Issue 281: Celebrating B.C.’s Museums: Past, Present, and Future

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2021 Reflections from BCMA Staff and Board Members

Tracy Calogheros, Carolyn Holmes, Theresa Mackay, Peter Ord, and Lynn Saffery

The COVID-19 pandemic, and our sector’s ongoing recovery, have provided a timely opportunity to reflect on the past, present, and what we hope for the sector’s future. Here we share insights provided by past and present BCMA staff and Council members about what the BCMA organizational, and the sector’s foci have been, and identify topics/issues that should be prioritized moving forward.

Many thanks to our tenacious BCMA community members for their continued dedication to the sector and our organization. Your thoughts are much appreciated!

Tracy Calogheros (TC), Past Council Member

Carolyn Holmes (CH), Current Council Secretary

Theresa Mackay (TM), Past Executive Director

Peter Ord (PO), Past Council Member

Lynn Saffery (LS), Current Council Member

Do you have any memories you would like to share about BCMA conferences, workshops, and webinars past?

TC: An awful lot of my BCMA conference memories include the camaraderie that goes with ‘stealing’ Owl and the subsequent adventures he embarked upon. All of my memories include friends and colleagues and the time spent talking about joint challenges, successes, and spectacular failures.

CH: I have lovely memories of meeting so many great people over the years and building relationships. I look back fondly on filling a van with museum colleagues and driving to Kelowna for the conference in 2018, the opening Booze and Build event in Prince George in 2019, and enjoying watching the BCMA staff mix drinks and make hors d’oeuvres at the amazing online virtual gala in 2020.

TM: By 2015, we had revitalized and reinvigorated the BCMA brand with new colours and a logo, which had a positive impact on our creativity with things like conference plans. For the conference in New Westminster that year, we implemented an online conference guidebook for the first time to reduce paper waste and started Owl’s Bookstore to raise funds for BCMA. We also leveraged and shared the collective knowledge of our members by running ‘Ask the Expert’ sessions and we put an emphasis on research in some of the conference proceedings, an idea that was inspired by the one-day research sharing event that was run by the Royal BC Museum at the time. All of these changes served to highlight how caring and special the museum and gallery community is in B.C. and why the conference is an annual gathering that is not to be missed.

PO: The one BCMA event that I definitely remember as the new President was our AGM and conference in Terrace in 2013, with Wade Davis as our keynote speaker and workshop facilitator. The BCMA was going through a lean and difficult time those few years and had no staff, so all the coordination was done by a group of Board members. We all rolled up our sleeves to make the event a success and it was a lot of fun! The turnout wasn’t that large but all the museum folks who attended from northern B.C. really appreciated having an event in their backyard.

LS: Memories include dialogue, conversation, and learning.

How has the sector shifted focus during your career?

TC: The biggest shift I have seen since 1994 has taken place over the last 18 months. A new focus on equity, on the role that museums play in society at large, a recentering of Indigenous culture and Nations in our museum practice, and the emergence of B.C. as a national leader in our sector.

We have moved from a “government funded” social requirement, to an entrepreneurial community anchor, and are now examining our most urgent role(s) as community hubs, information partners, and as safe places for difficult discussions, as we come out of the pandemic. If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that the difficult discussions are coming fast and furious, and that our museums (in the broadest possible definition of that term) are vital partners in creating safe tables to move solutions and growth around national issues, like Truth and Reconciliation, and international challenges, like climate change and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, forward.

CH: The sector is so much more aware of reconciliation and issues of justice and equity. I believe the BCMA is leading the way in addressing injustices, examining our complicity in systemic racism, and providing opportunities for museum professionals to learn together.

TM: Museums and galleries used to be about dusty old things in cases. We’ve come a tremendous way since then, shifting our focus to creating learning spaces, including significant advancements in digital technology, and giving space for tough dialogue. Now we are turning the mirror on ourselves as we wrestle with what we have and have not done. We must be brave and admit where we have gone wrong, acting now to transform the sector for the future.

PO: Without a doubt the biggest and most positive change is the engagement of Indigenous perspectives and communities within the sector. This is so exciting and offers a chance for museums to be the relationship builders (and healers) on behalf of our respective communities, governments, and the commercial sector.

A second big shift is the adoption of digital strategies to manage nearly all areas of operations; from collections to exhibits, programs to events, and especially in our marketing and day to day operations.

LS: From top down to more lateral management and responsibility sharing. Hierarchy is still important, but there are ways other than using power to engage communities that do not share the Western way of thinking.

What should be the sector’s primary advocacy initiatives?

TC: Our organizations need ongoing, multi-year, core operational funding. Governments have recently had reason to discover how important (and effective) a partner our sector can be and they need to step up and figure out how to properly fund that work. Forcing us to chase program funding creates uncertainty and mission drift and pulls our talented staff away from the core work that they are passionate about; work that our communities have clearly shown that they value.

Advocacy needs to continue to focus on the value proposition that museums bring to the table; to our visitors and communities, to our governments, to industry, and to other community organizations. As politicians shift portfolios, or as new representatives are elected, we must continuously educate them and their staff about the work that we do and the opportunities we present to Canadians.

Collecting institutions have a responsibility to lead on responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action (TRC), working with Indigenous communities in what is today called Canada. This essential work needs to be completely resourced by the federal and provincial governments; the funds required to execute this work cannot be prohibitive to its completion.

Those partners that hold natural history and/or living collections have a central role to play in the public discussion around climate change and climate science, and again require multi-year funding in order to prioritize this work in a timely fashion.

CH: Repatriation should continue to be a priority. The sector must continue to be more representative of our population. The BCMA can continue to advocate for support for museums and art galleries who are doing this important work. The organization should lobby the B.C. Community Gaming Grants Branch so that we can compensate board members.

PO: The sector needs to advocate for more engaged participation in the development of government policy, at all levels. Museums are universally trusted organizations that have the ability to comment and provide context on important cultural, social, economic, and environmental changes that impact communities – this is our super power. We just need to have the confidence and energy to position ourselves appropriately.

LS: Integrating racialized communities into workforce, boards, and other decision making bodies. Building capacity in these communities so that the sector is evenly represented.

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What inspires you to continue to support arts, culture, and heritage in your community, B.C., and Canada?

TC: In recent years, I have begun to hire individuals who participated in programs I helped to build in the 1990s. Hearing that the work I have devoted my professional life to has had an impact on people two decades later, is so gratifying. The work I have been privileged to do with the Lheidli T’enneh and other neighbouring First Nations, has simultaneously been profound, educational, and moving.

I have learned more than I could ever hope to give from partners, colleagues, and visitors in the last 28 years; you can’t ask for more than that from a career.

CH: I work at an art gallery and believe in the power of art, creativity, and expression to connect and inspire people. Through our work we can engage people of all ages, encourage discussions, raise awareness of important issues, create opportunities for creative expression, and explore big ideas.

PO: I’m inspired by the role arts can play in helping the public become more involved in finding creative solutions to everyday issues or challenges. As a sector, we should not be intimidated to play a meaningful role in how the future of our communities are shaped. Addressing climate change and adaptation is one area where the cultural sector can play an important role. Social justice issues is another.

LS: That this sector is the social voice of our communities. That this sector is the area where people can engage, be safe, express their needs and values, and tell their stories.

In which direction should the sector and the BCMA be moving forward?

TC: We need to “own” the work that we do and recognize that we are not supplicants when we are approaching government, corporate, or individual donors. I believe that the majority of our institutions and their staff would be challenged to put our value into words beyond our role as custodians of the Public Trust; that term in itself encompasses so much more than just objects and documents. There is a role in sectoral education that the BCMA should play here. At the same time, as we are making these arguments to governments about our roles and value, we need to make sure that our member institutions and their staff can also articulate those arguments. We are about to see wholesale change in leadership as the Baby Boomers “retire” and as such, we have a once in a generation (or two) opportunity to rethink and reframe how we talk about our facilities. As emerging professionals join the leadership tables, we need to listen to the new perspectives that they bring and inject the wisdom that has come from experience as we find a new way to talk about our work moving forward.

CH: The BCMA should continue to learn as an organization and to offer opportunities for its members to learn alongside it. The sector must continue to examine our colonial structures and work on decolonizing our institutions.

PO: The BCMA and the sector should be looking to be more engaged in areas of political and social public discourse around the key issues that are impacting communities in B.C. By discourse, I mean creating platforms for meaningful thought and discussions through the very means the museum sector is proficient at, for example engaging exhibits, innovative programs, digital presentations, public events, collections-based activities, etc.

Apart from libraries, places of worship, or theatres, there are very few place-based organizations in all communities across the province that can offer a coordinated voice for public discourse on key issues. The museum sector should celebrate this advantage in ubiquitous representation and work together as one voice.

LS: Towards deeper community engagement.

Is there anything else that you want to share?

TC: I see the BCMA as an emerging leader on these topics at a national scale. It is clear that there are wide discrepancies between provinces/territories, particularly on the topic of the TRC. I passionately believe that the B.C. approach to partnerships and to repatriation and reconciliation is the right one moving forward and I would like to see B.C. assert that approach at every opportunity.

PO: Knowing firsthand some of the difficult times the BCMA has gone through, I am so encouraged and excited to see the amazing work being achieved by the staff and Board of the association. You guys rock!

LS: Over the past year, there have been many changes in our outlook on the arts, culture, and heritage sector. COVID demanded changes such as online learning, different ways to communicate, and the increased reliance on digitization and virtual engagement. This led to a lessened emphasis on brick and mortar programming. However, I expect this to change as the province opens up again.

More impactful has been the #MeToo and #BLM and Indigenous movements over the past few years. Alongside this, and perhaps more importantly, has been the awareness of colonial practices in the arts, culture, and heritage sector, giving rise to decolonizing workshops, critical curatorship and programming, as well as a need to provide communities, especially racialized ones, with a platform and voice. We need to look at how the sector can hand over power to communities so that they can share and curate their stories with curators changing roles to become facilitators and research/design/fabrication advisors.