Heritage Information Network

The 1970s: the founding of CCI and the National Inventory Programme

The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) was founded after UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention. The founder and first director, Dr. Nathan Stolow, convinced the federal government to create a national institute that would bring together research, conservation and training activities. CCI was one of the institutions established as a result of the National Museums Act in 1972.

Stolow was a conservation scientist who had previously been responsible for expanding the restoration workshop of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), a service that had existed since 1912. Under the leadership of Alan Jarvis, the NGC director, Stolow had transformed the workshop into the Conservation and Scientific Research Division in the late 1950s. He had long envisioned a research laboratory where conservators and scientists would work together.

In 1975, CCI opened its headquarters at 1030 Innes Road in Ottawa, and three regional centres were established afterwards. The original plan consisted of five regional centres, but before the final two could be established, the three existing regional centres were closed, leaving only the CCI headquarters in Ottawa to serve all of Canada’s heritage conservation needs. The challenge of serving heritage institutions across the country led to the development of the mobile labs, which saw conservators travel in retrofitted vans, complete with a condensed laboratory. A pilot project took place in 1979. Due to its success, the Mobile Laboratories Program started the following year.

CCI published the first in its series of Technical Bulletins in 1975. Since then, it has published more than 30 Technical Bulletins to assist heritage professionals and institutions in the care and preservation of their objects and collections. Topics covered include fire prevention programs for museums, controlling fungal and pest problems, disaster recovery of modern information carriers and effective packaging for artwork.

The roots of the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) go back to the National Inventory Programme (NIP), which began in 1972. NIP was created in response to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, of which Canada was an early signatory. Initially, there were three national inventories: databases of the humanities, natural science collections and archaeological sites. The first director was Peter Homulos. Museums used a dial-up network to connect to the mainframe and manage records directly. Thanks to NIP, Canada was at the forefront of museum informatics worldwide at the time. In fact, when the Museum of Transport and Technology in New Zealand wanted to implement heritage accessing and cataloguing in their own country, they sent a delegation to visit NIP to learn how to proceed.

While we celebrate these early advancements, we must also acknowledge that the origins of collections management policies and conservation programs in Canada were deeply grounded in the colonialist impulse to recreate a European example. There is no evidence that CCI and CHIN meaningfully considered the unique issues relating to Indigenous heritage at the time of their foundations. Addressing and acknowledging these shortcomings in CCI and CHIN’s early histories has been an objective of recent years in a move towards reconciliation.

The 1980s: NIP becomes CHIN, and CCI runs the Mobile Laboratories Program

In 1981, CCI published the first in its series of CCI Notes, which deal with topics of interest to those who care for cultural objects. There are currently over 100 CCI Notes in this ever-expanding series, which includes practical advice about issues and questions related to the care, handling and storage of cultural objects.

In 1982, NIP evolved into CHIN. Over this decade, CHIN actively worked with the museum community to develop professional standards and resources to exploit digital technologies. Staff members travelled to museums to help set up their institutional databases and to provide ongoing support.

In 1986, CCI became involved in the fossilized forest on Axel Heiberg Island in the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). The site on Axel Heiberg contained the fossil remains of an in situ forest that was roughly 40 million years old. CCI worked with the National Museum of Natural Sciences (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) in Ottawa to pioneer preservation techniques for specimens brought from the site. Others at CCI worked diligently to evaluate the threat of erosion facing the site itself and surveyed the site using kite aerial photography, which established an erosion rate of 3 mm on average per year. Conservators at CCI championed the fight for the site’s protection from the 1980s onward.

CCI launched the Mobile Laboratories Program in 1980. As they travelled across the country, conservators and interns treated over 4000 objects in the retrofitted vans. However, due to changes in funding, the mobile labs era at CCI came to an end in 1987.

The 1990s: the digitization of heritage

The Department of Canadian Heritage was created in June 1993. CCI joined the department along with other programs in the areas of official languages, arts and culture, parks and historic sites, broadcasting, multiculturalism, citizenship, amateur sport and the National Capital Commission.

In 1994, CCI produced the first version of the “Framework for Preserving Heritage Collections: Strategies for Avoiding or Reducing Damage,” a chart to act as a quick reference tool for heritage professionals. The chart was made available for free in a high-resolution PDF on the CCI website.

CHIN launched the first virtual exhibit, “Christmas Traditions in France and in Canada,” in 1995. The exhibit marked the fifth anniversary of the Canada–France Agreement Regarding Co-operation and Exchanges in the Museums Field. Visitors to this exhibit came from around the world and learned about the objects and customs associated with Christmas celebrations in the two countries. This important exhibit represented a collaboration between the two countries, bringing together research and experimentation in what was a new medium at the time.

In 1998, the national inventories were re-designed for the Web, becoming Artefacts Canada. This positioned CHIN as a world leader in heritage information management.

During the late 1990s, CHIN also launched its first online course, “Selecting a Collections Management System,” followed by courses on digitization. They also began publishing resources on these topics.

The 2000s: community engagement

The CCI Library has one of the largest conservation and museology collections in the world. In 2000, CCI made its catalogue available to users online. Learn more about the history of the CCI Library.

In 2000, the federal budget allocated funding to develop Canadian content online. Part of this funding was for the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC). In 2001, CHIN launched the VMC. Along with virtual exhibits and the Guide to Canadian museums and galleries, records containing images from Learning with Museums and Artefacts Canada were available from this public-facing site (Image Gallery). There was also a tool to allow visitors to use content from the Image Gallery to create their own personal museum on the VMC site.

At the same time, the focus of the CHIN site became specific to heritage professionals. The site included the Heritage Forum resource links, courses and reference databases. The main Artefacts Canada site with all its records resided on the CHIN site.

In 2002, CCI and CHIN, in collaboration with international partner institutions, launched the Bibliographic Database of the Conservation Information Network as a free research database for conservation literature. CCI also launched a website with the intention of helping people preserve their personal treasures and mementos.

In 2003, CHIN introduced the Community Memories program, which provided funding (up to $5000) for small museums of two or fewer full-time staff members to purchase necessary equipment for scanning and documenting records to create local history exhibits.

That same year, CCI signed a memorandum of understanding with ICCROM and the Instituut Collectie Nederland (now the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency). Together, they developed a methodology and tools for risk assessment and delivered courses in several parts of the world. CCI then tested the methodology in a series of pilot projects in a variety of heritage institutions in Canada.

Between 2002 and early 2008, CCI’s headquarters underwent major renovations, which curtailed conservation treatments and scientific research projects that required specialized laboratory facilities.

In 2007, CCI hosted the symposium Preserving Aboriginal Heritage: Technical and Traditional Approaches. CCI was guided in the development of the content and the selection of speakers by an advisory committee comprising First Nations, Métis and Inuit participants. The symposium was held on the unceded territory of the Anishinaabeg (Algonquin), who were an important partner in the project.

Also, in the mid-2000s, CCI made a formal commitment to hold two advanced professional development workshops per year. This ongoing program has covered topics such as the use of gellan gum in the treatment of graphic art on paper, iron gall ink treatment practices and the conservation of plastics.

The 2010s: a reorganization of heritage

In 2014, CCI collaborated with the Museums Assistance Program (MAP) to create RE-ORG: Canada, a multi-year training program based on the RE-ORG method developed by ICCROM and UNESCO in 2011. The RE-ORG method is a step-by-step approach that focuses on the improvement of existing storage areas rather than the planning or building of new facilities.

Between 2014 and 2019, participating museums across Canada implemented the RE-ORG method in their institutions. In total, 27 successful projects were implemented in five designated regions: Atlantic, Ontario, Prairies and North, Quebec, and West.

In 2014, management of the Virtual Museum of Canada was transferred to the Canadian Museum of History. With a smaller team, CHIN’s focus returned to its roots in collections documentation and management.

Then in 2015, CCI began an administrative merger with CHIN. Between 2015 and 2017, CHIN began experimenting with linked open data (LOD) to expand connections in heritage data.

In 2018, CHIN launched a bilingual, illustrated online version of Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging in collaboration with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and Parks Canada. CHIN, AASLH and Parks Canada continue to work together with the museum community to develop and maintain the Nomenclature vocabulary.

The 2020s: looking ahead

In 2020, CCI released the guide Caring for Heritage Collections During the COVID-19 Pandemic. While the collections themselves were not at risk, their care was complicated due to the pandemic. The guide compiled information and recommendations to help those responsible for ensuring that collections and heritage materials remained safe.

In 2020, CHIN made Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging available as downloadable open data. Since then, CHIN has enhanced Nomenclature (in collaboration with the Getty Vocabulary Program and Wikidata volunteers) with links to other LOD resources. They have also customized the Nomenclature platform and website to allow for inclusion of many North American Indigenous languages in addition to improving the Nomenclature data model. CHIN continues to publish resources on collections management and documentation. CHIN has also developed training on digitization and digital preservation to support heritage community in their digital transition.

In 2021, CCI and CHIN worked together to create their first joint strategic plan. This plan describes a new vision for a future encompassing both organizations, namely that CCI and CHIN will advance the sustainable conservation of collections in Canada and expand Canadians’ access to them while developing a professional environment anchored in the values of diversity, inclusion and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

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