Museum gives art of letter writing its due

What: Letter Writing Week
When: Today through Saturday. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Royal B.C. Museum, 675 Belleville St.
Admission: By donation
More information:


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The writing is on the wall, so to speak. Penmanship is dying.

The written word is largely a digitally processed art form nowadays, with email and texting the means by which a large percentage of people communicate. But with help from the Royal B.C. Museum, pen-powered interpersonal communication will have a few more moments in the sun this week.

Kim Gough, the museum’s learning-program developer, has created Letter Writing Week, designed to get people writing letters again.

“We provide the paper, the envelopes and the pens. As long as they know the address, we will post their letter,” she said.

The program has been an instant hit. Gough said more than 130 letters were written by visitors through the weekend.

“The weekend was crazy busy. It was probably hard to find a spot. This week, there will be more of a chance to sit down and linger with it.”

With the museum’s Community Days promotion, admission to the Belleville Street attraction is by donation this week.

That could lead to an even bigger response in the days to come. The letter-writing campaign will be in action through Jan. 9 (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) near the Living Languages exhibit on the museum’s third floor.

Gough was inspired to create the project after reading a magazine article on the Post-a-Letter Social Activity Club, a group that hosts free monthly letter-writing events worldwide. Gough sees the appeal of the exercise, having witnessed participants engaged in the project at the museum.

“It’s been a really nice thing,” she said. “They sit down and start thinking about someone, and people around the table start smiling. It’s very nice.”

Despite the uptick in activity, the inkwell has all but run dry with regard to handwritten letters, primarily due to the impact of social media. That which has come before will be preserved, however.

Letters of importance have been placed for safe-keeping inside archives and have been bound together in compendiums at libraries everywhere. Others have served as the source material for Hollywood movies and brought down political empires.

In short, personal correspondence between friends, family, foes and the like has been woven into the fabric of society as we know it.

The Royal B.C. Museum has a cache of letters in its collection of artifacts, some of which have been digitized. That was done as part of the Transcribe Project, a crowd-sourcing website that allows users to transcribe valuable historical records such as letters, journals, diaries and scrapbooks.

Among those that have been digitized are letters from key Victorians such as Emily Carr and Kathleen O’Reilly. The museum has a trove of material from O’Reilly, a suspected love interest of Arctic explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. O’Reilly’s letters during the late 19th century tell a side of Victoria’s history.

“We have a huge collection of her correspondence from her childhood to her adulthood. She provides a big window into life here in Victoria from the 1860s to the 1940s.”

Could some of the correspondence that occurs during Letter Writing Week wind up becoming part of Victoria history? That’s not entirely out of the question, Gough said.

“That’s what this whole exercise is about — the art of the letter.”

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