Housing historic treasures

🕔Sep 24, 2007

Bulkley Valley Museum employee Judy McIntosh rattles the lock of the old vault, shaking its 80-year-old innards until it gives way to the key. Slowly, the thick steel door opens into a small, cement-encased room—the heart of this old building.
Built within Smithers’ Central Park Building in 1925, the vault was intended to protect important documents—land claims, court documents, surveys and the like—from the elements. Today, it houses the museum’s photos, newspaper microfiche and paper documents, each carefully numbered and handled only with special gloves.
“The original idea was if the place did burn down, the only thing left standing would be the vault,” museum director Fergus Tomlin says. Today, it’s a safe haven in a building that, itself a relic, is home to some of the Bulkley Valley’s historic treasures.
Museums across northern British Columbia are charged with the significant responsibility of housing artifacts that mark the region’s historical journey. Whether that task is undertaken by a small, community-based facility or a larger institution, striking a balance between keeping pieces close to home and making sure they’re properly protected always seems to be a challenge. For many museums, the biggest obstacle is simple: lack of funding.
This year, the Bulkley Valley Museum faced a significant setback when a 30-year federal funding program was cut, making it impossible to hire a summer student. It meant plans for extended hours, to attract visitors on their evening stroll, had to be put on the backburner. Instead, the staff put their energy into an exhibit about Dutch migration to the valley, proving that what these small museums lack in resources, they strive to make up for in enthusiasm.
Space is also a limited commodity at many museums. “We’re shoehorned in here,” Tomlin says, surrounded by old mining and farming equipment, Native artifacts and, of course, the area’s most significant contribution to society—an old egg carton.
There has been talk about moving the facility to a new building, along with the town’s library, art gallery and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. In the meantime, larger artifacts are stored at off-site facilities—space leased from the Town of Smithers and, until recently, the old federal experimental farm.
At the Telkwa Museum, an old clothes wringer, dating back to 1938, is a perfect example of the challenges the museum faces. Stored for a time in the mud at the experimental farm, its rotting wooden legs were replaced by Telkwa Museum Society president Doug Boersema when it was moved into the museum.
The Telkwa Museum receives a few thousand dollars each year from both the municipality and the regional district. The rest of its funding comes from admissions and fundraising. Open six days a week, it is run primarily through volunteer efforts, with one full-time staff member.
“We can’t be open full-time,” Boersema says. “It’s sort of a vicious circle—if you don’t have a full-time position, you can’t get certain grants, but you need the grants to pay the person.”
When volunteers are responsible for maintaining treasured artifacts, there’s a certain amount of education involved. At a workshop held in Terrace recently, Telkwa Museum volunteers learned the basics of preserving artifacts, such as using gloves to handle archived photos and storing them in acid-free paper. They try to keep the museum’s temperature consistent—not an easy task in a structure built as a one-room schoolhouse in the 1920s.
“All those early museums were started by well-meaning members of the community who didn’t have museum training,” Boersema says. “That’s always a challenge to small museums—money.”
In Prince George, the Exploration Place is the antithesis of a small-town museum. With 23,000 square feet of space and 14 year-round staff members, its archival collection includes in excess of 100,000 documents.
When it underwent an 11,000-square-foot expansion in 2001, Exploration Place was certified as a Class A museum, according to national standards. The certification requires proper climate control (uniform temperature and humidity levels), quarantining recently arrived artifacts to prevent the spread of mold and insects, guarding against UV damage, and proper security.
Executive director Tracy Calogheros cites northern BC’s far-flung geography as one of the biggest challenges to storing artifacts: trying to keep pieces together while making them accessible to everyone. Exploration Place is often used as a central facility, where smaller institutions can store artifacts that might otherwise be at risk, without transferring ownership.
“Our primary goal is to preserve the heritage objects in the northern region, and we’ll do that however we can,” Calogheros says.
The Haida Gwaii Museum, also a Class A facility, recently underwent a major renovation, opening the Haida Heritage Centre this past summer in partnership with Gwaii Haanas National Heritage Site. By approximately doubling the size of the existing building, the new facility is now set to repatriate artifacts from museums and private collections across Canada and around the world. But it comes with a cost: the new facility has a $20 million price tag, much of which was funded by significant contributions from the province and Parks Canada.
“It was built with the anticipation of bringing more of our cultural treasures home,” says Haida Gwaii Museum curator Nika Collison. “We’re currently working with the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Royal British Columbia Museum and the UBC Museum of Anthropology to bring some of our treasures home from those museums. The repatriation committee is an extension of our museum and we work together on the negotiations.
“It’s a long and slow process, but that’s the idea.”
The Haisla repatriation of the G’psgolox totem pole from the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, Sweden defines the inextricable link between finances and cultural ownership. The seven-metre artifact, taken from Canada in 1929, was located in 1991, but took 15 years to bring home due to one major caveat on its return: that it be housed in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility—which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The pole returned home last summer to a temporary location at the City Centre Mall in Kitimat until a proper facility is built.
Whether it’s a seven-metre totem or a 12-inch egg carton, the cost of maintaining artifacts is becoming increasingly relevant as northern BC’s cultural heritage hangs in the balance.