Edmonton's new historian laureate wants your grandmother's shopping list

Edmonton’s new historian laureate is looking for untold stories, including those from "everyday" people.

Marlena Wyman is documenting how the ‘everyday’ person lived, or lives

Marlena Wyman worked at the provincial archives for 28 years before becoming Edmonton's fifth historian laureate. (Mike Ewanus)

You don't have to be famous to be a page, or a chapter, in history.

Edmonton's archives have many stories from prominent people of the past, so the city's new historian laureate is looking for things that show how "everyday" people lived.

Marlena Wyman said simple things such as shopping lists can reflect an era, as well as a moment in time.

"What kind of groceries were bought, what was in the pantry — just everyday small things that you wouldn't necessarily think are of interest historically. But they really are." 

Volunteer papers, business records and recipes all show a snapshot of life.

When a relative has died, Wyman said it's a good time to contact the archives before throwing anything out. 
Marlena Wyman had her artist's studio in the historic Ortona Armoury on 97th Avenue and 102nd Street.

"I've had so many stories when I've gone to visit people and they've kept certain things," she said. "And they tell me what they've thrown out and I go, 'Oh no, I wish you hadn't.' "

She said it's not just about the past.

"History is being made at every moment, and if we don't preserve it now it will be gone."

Wyman worked for the provincial archives for 28 years in photos, film and sound history. She's also an artist and is now the city's fifth historian laureate.

The missing stories

She wants to focus on untold stories.

One of the big gaps in the archives, she said, are stories about women, indigenous people and those from other cultures.

In the past, women underestimated the value they brought to the community.

For example, after a man died his wife may have contacted the archives to see if they were interested in having her husband's records.

"I would say, 'Yes, definitely these are important papers of your husband's business.' Then I would say to the woman, 'How about your records?' "

Who me? was the common response Wyman heard. 

"Women were community builders and still continue to be," she said. "They were the ones who got the churches started and the schools and the social, cultural organizations and charity work."

Wyman's focus on women, indigenous and other cultures has the support of city councillor Scott McKeen.

"You can imagine the work that a couple put into creating a farm, to homestead," McKeen said. "The work would have been shared equally and women deserve to have their stories told."

Wyman said Edmontonians cleaning out their grandmother's, mother's or aunt's homes are encouraged to share things such as household lists, annotations in cookbooks and homemade patterns.

"Women really clothed and fed our society," she said. 
Now home to film and arts groups, the historic Ortona Armoury building in Rossdale was the Hudson's Bay Company stables and later an armoury for HMCS Nonsuch. (CBC)

McKeen believes Edmonton's documented history is also short on indigenous groups.

"Settlers and homesteaders in the area were actually saved, maybe their lives saved at times, by First Nations people."

"If Edmonton has — and I think it does have — this reputation for being a really welcome and friendly place," he said, "maybe that was the underpinnings of it. Maybe the First Nations people deserve the credit for establishing a culture of welcome."

The role of art

Wyman, a painter, sketcher and co-founder of Urban Sketchers Edmonton, plans to arrange exhibits showing Edmonton's heritage buildings and history. 

McKeen thinks that will get the community more involved.

"Kids are automatically fascinated by art, because they're creators. So here's an opportunity to get kids interested in history as well in a different way, rather than reading the textbook and answering multiple choice questions." 
Marlena Wyman has posted her art online, including this mixed media piece titled 'All my dishes are broken.' (Marlena Wyman)

McKeen thinks the historian laureate is important in helping the community understand where it comes from.

"One of the struggles that modern Edmonton has had is describing itself in a succinct way," he said. "Maybe one of the reasons is because we don't understand our history well, either."

The historian laureate has a two-year term.

Wyman's predecessors are Ken Tingley, Shirley Lowe, Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, and Chris Chang-Yen Phillips.



Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.