#ThrowbackThursday: Keep Me Warm One Night

Posted: September 29, 2016 - 10:00 , by ROM
Picture of Keep Me Warm One Night installation

Exactly forty-five years ago, in September, 1971, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) opened the landmark exhibition Keep me Warm One Night, a kaleidoscopic display of over 500 pieces of Canadian handweaving. It was the culmination of decades of pioneering research and collecting by the ROM curatorial powerhouse duo ‘Burnham and Burnham’, aka Dorothy K. Burnham and Harold B. Burnham.

It all began in 1941, when Dorothy – the ROM’s first Curator of Textiles – received the donation of a Canadian blue and white coverlet. Quickly realizing that handweavers and homespun goods were fast disappearing from the Canadian countryside, she and ROM associate Katherine (“Betty”) Brett, set to documenting their history. From 1947 she conscripted her new husband Harold, and thereafter the couple spent spare moments and summer breaks gathering oral histories and artefacts throughout Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Ultimately they traveled to Europe to trace the roots of the craft. Their monumental results were published as Keep me Warm One Night, Early Handweaving in Eastern Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1972), a 387-page book which remains to this day a standard in the field.

An altogether different kind of book relating to the Canadian handweaving project was recently discovered by Anu Liivandi, the ROM’s present-day Assistant Curator of Textiles & Costume. It is the personal journal that Dorothy kept during the 1971 installation of Keep me Warm One Night, An Exhibition. Her daily entries -- written with great humour and honesty, and illustrated with numerous black and white photographs -- chronicle the joys, frustrations and frantic pace of installing an enormous show in several galleries over five short weeks. From behind-the-scenes, we watch the exhibits team madly paint walls, type labels, prepare and hang 500 textiles, work around a ‘competing’ French ceramics exhibit, set up massive looms, construct props. All labours of love carried out in the sweltering heat of late summer without air conditioning. Magically, it all comes together on opening night, when over 1400 Torontonians poured in to admire the new show.

To kick off the one-year count down to the ROM’s conference, Cloth Cultures (November 10-12, 2017), which will commemorate Dorothy Burnham’s many legacies, and to mark Canada’s approaching 2017 Sesquicentennial, we will be posting bi-weekly excerpts from Dorothy’s journal of Keep Me Warm One Night. We hope you will enjoy this unofficial glimpse into the bygone days of the ROM, and into the pioneering days of textile studies. While conservation and mounting techniques as reflected in the journal have changed considerably since 1971 – few curators today wield saws and hammers! - the scholarship and passion that fuelled the exhibition and companion book have more than stood the test of time. Be on the look out for guest blogs by people who participated in the exhibit.

Keep Me Warm One Night: An Exhibition

Facsimile of first page of the journal. See transcript below.

The Chairman and Members of the Board of the Royal Ontario Museum request the pleasure of your company at the opening of "Keep Me Warm One Night," an exhibition of Canadian Handwoven Textiles on Monday, September 13, 1971 at 8:30 pm. 

admin two/informal/refreshments
rsvp 928-8765
no museum parking available


Facsimile of second page of the journal. See transcript below.

The making of a large Musuem exhibition is a very specialized creative production. It requires a theme, material of excellent quality, and the knowledge to make the material illustrate the theme
in such a way that it firstly attracts and secondly gives both information and pleasure to a normal Museum going public.

It also requires hard work on the part of many people.

What follows is a purely personal account of the mounting and the dismantling of one musuem exhibition - "Keep Me Warm One Night": Early handweaving in Eastern Canada.

Dorothy Burnham

Facsimile of third page of the journal. See transcript below.

Major exhibitions are costly to mount. This one was financed from the Museum's exhibition funds subsidized by a generous grant from the Canada Council. 

Before the actual exhibition was started a firm foundation of work had been done. 14 years (off & on) of research work by the Textile department - the last six years of which were intensive both at home & abroad. Thousands of miles were travelled, hundreds of people interviewed, museums by the score were visited, & tons of notes & photographs made.

During the summer of 1970 a book, summing up all this work, was written by Harold & myself. It was originally planned that publication of this would coincide with the opening of the show, but regrettably it was delayed. This manuscript formed the basis for the labels & information in the exhibition.