Walking the Ward: A Century of Nursing in Hamilton

2011, History, Temporary Exhibit, Workers Arts and Heritage Centre
anniversary, gender, Hamilton, medicine, nursing, oral history, poster, promotional materials, textile, uniforms, unions
About This Project

Date: April 29 – July 9, 2011

Partner: Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

Venue: Community Gallery in the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre – map

Project Members: Lindsay Bontoft, Berrit Larsen, and Megan O’Connor


Walking the Ward illustrates the changes the professional discipline of nursing has gone through over the last century in Hamilton. The exhibition traces the transition from nursing being taught at schools run by local hospitals to those nursing programs taught at university and college. Supplemented by oral history interviews from former nurses, the story of training, working and life as a nurse is presented. The exhibition also highlights the contributions made by nursing unions and organizations to further the profession. The aim of the exhibition is to heighten the recognition of nurses, their work, and their contributions to their communities.


This exhibit will not only attempt to engage with the thousands of health care workers in the area but with the millions of people who use Hamilton’s health care system. The primary target audiences for this exhibition are the community of Hamilton, former/practicing nurses, and those interested in medical history.


This exhibition is in the Community Gallery at the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. WAHC recently acquired a nursing collection that they wanted to exhibit and we wanted to produce a historical exhibition on women in medicine. In adherence to WAHC’s mission, this exhibition communicates the historical, cultural and contemporary experience of nurses.


Funding/services from U of T and WAHC aided the development of this exhibition. Loans came from Westfield Heritage Village, Ambrose McGhie Medical Museum, Hamilton Civic Hospitals School of Nursing Alumnae Archives, McMaster University Archives, Hamilton Central Library—Local History Archives, and the personal collections of Janette Houghton, Anne Hunter, David Richardson, and Mary Whitfield. Design services were provided free of cost by Vani Rouse.


The conception of our exhibition occurred in Summer 2010 when we decided to work on a history exhibit concentrating on women in medicine. We secured our partnership with WAHC in September. Research and conducting oral histories interviews with former nurses occurred over the next five months. By March we had completed our text panels and secured artifacts on loan. We will have a week to install and will open Walking the Ward on April 29th.


This exhibition has four thematic areas:
1) The introduction of trained nursing in Canada;
2) The development of nursing training programs run by Hamilton hospitals;
3) The transition to nursing being taught in university/college;
4) Working conditions and the establishment of professional nursing groups/unions in Hamilton.


Twelve panels provide historical information and include archival photographs. Nursing uniforms displayed on mannequins act as archetypes of the time periods covered by the exhibition, providing visitors with visual cues of the format/narrative of our display. Three display cases showcase artifacts used by nurses throughout their training/working lives. A highlight piece is a quilt made from the uniforms of the 1946B graduating class of the HGH Nursing School. An audio station allows visitors to listen to oral history interviews from former nurses who trained and worked in Hamilton. An interactive “talk-back station” poses questions to visitors that have them reflect on a personal experience with a nurse.


A portion of our marketing is aided by WAHC advertising the exhibition in their newsletter, online, and among sponsors. Having made a large network in Hamilton during the research stage, the exhibition has received much attention through word of mouth amongst the community. A facebook page was created. Promotional posters/postcard invitations were placed in high-traffic areas of the city. We are currently in discussion with Hospital News about running an article in their special supplement on National Nursing Week and anticipate being featured in the Hamilton Spectator. WAHC will be hosting an opening reception for us on April 29th from 7-10 pm.


Thanks to WAHC, U of T, and loaning institutions whose contributions made Walking the Ward possible. To Anne Hunter, Helen Gunn and Susan Ballachey for providing oral histories, and Felicity Pope and the ONA for reviewing our content. To Lisa Hunter, Vani Rouse, and Jessie-May Rowntree for their expertise in exhibition, design and public relations. To WAHC’s staff, our classmates and Professor Brower for feedback and guidance. And to our families and friends who have supported us throughout this process.