Preserving history a labour of love

An example of interesting artifacts on display at the CLAFM: a copy of Standing Orders for Married Quarters and some examples of Sweetheart jewelry. Servicemen as early as WWI send their loved ones jewelry to wear patriotism and support for the war effort. Photo: Joy Smith

Joy Smith, Reporter

An item has been donated to the Cold Lake Air Force Museum (CLAFM) now what happens to it? Jennifer Ross, Curator of the CLAFM and Wanda Stacey, Collections assistant at the museum takes us through the process that turns a donated item into an artifact.

First there is paperwork: all donors must complete a form signing ownership of the item over to the CLAFM. Artifacts that could possibly be infested with bugs or been in contact with rodents are quarantined to prevent the infestation from spreading to the rest of the collection. Items are placed in plastic bags, which will suffocate any suspected vermin. With COVID-19 protocols now in place, all donated items regardless of their condition are quarantined for two weeks.

Once the item is out of quarantine, a report is completed outlining what condition the item arrived in and what facilities and/or skills will be needed to preserve the artifact. Any necessary repairs or conservation is performed and the item is cleaned. Then Wanda delves into the database to see if the museum already owns a similar item, the condition of that item and if it has a back story.

Following strict protocols, Wanda attaches a small accession label to each removable part of the artifact. The label records the year the artifact was donated, the donor number and the item number. For example, a complete dress uniform is made up of several parts, each part is labeled, then all the information collected about the artifact such as history, physical condition, special markings, etc. is entered into the database.

Then it’s time to find the artifact a home; this could involve anything from finding space on a shelf to making special boxes that will protect WWI helmets which are vulnerable to the elements. CLAFM is a not-for-profit organization with a very limited budget, so staff need to become very creative; they conserve items properly but in the most economical way.

Record keeping is vital and time consuming. Every time an artifact is added to the inventory or moved this change is recorded in the database.
Special precautions are taken to keep the collection healthy; museum staff are constantly conducting checks making sure there are no leaks in the building, they watch for signs of rodent or bug infestations and continually monitor humidity levels which are kept at about 50% throughout the museum.

Special care is taken when handling and moving artifacts and wearing gloves when handling an item is a must. UV light is one of the worst degrading factors for an artifact but moving that artifact is almost just as bad. When moving an item, museum staff must plan the route they intend to take during the move, taking note of any obstacles or possible trip hazards along the way. The artifact must be carried a certain way and the person moving the item must make sure not to wear jewelry or clothing that could get snagged on the piece.

Very few pieces in the CLAFM collection have any substantial information recorded about them; only about 25 percent and in some cases, technology is to blame. With advances in computer technology happening at lightning speed, staff at the museum are struggling to keep up. For example, some of the museum’s artifact information is stored on floppy disks, with the constant upgrade of computers, museum staff now have no way to retrieve that information. One of the biggest challenges for museum curators is how to maintain clear and accurate documentation of their artifacts in a format that is readable to everyone without the need for special equipment.

Museum exhibits are a snap shot in time; you don’t get the entire experience but you get an idea of the way things were and that is worth hanging on to. It’s impossible to know all the details of the past because most are gone but museums give us an idea of how things were. To the best of their ability Jennifer and Wanda are showing the world what it was like in Cold Lake during the Cold War but it’s not the complete story.

Get in touch with the past by visiting one of many museums in the Lakeland area. Pending any COVID-19 restrictions, the CLAFM typically opens to the public starting on the May long weekend until September. You can visit their website at for more information.

Here is just one of the collection rooms at the museum where many artifacts are stored for safe keeping. Photo: Submitted