Halifax company's tartan mask featured in new COVID-19 exhibit at Royal Ontario Museum

·4 min read
Sherrie and Dale Kearney of the Maritime Tartan Company switched the focus of the business to help people affordably get face masks when they were in short supply at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Craig Paisley/CBC - image credit)
Sherrie and Dale Kearney of the Maritime Tartan Company switched the focus of the business to help people affordably get face masks when they were in short supply at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Craig Paisley/CBC - image credit)

The owner of a Nova Scotia business that pivoted to making face masks when the COVID-19 pandemic hit says she's shocked and honoured her tartan mask is featured in a new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

"I didn't think a museum would ever want something I made," said Sherrie Kearney, the owner of Halifax-based Maritime Tartan Company.

The exhibit brings together around 100 masks from more than 20 countries. "Unmasking the Pandemic: From Personal Protection to Personal Expression" looks at how the masks "convey stories of resilience, cultural identity, and our collective humanity in the face of a global crisis," according to a press release.

Resilience is an appropriate word for the Maritime Tartan Company. Prior to the pandemic, the business made scarves, blankets and other tartan items.

After seeing masks advertised online for prices like $25, Kearney started selling masks on a pay-what-you-can basis to help ensure they got in the hands of people who needed them.

Royal Ontario Museum
Royal Ontario Museum

"I wasn't really thinking about my business," said Kearney. "I was thinking about the people who needed masks and the inability of people to get masks that were suitable and not so expensive."

The Kearneys also heard from people who said they had lost their jobs and couldn't afford masks, so they sent them masks free of charge.

Craig Paisley/CBC
Craig Paisley/CBC

"It was just the human thing to do," said her husband, Dale Kearney. "You got to take care of each other during something like this."

The company sells its three-layer masks for $10.

Sherrie Kearney estimates she's made 25,000 face masks since the pandemic began. Her husband handles the paperwork, packaging and mailing, but she does all of the cutting and sewing.

The pair submitted two masks to the museum — a Canadian maple tartan mask and a Nova Scotia tartan mask — but only the latter is included in the exhibit.

Craig Paisley/CBC
Craig Paisley/CBC

Alexandra Palmer is the museum's senior curator of global fashion and textiles. She said masks have become a symbol of many things, including fashion statements and problem-solving.

"People can do good things if you pull together and we can solve terrible problems and we can help," she said.

'Salt-of-the-earth East Coaster'

But there's another side to them.

"They represent loss, of the struggles people have or the people who have died during COVID," said Palmer.

As of the most recent update, 97 people had died in Nova Scotia due to COVID-19, a number that pales in comparison to the more than 4.7 million lives lost worldwide.

Palmer said there were several reasons for including the Maritime Tartan mask in the exhibition, such as the business's backstory and just who Sherrie Kearney is as a person.

Craig Paisley/CBC/CBC
Craig Paisley/CBC/CBC

"She really epitomizes this salt-of-the-earth East Coaster, Haligonian, and is just so nice and so community oriented," said Palmer.

Palmer pointed to the donations Maritime Tartan Company has made from the sale of its masks.

According to its website, it has donated almost $38,000 to charities in 2020-21. The site also includes a list of organizations that have received donations and the amounts.

'A business that makes you proud to be Nova Scotian'

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang, who signed a tartan tie and mask made by the company for a fundraiser of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, applauded their inclusion in the exhibit.

"This local business not only began making tartan masks to help keep people safe, but in true Nova Scotian spirit, put an emphasis on helping others by using their business to fundraise ... for local charities," he said in a statement.

"This is a business that makes you proud to be Nova Scotian and I am thrilled to see their tartan mask included in this exhibit."

The exhibit is free to attend. Palmer said that given so many people who mass produced masks did so to help their communities, it was important the exhibit have no admission fee.

Royal Ontario Museum
Royal Ontario Museum

Sherrie Kearney said she doesn't have plans to check out the exhibit in the near future.

"I'm too busy," she said. "I sell a lot more things besides masks and Christmas is coming, so busy, busy."

At the couple's home, which doubles as their production space, the wall is adorned with letters from members of the public and officials like MP Andy Fillmore and Strang, thanking them for what they've done. Some people have called them heroes, but Dale Kearney disputes it.

"We're not heroes," he said. "We just do what we're supposed to do during this."

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