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Canadian Museum of Civilization acquires Empress of Ireland collection
The Canadian Pacific Railway ocean liner sank in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski, QC on May 29, 1914. Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

GATINEAU.- The greatest Canadian maritime disaster will soon take centre stage at the Museum of Civilization. Canada’s national history museum has acquired the most comprehensive collection of artifacts and archival material related to the sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland, and is planning an exhibition in 2014 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

The Canadian Pacific Railway ocean liner sank in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski, QC on May 29, 1914, after being broadsided by a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad. The accident happened in dense fog in the dark of night just hours after the ship left port in the City of Québec. The Empress sank within 15 minutes, killing an estimated 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers and crew. The victims included 134 of the 138 children on board, the majority of passengers in the lower decks, and most of the Salvation Army’s Canadian Staff Band, who were on their way to London. Slightly more than half of the crew of 420 managed to survive.

“The sinking of the Empress of Ireland was a Canadian tragedy of truly Titanic proportions,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. “While most Canadians know the story of the Titanic, not many have heard of the Empress, in large part because the disaster was overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War just two months later.”

“The Empress of Ireland collection and the exhibition we are organizing will help us better understand the tragic fate of the ship and appreciate its important legacy as a Canadian vessel that brought tens of thousands of immigrants to our shores,” O’Neill said. “The Empress and the poignant stories of its passengers represent a dramatic moment in Canadian history, one worth preserving for future generations.”

In its eight years of operation, the Empress carried thousands of people across the Atlantic between Liverpool and the City of Québec, many of them travellers on their way to a new life on the Canadian Prairies or in a big city such as Montréal, Toronto, Winnipeg or Vancouver. The wreck, which lies along Canada’s most important and historic navigation corridor, was recently designated a National Historic Site.

The Empress of Ireland collection comprises more than 400 items, including the ship’s fog bell, compass and other navigational instruments, as well as portholes, dining-room furniture, light fixtures, dishware, utensils and personal items like a silver pocket watch and a hat box. There are also two ship models of the Empress, and archival materials such as historic photos, newspapers and personal papers, including an eight-year-old survivor’s memoir recalling her harrowing rescue.

The Museum of Civilization acquired the artifacts from private collector Philippe Beaudry for a combination of purchase and a gift tax receipt. The collection, whose value is estimated at more than $3 million, has been designated as one of “outstanding significance and national importance” by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. This acquisition was financed in part with the assistance of a Movable Cultural Property grant of $425,000 accorded by the Department of Canadian Heritage under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

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