Encapsulating History

Making time capsules is deeply human, and Edmonton has lots of literally buried treasures. But what will future generations make of us when our keepsakes are unearthed?

In 2092, a bit of my family history will be unearthed, along with a mayor’s message, stamps, newspapers, city financial statements, photos and much more when the time capsule at Edmonton City Hall is opened. No, I won’t be remembered as a prominent citizen. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, covering city hall for the Edmonton Journal when the pyramid-topped building was being finished in 1992.

Every Christmas, my family creates a gingerbread replica, and that year we made one of the new city hall, generously covered with Smarties, Rosebuds and hard candies. When I showed a photo of our creation to Bob Walker, the project manager for the building, he said he’d sneak it into the time capsule along with a message of greeting from our kids to the kids of the future.

Sharing slices of our time with the future is an ancient urge, going back at least 6,000 years to the objects placed in Egyptian crypts. As William E. Jarvis of the University of Washington says in his book, Time Capsules: A Cultural History, sending out pieces of our era to the future is a deeply human impulse to present our time as distinctive. “‘I mark time, therefore I am,’ could be humankind’s motto,” he writes.

The modern-day version of the time capsule started at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, when messages were sealed for 5,000 years in a sleek container dubbed, unfortunately, the “time bomb.” Now such time capsules are everywhere – even in space satellites that could be in orbit for thousands of years.

We all want to be viewed as fascinating to those who stumble across remnants of our culture in the future. Today, a wealth of information about us floats around in the digital ether of that endless, continuous time capsule called the Internet. The blogs we write today could be unearthed by 2109’s version of Internet surfers. What will they make of the information we reveal about ourselves through these ramblings?

But for now, we still get a charge from the idea of a physical container filled with cultural detritus from a bygone era.

“There is something exciting about opening a sealed box that hasn’t seen the light of day for many years,” says Bruce Ibsen, Edmonton’s former city archivist. “It is like a Christmas present from the past – put together with thoughtful consideration and reflection, comprised of items considered very important at the time the capsule was created.”

There are time capsules all over Edmonton, in public buildings, schools, churches and even at West Edmonton Mall’s Galaxyland. They come in all shapes and sizes, from square metal boxes to a big rocket to sealed envelopes. But regardless of shape or contents, there’s never a guarantee that the capsule makers’ intentions will match the future generations’ impressions.

One of the more timely time capsules, currently stored at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, was stuffed behind a framed picture of the first legislature that had been bought by a judge in 1924. The message, which was not supposed to be read until 1960, was written by well-known photographer Ernest Brown, who at one point amassed considerable wealth through his business and property, but lost it all in a recession after the First World War. There’s no record of when Brown’s message was unearthed, but what was discovered was a nine-page rant against the banks in which he blames them for poverty and hunger, calls his own banker a “hellhound” and predicts that “greed and avarice of the moneyed people will bring about their own fall.” Brown’s aim was to “give truth to future generations under which we of the first quarter of the 20th century live.” Given the recent spate of financial institution collapses and the multimillion-dollar bonuses for the executives in charge, Brown’s message is still germane in the first quarter of the 21st century.

If Brown were alive today, what would anger him more: That his message was regarded as hardly more than a novel cautionary tale, or that his capsule was opened prematurely? Yes, time capsules are occasionally unsealed before their time, which would undoubtedly prove irksome to those who planted them.

For example, a rectangular copper box that was placed behind the cornerstone of the Alberta Government Telephones Building (now the Telus Tower) in 1971 was delivered opened to the Telephone Historical Centre in the late 1990s, about 30 years before it was supposed to be opened.

“It’s a shame it was unearthed so early,” says Bert Yeudall, executive director of the historical centre, who believes a Telus employee opened the box during renovations to the building. The telephone treasures are stored in the bowels of the Prince of Wales Armouries, where the centre is located, but Yeudall hopes they can eventually be placed in a city museum.

The contents are already quaint by today’s standards: colour pamphlets from AGT advertising different shapes of rotary-dial phones, old-fashioned headsets, computer tape, punch cards and bus tickets. But the most revealing item is a long-distance bill with a 17-minute phone call from Hinton to Edmonton costing $3.59, more than four times the cost of the same long-distance call today, and at today’s dollars.

Imagine how people 50 years from now could react to these items, or to a box of our current technological toys. The early shoebox-shaped cellphones, and even flip phones, already elicit feelings of nostalgia. Will today’s BlackBerry have the same status as a rotary dial, leaving its discoverers to wonder, “What exactly are we supposed to do with this?”

In this era of rapidly changing technology, using the wrong medium could delay or even prevent the future from receiving the message. A time capsule marking the province’s 1955 Golden Jubilee, which was buried in a vault in the Legislature library and opened in 2005, includes tape recordings of then-prime minister Louis St. Laurent and then-premier Ernest Manning. Recorded on reel-to-reel, quarter-inch tape at 7-1/2 feet per second, they were high quality for the time, but reel-to-reel tape recorders are becoming hard to find.

Ibsen says the transient nature of today’s technology can present an even bigger problem to those opening capsules in the future. For instance, a 5-1/2-inch floppy disk from 20 years ago would already be hard to read – unless you have kept that old IBM 286 computer – so CDs, DVDs and even USB flash drives could present a big problem to people in 100 years’ time.

“My advice to people back in 2004, the last year I worked for city archives, would still be relevant today: There’s nothing wrong with placing CDs into the time capsule, but wherever possible, print copies of the photos and documents so people will be able to appreciate them in the future.”

The mother of all time capsules, the Alberta Centennial Time Capsule – all 2,730 kilograms and 6.5 metres of the rocket ship-shaped container – has taken no chances with the technology.

Todd Crawshaw, spokesman for the Royal Alberta Museum, which is storing the capsule in one of its warehouses until 2105, says a DVD player was included to play the CDs and DVDs in the collection. “We’re assuming that this will be the equivalent of a gramophone or the eight-track.”

In the same year the province’s centennial capsule was sealed, the Golden Jubilee capsule was opened. It’s as if we can’t stop the tradition, and when one comes out, another goes in. The old capsule’s contents, now kept in the provincial archives, include “treasures” such as government pins, Golden Jubilee display kits (with posters marking “50 years of progress”) and a special issue of Maclean’s magazine marking the anniversary. (Actually, the ads in Maclean’s say more about the Cold War and gender-specific era than any of the material inserted by the government.) The new replacement capsule has some modern versions of the same kinds of items, as well as the expected official government bumph, but the real value to Albertans celebrating the province’s bicentennial year in 2105 will be in the 100 tubes that were shipped to communities across the province a century earlier. Everyone from youngsters to seniors contributed drawings, pictures, cards and letters to give it a personal touch. Crawshaw says it will provide a good glimpse of what life was like in 2005, which is the raison d’etre of time capsules.

Michael Payne, Edmonton’s current city archivist, says the contents of a time capsule should, above all, be personal. Future citizens will be able to access today’s newspapers or find today’s loonies at a coin shop, but what hold special value are the personal stories of people from the previous era, preferably written or printed on high-quality paper using high-quality ink.

“I suggest [capsule makers] get 100 citizens to suggest what is the best thing about Alberta at the time, and what they think the future might be like.”

Let’s hope Edmontonians of the future will find us at least as fascinating as we think we are.

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