Montrealer Elspeth Angus’s collection of meticulously preserved letters sat undisturbed in the drawer of a child’s dressing table, and then in conservation boxes, for generations: hundreds of hopeful dispatches from her grandfather, Lieutenant-Colonel George Stephen Cantlie, sent from the epicentre of the First World War.
Pressed between the pages and lovingly addressed to Cantlie’s infant daughter, “Wee Celia,” were a number of faded, paper-thin flowers, plucked from gardens and fields around Europe. Angus, now 86, didn’t know that in preserving the letters, she was also holding on to what experts believe is the largest collection of dried flowers from the First World War.
As an adult, Celia gifted the letters to Angus — her niece — who maintained a fascination with them over the years.
“I liked them — there’s no other reason really, I liked them,” Angus said.
“I also felt that if [my grandfather] had done this, and [Celia] kept them for a hundred years, who am I to throw them out? They’ve been sitting there over one hundred years, just waiting for someone to so something about it.”
Angus’s collection became the creative conduit behind a touring multimedia exposition called War Flowers, opening next year throughout Canada and France, one that its curator, documentary filmmaker Viveka Melki, believes “pushes innovation” and highlights the contributions that Canadians made during wartime.
“Thank god for the pack rats,” Melki said. “Because how many basements and apartments are filled with history?”
Melki, originally from South Africa, creates films that celebrate storytelling, memory and culture, often using sentimental anecdotes to reach out to her audience and connect them to unfamiliar periods of history.
Bruce Bolton, executive director of the Macdonald Stewart Foundation, contacted Melki when the letters came into his possession. Angus left the letters in Bolton’s care at the Stewart Museum — a Montreal institution that deals primarily with the preservation of historical documents and other heritage items.
Melki believes that the letters and flowers were initially passed to the Stewart Museum because of Cantlie’s high rank in the Canadian Army. Archivists would normally preserve letters without keeping the flowers intact, as Angus did, which is what makes them an exceptionally rare find.
With the help of several collaborators, Melki created her own interpretation of the flowers.
“I think it’s lovely — I think it’s something Canada should be proud of, because I would be very surprised if there’s anywhere else in the world where something (like this) has been done,” Angus said.
In the planning stages of War Flowers, Melki had the collection identified by botanist Céline Arsenault, who then traced their origins in Europe. One red poppy is believed to have been picked from Flanders Fields.
Melki was inspired by what each flower represented during the Victorian era — elements like solitude, love, kindness, motherhood — and used those meanings to assemble a “memory station” for seventeen notable Canadians.
For example, Lieutenant Cantlie is represented in War Flowers by the yellow rose, a flower whose Victorian representation means “familial love.”
Despite his position as Commander of the 20th Reserve Battalion, dinners with the family were what mattered to him most, Angus said.
Family is a recurrent theme across the exposition, Melki said. In War Flowers, the daisy, which traditionally represents motherhood, is attached to Julia Drummond, a woman who lost both children at a young age — one in war and one in infancy — yet went on to work extensively with the Red Cross as a “mother to many,” Melki said.
“You have to tell a story, and that story needs to attach people to history,” Melki said. “If they don’t feel something, then they will forget.”
The exhibit isn’t only grounded in elements of the past or of history. Melki wanted to include new elements to make the overall display both interactive and evocative. She wanted to “create the scent of memory,” by using odours, like vanilla that evoke feelings of comfort and remind people of moments in their past. Alexandra Bachand, the exhibit’s “olfactory creator,” is experimenting with scents that do not linger in the air or on clothing, and Melki believes that, when the exhibit debuts, they will be triggered by spectators making eye contact with a scent machine.
Specific parts of the exhibition will also feature crystal sculptures from Canadian artist Mark Raynes Roberts.
An interactive, multimedia approach is crucial in keeping youth engaged with Canada’s history, since today’s generations do not have a grasp on the concept of “World War,” Melki said. She is concerned with the possibility that as our veterans disappear, so will their memory. It’s her responsibility as a filmmaker, she said, to “carry [the story] for them.”
“’War Flowers’ is about life, not death — it’s about understanding the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we come home, the reasons why we survive it,” Melki said. “I’m very interested in resilience.”
“It’s about telling a story and not letting it die.”
War Flowers will debut in 2017 at Les Jardins de Métis in Grand-Métis, Quebec, and will tour a number of locations, including the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Vimy Ridge in France, and Montreal’s Château Ramezay.