Archives in Bloom: The Organic Nature of the Fonds
What comes to mind when you think of archives or archival documents? Are you picturing dust? Yellowed paper? Momentous decisions written in stone – or rather, ink?
It makes sense that many look back on the past with sepia-toned glasses, and with a sense of inevitability. But archives aren’t only concerned with history – we have to remember that the past was once the present, and that the present will impact the future.
Though you might think of archives with connotations of death or decay, archivists think of accumulations of records as organic, living, breathing things. This is especially true when the creators of those records are still actively creating records.
For an example, we can look to the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society fonds. The Society was established as a non-profit organization in 1992 with the goal of preserving the remaining unique horticultural features of the Riverview Hospital site, which was returned to its hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ name in 2021: səmiq̓ʷəʔelə, or Place of the Great Blue Heron.
These records were donated to the City of Coquitlam Archives in May 2022, and are currently being processed at the time of this exhibit’s publication. In keeping with the green-thumbed theme of these documents, this exhibit will elaborate on how records are tended like a garden while showcasing some of the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society’s photographs and records.
The site’s mental health facilities (known at various times as Essondale Hospital, Provincial Mental Hospital, Essondale, and Riverview Hospital), opened in 1913 and continued to operate as a specialized psychiatric hospital until its closure in 2012. What you might not know is that a portion of the land purchased was to be set aside as the site of a Provincial Botanical Garden.
In 1911, a young Scottish botanist named John Davidson (1878-1970) emigrated from Aberdeen to Vancouver hoping to earn a professorship at the newly established University of British Columbia. His first position, however, came as a surprise. The Provincial Secretary at the time, Henry Esson Young, for which Essondale Hospital was named, appointed him BC’s first Provincial Botanist.
Eager to establish roots, Davidson set to work creating an arboretum, nursery and botanical garden on the hospital lands. He collected and planted flora from all over the world, and was aided in part by patients as this type of work was seen as highly therapeutic. In 1914, Young encouraged Davidson to apply for a position at UBC. His application was successful, which catalyzed the closure of the Office of the Provincial Botanist in 1916. Davidson and his colleagues transplanted thousands of specimens from the original site at Riverview to the University of British Columbia’s Point Grey campus. The transplanted garden became the UBC Botanical Garden, the oldest botanical garden at a Canadian university.
Excerpts from John Davidson’s application for a position as Professor of Botany at the University of British Columbia, pages 1 and 5
In 1951, Art Finnie, a nurse, farmer, former logger and navy veteran, was asked to set up a garden that residents of Riverview could work and relax in. According to a report penned by Finnie, “it was the best therapy for the patients that they could have had.” Originally called “Farm-View,” the garden featured “a fish pond, stone terraces, flower beds, plots for different wards and lawns,” which we can see in the garden plans from that period:
Laminated photocopy of the plans for the Farm-View garden project, c. 1950s
Farm-View was eventually (and fondly) renamed “Finnie’s Garden” in honour of Art Finnie’s contributions. Following his death, two white lilacs and a heritage apple tree were planted in his memory.
Photograph of Finnie’s Garden sign, date unknown
While the Provincial Botanical Garden was an ambitious plan, it did not come to fruition as originally intended. However, the plan would lay the literal groundwork for a unique and important horticultural resource for future generations, as a wealth of diverse trees, gardens and landscapes remained behind at səmiq̓ʷəʔelə, including over 1,800 significant heritage trees.
Laminated photocopy of aerial over the Old Orchard, 1949
In December 1992, the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society was founded with a mission, “to preserve and protect the Lands and Trees of the Riverview Hospital site as a community-oriented, financially-viable centre for horticultural, educational and therapeutic activities.” One of the most highly visible and essential elements of the Society’s work is to increase awareness of and advocacy for the site’s arboretum, natural environment and heritage buildings through free public tree walks. The Society also hosted an annual Treefest celebration for twenty-five years.
Treefest ‘97 brochure, 1997
Several of the Society’s tree tours have been filmed and donated to the Archives in the form of DVDs.
DVDs included in the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society donation to the City Archives
Voluminous correspondence files provide evidence of how the Society has worked hard to generate support from the public, the horticultural community, allied environmental groups and government representatives to prevent further development impeding into the remaining acreage.
Binders and scrapbooks included in the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society donation to the City Archives
According to a 2009 brochure included in the records donated to the Archives, volunteers from the Riverview Horticultural Society, or the “Friends of Finnie’s” have also participated in “clean[ing] up the overgrowth on the steps and walls to show their unique beauty, and the craftsmanship that created them,” remov[ing] debris from flower beds, and plant[ing] old-fashioned perennials.
Scrapbook entry, “Friends of Finnie’s Clean Up Day”, 1995
We also see evidence of this in gardening journals with hand-draw plans and comments on the specimens’ health, and in the numerous photographic negatives and standard colour prints from events and efforts to catalogue the arboretum.
The Twelve Month Gardener’s Journal, pages 38-39
The Twelve Month Gardener’s Journal, pages 90-91
A Reflection: How Are the Archives Like a Garden?
History is not always as tidy as we think when we open a history book and see timelines and narratives neatly laid out. The documents that survive and are passed on to us contain ideas which germinate into decisions, then actions and then a narrative. Much like a garden plot, archives are messy spaces full of life and transition, in which we can see both carefully tended precedent and seeds of ideas sprouting up. And to a certain extent, records creators, archivists and researchers all contribute to creating some kind of order from that chaos. How do we do this? Well, archivists rely on a couple foundational tenets of archival theory.
Photograph of foxgloves, date unknown
The concept of the fonds is foundational to Western archival practice because it provides an explanation for how records are created, accumulated and organized. Essentially, a fonds is an archival term for the complete body of records that an individual or organization creates throughout a lifetime in the course of day-to-day business. A fonds is distinct from a collection, which results from deliberately attaining historical material based on a theme or topic. (To learn more, you can check out one of our previous exhibits, “From Accession to Access: The Art of Archival Processing.”)
Photograph of arbor, date unknown
As these records accumulate from the creator’s actions and transactions (e.g., drafting minutes, paying bills, signing contracts, advertising events), they begin to sketch out the functions and personality of that entity. For instance, a highly publicized function of the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society’s work has been to increase awareness of and advocacy for the site through free public tree walks, and as earlier stated, a great deal of documentation exists within the fonds to support this.
Photograph of magnolias, c. 1992
When records are transferred into the custody of an archives, its archivists carefully scrutinize how they are organized. This is because we are looking to see if the ways in which the fonds is grouped can tell us anything about how the creator used them. In archival theory, this concept is called respect for original order, or received order. The idea is that an archivist would not reorganize materials that have a clear relationship with each other, since future researchers might interpret new meanings and knowledge from how the records were originally kept.
Trees covered in snow, date unknown
Though archivists have a duty to be objective in planning this garden of records, we do have an undeniable curatorial role to some extent, like a gardener. This analogy becomes even more resonant when archivists assess records for any preservation or accessibility concerns, mitigating any risk factors like pests or highly acidic paper, or weed out duplicate materials that have no archival value so that the originals can be better appreciated. More than once, Archives staff have literally found rocks in donations!
The Twelve Month Gardener’s Journal, page 44
Photograph of Finnie’s Garden, date unknown
Like a garden, the fruit of archival labour is the production of a resource that anyone in can freely use and appreciate, drawing connections between the past and the future whilst firmly rooted in the now.
Leave a Legacy for Generations to Come
To complement the records of the municipal government, Coquitlam Archives is seeking historically significant records from members of the community. If you are interested in donating your records to the City of Coquitlam Archives, please visit our Donating to the Archives webpage for more information or email Coquitlam Archives.