The Artifact Handler
More peculiar still was that when they pulled up to their destination, they found the house filled with people, all dressed in their Sunday best. As the two museum employees got out of their truck, many of these same people came out to greet them, some even snapping photos of the pair.
Hilborn was there to pick up a motorcycle a 1963 Honda Cub that the recently deceased patriarch of the home owned and which his family was donating to the museum. For the man’s extended family, the passing of the motorcycle was an occasion wort toms hy of a ceremony.
“They explained that they were so appreciative that the museum was taking this Honda Cub that they had a party to celebrate it,” Hilborn recalls.
When the tim toms e came to actually wheel the motorcycle onto the truck, Hilborn was asked if the owner’s eldest son might be allowed that honour. Then, after it was packed for the journey, a number of family members asked if they might be allowed to follow the truck to the museum, to see where the bike will go. “This has never happened before,” says Hilborn. “So what do you say? Of course, you’re more than welcome.
“So several family members get into two cars and fol toms low us. It was kind of like a parade,” he adds. “The family was absolutely thrilled. It was so meaningful.
“That was one of the better times here at the museum.”At last count, a few months ago, the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, which includes the Science and Tech, Aviation and Space, and Agriculture museums, held 103,568 objects in its collection, with upwards of 200 being added each year. As artifact handler, it’s Hilborn’s job to go out about 50 times a year, he estimates, to the nation’s barns, basements, attics and garages and collect these objects and bring them back to one of the museum’s warehouses, where they’re catalogued and studied, and every now and then put on display.
“It’s always different,” says the Manotick raised Hilborn, “and it’s never boring. You never know what you’re going to find when you get to some houses.
“I met with our brand new CEO (Denise Amyot),” he adds, “and the first thing out of my mouth was ‘I’ve got the best job in the corporation.'”
It’s one that began for him in the late 1990s when, waiti toms ng for a friend in the lobby at Algonquin College, he picked up a pamphlet for the school’s museum studies program and thought it might be interesting. He was enrolled days later, and in the summer following his first of three years there, was hired by the museum.
“I planned to be here five years,” he says.
His first excursion on behalf of the museum was here in Ottawa, when he picked up some paintings of locomotives done by artist Cameron King. Since then he’s been all over the country getting artifacts, and, like the objects themselves, each outing brings with it a story.
“I get to go different places and I get to meet tons of people,” he says. “You go down that dirt road you’d never normally go down.
“I’m pretty lucky.”
There was the time, for example, he was sent to a farm in Vaughan, north of Toronto, to pick up a swather, a large combine like machine used to cut hay. While Hilborn and the woman whose farm it was waited to hear from her son, who knew how to start the swather, she cadged him into getting her temperamental lawn mower going, at which point he felt obliged to also cut her lawn.
“I’m not sure if I was set up or not,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter. I secretly like to cut lawns, and we had nothing else to do.”
Another time he was sent to Niagara Falls to pick up some bee keeping equipment belonging to an eightysomething year old woman whose husband, the actual bee keeper, had died.
“We’re picking up the equipment and under each there are bags of silver coins. At another, tens of thousands of tractor manuals. One house he visited boasted the spoils of an unabashed dumpster diver “the basement looked like a Bugs Bunny show where they load in dynamite and there isn’t room for one more thing,” he recalls while another was crammed from stem to gudgeon with books related solely to aviation.
He’s picked up race cars, radar dishes bearing bullet holes, and bicycles stripped, cleaned, repaired and reassembled by a Montreal man with no sight. He’s visited Yousuf Karsh’s Chteau Laurier apartment; the Grey Nuns convent in Montreal; numerous artists’ studios; and the opulent Westmount homes of railway barons.
Along the way, he’s figured this out about people: Some are eccentric, and some just a little different, but we’re essentially not all that dissimilar.
“Pretty much everyone whose house we go to has a hobby or an interest, and I think that’s what keeps a lot of people sane,” he says.
Donors, he says, generally fall into three groups: people hoping to make some money; those hoping to simply free up some space; and those who feel their heirlooms and artifacts should be preserved in a museum.
One of the most difficult parts of his job is meeting people who aren’t quite ready to part with their valuables.
“I tell them, ‘You don’t have to do this. Here’s your thing; if you want some more time, hold onto it. If there’s someone in the family who wants it, don’t worry about it.’
“A lot of the time it’s a widower or someone who, through a medical condition, is not in the home anymore. And people need to move on, quote unquote, and so they’re offering us stuff and you can tell that it’s hard.