Every object tells a story—some strange, or comical, or sad.
This is why I love museums—to see what counts as treasure in a place, to meet objects I never met before, and to hear their stories.
On the top floor of the Glenbow Museum in downtown Calgary, behind locked doors, I saw shelves upon shelves of spinning wheels and old looms, once used by the settlers in Alberta. Stacked above these, I counted a dozen different wooden cradles, some painted, some plain—all from a century ago. Though they rested on storeroom shelves, unseen by the greater public, the humble cradles represented actual human lives. Once upon a time, real babies slept and cried and rocked in these roughhewn beds, grew up to live lives in towns and farms, then died and were buried in this same endless landscape. Crying babies in handmade cradles in sod houses on the prairie—all this is part of the Alberta story.
Calgary‘s Glenbow Museum holds nearly one million items of immeasurable cultural and historical worth, of which only a fraction are on display at any given moment. This is true of most great museums, and why I’m always more curious in those objects that don’t make it to the showcase.
Thus I ventured behind-the-scenes to rifle through the attic of the Glenbow Museum, as it were, which is actually a highly-organized storage facility on the top floor of the museum. Beneath the dim industrial lights of the backroom, I browsed through the province and its history, spelled out in the decades-spanning collection of women’s hats, ornate sets of medieval armor, buffalo robes and silver brooches, ceramic knick-knacks and candle molds and hundred-year-old machine guns.
But among all the endless drawers of artifacts, I found a pair of drawers that shocked and delighted me so much, I knelt in awe of the cloth treasure before me.
From the flat metal tray they lay in, Queen Victoria‘s underpants—plain, white, and square—looked up at me like a bashful truth from the Canadian past. These were the real deal—clean cotton undergarments worn by the late monarch that floated their way into the Glenbow’s collection as a gift from long ago. At first sight, I felt a tad guilty, peeking at the undergarments of such an illustrious woman who had instilled so much of the world with a sense of decency, modesty, and temperance.
The British sense of duty and social place, self-restraint and formality—these are things that do not simply fade away after more than a century. They live on, even out here on the high prairie, where once upon a time, Queen Victoria reigned. In fact, it was Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (Duchess of Argyll), from which the province of Alberta gained its name (as did the beautiful Lake Louise). Her husband, the Marquess of Lorne (John Campbell).
Queen Victoria’s son-in-law was a bit of a poet, and spent much of his time in Canada writing rhyming verse about the inspiring landscapes around him. He later published a book, Memories of Scotland and Canada, containing his original poem, “On the New Province Alberta.”
He opens with an explanation to his wife, Princess Louise:
In token of the love which thou hast shown
For this wide land of freedom, I have named
A province vast, and for its beauty famed,
By thy dear name to be hereafter known.
Alberta shall it be!
He raptures on for many stanzas, describing the greatness of the place that bore his wife’s name:
Alberta has all we can boast and more:
The scented breath of the plains is hers,
The odours sweet of the sage and firs;
And this is how Alberta got its name, from a love poem to a woman named after Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.
But now, more than a century later, it all came to this—a busy street in Calgary, a museum of Blackfeet artifacts and old Mountie uniforms and tucked away upstairs, this monumental pair of women’s underwear, worn by the the longest-reigning female monarch of all human history.
Upon closer inspection, I would make a rough guess and report that Her Royal Highness boasted a 50-inch waist (or more), and at the time that she wore these flowing bloomers, the Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India carried a considerable girth. Standing so close to such an everyday object that belonged to one of the most powerful rules on Earth was “awesome” in that I was overcome with a sense of awe and wonder.
Like the Queen’s waistline, the British Empire spanned huge distances, so that no matter where I travel today—Wales, South Georgia, South Africa, New Zealand or the Falkland Islands—I am bound to see a statue, or at least a portraits of the beloved Victoria, looking grim and regal.
But here, way out West, in the land named after her daughter, I found the Queen’s panties, washed and neatly pressed and tucked away from daylight, exactly as she would have wanted.
Watch the 1st segment of The Alberta Story here.