Last year Gilda Koenig, a potential donor, approached me at the Salmon Arm Museum at RJ Haney Heritage Village with the offer of a switchboard from the Salmon Arm Motor Hotel. I knew right away she was talking about the MOHO - built in the 1960s – the landmark that replaced the old hospital by Little Lake.

The potential donor was a retired Okanagan Telephone, BC Tel, and Telus employee. She was living in Vernon and her switchboard was taking too much space in her garage. She’d heard about the Montebello project and wondered if we needed her artefact.

I was curious. I knew the artefact was too new and therefore too recent to install in the Montebello’s telephone exchange but decided, not being an expert, to seek out an authoritative opinion.

 That’s when I called on Neil Sutcliffe. Neil.JPG

Neil has been a friend to the museum for more than a decade and he does special things for the Curatorial Department. Most recently he wired a set of portable telephones in The Train Stopped Here exhibit. The phones had been used to communicate between points on CPR lines – were heavy and old, the kind that was used prior to the time when mobile radio systems were in common usage o the CPR. It was important that the exhibit’s phones work. George Alison, the telephone donor, wanted his collection to be a teaching collection, for gentle hands-on learning.

Neil ordered the wire he needed, refashioned some “telephone” poles we had on site, installed them, and made the train phones work. He continues to maintain them. He is like that. If he installs sound equipment, he is agreeable to getting the maintenance calls.

So when the switchboard donation opportunity came up, of course I called Neil.

“Could you look at this switchboard? It is in Vernon,” I told him. Neil went down to Vernon to have a look at the switchboard and it turned out to be a 'style' dating from the mid to late 1930s, even though the actual unit was built around 1960. It was not ideal in historical accuracy but was available and could be made to work with more readily available 'period' telephones to make an operating system for demonstration and educational purposes. Once the curator decided that the switchboard would be suitable,  Neil and Nigel Jones, a buddy with a truck, made the trip south to bring it back.

“The switchboard is almost perfect,” Neil said. He promised me that technology had not changed  drastically between our first community switchboard and this newer artefact. The two men brought the gift home and Neil arranged storage, somewhere level, where he could get it in and out easily, so he could work on its many electro-mechanical components.

“It has to work,” Neil said with a smile because he has a thing about things working that should.

Neil looked at my Telephone Exchange photo taken in 1914. He wanted the exhibit designed so that the switchboard was two feet from any wall. Just like in the photo. He wanted to be able to get in and work on the modules in the back.  Coincidentally, the 1914 set up in Rex Lingford’s photograph allowed for a repairman too.

Neil and I discussed things that mattered to each of us. I told Neil I wanted Haney’s carpenter to build a cabinet around the current sixties cabinet. He wanted me to plan for wiring between the switchboard and other phones in the dioramas in the building. I looked at the telephone book from 1911. What businesses had phones?

I found five: EA Palmer’s Family Butcher Shop, the Bank of Hamilton, McGuire’s General Merchants, the Observer, and the Pool Hall. We don’t have that many telephones in the museum’s collection, but that didn’t deter either Neil or this curator from planning. Eventually they will be donated. All we have to do is to put a call out to the generous residents of Salmon Arm.

Of course some of the telephones should be teaching artefacts, demonstrable for gentle hands-on learning. That is where the exhibit design and layout is important. Some telephones have to be hanging on the walls in exhibits that allow for public access. That’s going to be the challenge exhibit designer Cuyler Page will figure out.

So when a phone rings in one of the dioramas at the Montebello Museum, will it be for you? Will you pick up the handset?  What will you find out?

Thank you, Neil, for finding ways to make the new exhibits in the Montebello engaging and interactive.