Beyond the Call of Duty

Chronicles of Domestic Work in Private Homes 1920-2000

Exhibition produced with the Centre d’histoire de Montréal and the Quebec Caregivers Association including the collaboration of Elizabeth Ouellet (sociologist) and of Maureen Peffer (craftswoman).

 

1999-2001

Montreal

 

On the invitation of the Centre d’histoire de Montréal and the Association des aides familiales du Québec (AAFQ), I traced the poorly documented history of servants, maids, nannies, and other home workers, collecting first-hand accounts while doing extensive historical research. Of central concern in this investigation is the intangible universe of preconceptions. Indeed, home assistance has always involved the same type of work: taking care of children, of the elderly, cooking, cleaning house, laundry, etc. What changes are social habits, values, prejudices; these, in the end, determine how well the vocation is valued, whether its practitioners are respected or not.

 

The process was articulated around two actions: the development of a joint intervention with the AAFQ, and the conception of an exhibition on household history in Montreal for the Centre d’histoire de Montréal. The intervention arose from a series of workshops I gave for family caregivers at the AAFQ. Various accounts I had gathered from women who had served in the same capacity in a period ranging from the thirties to the sixties broadened our understanding of the profession. This exchange led us to devise a symbolic action, one that would mark caregivers’ presence in Montreal over all these years. I tracked down the homes that housemaids had once served, while caregivers in the group each created a doll in the likeness of the maid and, in homage to her, placed it at the door of the house. We organized a press conference to mediatize the intervention.

 

The exhibition at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal comprised sound recordings of interviews I conducted with thirty or so family helpers, both active and retired, and with people who had grown up with nannies, along with documents from archives and private collections (advertising of the time, photos, children’s drawings, letters), figurines and miniatures, photographs taken of these objects with the participation of the people interviewed, and a video of the intervention produced with the AAFQ.