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Stories in Storage

Why we're long overdue for a new, improved Royal Alberta Museum

By Paula Simons

An authentic 19th-century samurai sword, with a manta-skin handle designed to give the user a better grip when the duel gets bloody—brought back to Alberta as a souvenir more than a century ago by that roving Gilded Age Edmonton millionaire John McDougall.

A pistol which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Sherlock Holmes, reportedly carried with him on a trip through the Rocky Mountains.

The fossilized hoofprint of an 11,300-year-old prehistoric camel that once roamed the plains of southern Alberta.

An izmel, the ritual knife of the Jewish bris, used by one of Alberta’s first rabbis to circumcise hundreds of Jewish male babies born in this province.

The medals won by First World War flying ace and Edmonton native Wop May, who played a key role in downing the Red Baron in an aerial dogfight, together with a piece of wing salvaged from Baron von Richthofen’s vanquished plane.

A collection of terrifying vintage medical and dental equipment that looks rather like it was salvaged from the Spanish Inquisition.

A rare copy of that nearly mythic Alberta bumper sticker from the 1980s, the one that reads, “Please, God, let there be another oil boom. I promise not to piss it all away next time.”

These are just a few of the more than 10 million artifacts that belong to the Royal Alberta Museum, and to all Albertans. But you won’t find them on display. Like 99 per cent of the museum’s remarkable collections, they’re locked away, out of sight and out of mind.

Thanks to decades of neglect and political infighting, Alberta’s provincial museum has become an artifact itself, a sad monument to the late 1960s, a time when Alberta was full of excitement and ambition and a desire to celebrate both its past and its future.

Today, staff at the RAM have to wear haz-mat suits every time they replace a light fixture or “de-mount” an interior wall. Thanks to the asbestos crammed into the old museum’s walls and ceilings, minor repairs and improvements become major health hazards. Toxic PCBs in the museum’s transformers, and floods and sewer backups in the basement storage rooms, add to the problems.

The beautiful Tyndall stone cladding on the museum’s majestic walls…? It’s not properly secured. When Queen Elizabeth II visited the provincial museum in 2005 and bestowed its official, “royal” designation, frustrated staff made black jokes about just what an embarrassment it would be if one of those majestic stones were to crush the monarch.

Such a disaster, thank goodness, didn’t happen. But in the seven years since the royal visit and the royal name-change, frustration with the state of decay at what is, after all, supposed to be Alberta’s signature cultural and scientific public institution has grown only more acute.

Meanwhile, because the museum operates as a government department, senior curators are not allowed to speak out publicly on behalf of their institution, to advocate for improvements or for a larger operating budget. Consequently, few Albertans, especially outside Edmonton, know or care much about “their” museum—the one meant to conserve and celebrate their province and their history.

John Geiger is a popular historian, the president of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and a long-time Albertan now based in Toronto. “The RAM was a wonderful museum in its day, but it has outlived that premises,” he says. “The Alberta museum is not a B-list museum. I’d call it a C- or D-list museum. They do the best with the resources they have, but it’s not the kind of world-class institution Alberta merits.”

Bruce McGillivray, the museum’s former executive director, says decades of government neglect have left the RAM with only “a shell of any identity.” “Museums can help answer the question, ‘Where do I fit in?’ ” he says. “They’re central to the identity of a country or a province or a state or a city. But if people only know the Royal Alberta Museum they’re currently experiencing, they don’t get the story of Alberta.”

The RAM has become an artifact itself, a sad monument to the 1960s.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Provincial Museum of Alberta first opened in 1967, a centennial gift to the people of Alberta, the institution was a triumphalist monument to Alberta’s ambition and its progress, its sense of itself as a dynamic player in Confederation. With a dramatic setting on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, in Edmonton’s historic Old Glenora district, the museum was a gem of sleek, modernist architecture, filled with exhibits about everything from dinosaurs to Alberta pioneers. Through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the museum was in a state of continuous expansion, with major exhibits added at the rate of about one a year until 1979.

But in the 1980s, the museum entered its “stepchild phase.” The Lougheed and Getty governments were on a museum-building boom, but their focus moved to decentralizing Alberta’s cultural and scientific heritage. Outstanding new museums opened across southern and central Alberta—the Royal Tyrrell near Drumheller, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, the Remington Carriage Museum in Cardston, the Frank Slide museum in the Crowsnest Pass, the Reynolds in Wetaskiwin. Fine institutions all—but many were filled with and by artifacts and curators poached from the provincial museum in Edmonton. Plenty of solid political, economic and cultural reasons justified the spreading of Alberta’s cultural infrastructure through southern Alberta, but the museum in the capital was inevitably diminished. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the provincial museum had to compete with invigorated rival institutions such as the Telus World of Science and the Art Gallery of Alberta for funding, exhibits and visitors.

In the early 1980s the museum commissioned noted Edmonton architect Don Bittorf, the man who designed the Edmonton Art Gallery and the buildings in Hawrelak Park, to come up with drawings for a museum expansion. Drawings were created—but the plan went nowhere. In 1983 the province appointed a new chief curator, John Fortier, to come up with another master plan for a major expansion. But Fortier quit in 1989, with the plan stalled.

The museum suffered another major blow in 1990, McGillivray recalls, when the Klein government insisted it start charging admission. Attendance dropped steeply, he says, from about 400,000 visitors a year to 100,000. Pressure to sell tickets also led the museum to create a gallery for touring and temporary shows. That meant closing down the gallery that had been used to exhibit artifacts from Alberta’s history. “It meant we had no gallery dedicated to the whole sweep of Alberta’s history, which was ludicrous,” McGillivray says.

While the museum did bring in some blockbuster touring exhibits, it couldn’t land other first-rate shows because its air exchange and environmental standards weren’t up to international levels for art conservation.

Small but important improvements to the museum were made over the years, including a thoughtful new Aboriginal gallery, sponsored in part by Syncrude, and an update of the beloved old animal dioramas, which put them in a more child-friendly, interactive setting. But many exhibits have not been updated since the 1960s. The end result is a museum of natural wonders—and indigenous people. A politically awkward combination, to say the least.

“RAM is a natural history museum that includes First Peoples as part of nature, an old 19th-century notion,” notes David Goa, director of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta. For 30 years, he also served as the museum’s curator of folk life. “RAM does not represent the story of Alberta in the way one would expect a provincial museum to do. It neither emphasizes local goodness nor can it be ‘world class,’ attracting major tourism.”

In 2003 the Klein government announced plans for a major renovation and addition, with a budget of $200-million—$170-million from the province and $30-million from Ottawa. In 2005 it held an international architectural competition, which was won by Edmonton architect Donna Clare and Toronto museum specialist Michael Lundholm. In 2006 Clare and Lundholm unveiled their plans for a dramatic 250,000-square-foot addition to the RAM, one that would connect the museum, visually and physically, to the river valley below.

Six-shot .38 calibre Smith and Weston revolver and semi-automatic .38 calibre pistol, Alberta Provincial Police (1917-1932)

Six-shot .38 calibre Smith and Weston revolver and semi-automatic .38 calibre pistol, Alberta Provincial Police (1917-1932) (Leroy Schulz)

But in April of 2007, four months after Ed Stelmach succeeded Klein as premier, the project was quietly cancelled. The official reason was that Alberta’s oil boom had pushed construction prices so high that the museum was no longer affordable. As former director, McGillivray says he himself made a major tactical error. He had proposed that the renovated museum should collect and house Ralph Klein’s papers and curate his leadership legacy. It soon became obvious that Stelmach had no interest in building his predecessor’s legacy project.

“That just wasn’t something that was wanted by the new regime,” McGillivray says. “Interest by cabinet just evaporated. I didn’t understand enough about politics. Who would have thought the Conservative Party would be so eager to distance themselves from their own leader? I guess I was naive.”

Making things worse was the crackdown the Stelmach government imposed on public commentary by museum staff, who had to get even the most innocuous press releases about exhibits approved by the culture ministry.

“When you bury an institution like a museum inside a government department, it has no identity. It just disappears,” says McGillivray. “We never had a board. We never had citizens from across the province to fight or advocate for us. The museum has always been at the whim of the minister of the day. All it takes is some drop in the price of oil, some change in minister, and you start all over again.”

McGillivray left his position with the museum in May of 2009. (More than two years later, his job as executive director still had not been permanently filled. McGillivray’s former colleague, Chris Robinson, now serves as the museum’s executive director.)

Then, in the spring of 2011, events at the RAM took a sudden, dramatic new turn. At a surprise press conference at Grant MacEwan University, Stelmach, joined by Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, announced a radical new vision for the museum. Instead of a $200-million expansion on the Old Glenora riverbank site, the premier unveiled plans for a $340-million completely new facility to be built on the site of Edmonton’s old downtown post office, just north of City Hall. The museum was to be combined with a site for a future high-speed rail station.

Museum staff were stunned—they hadn’t been consulted or informed. But although they had much affection for the old museum building and grounds, they felt a growing excitement, too, at the thought of designing a new museum from scratch, on the same street as the AGA, the Winspear concert hall and the Citadel Theatre, and on the same avenue as the proposed new downtown arena

There was widespread enthusiasm in Edmonton, too, even among people who didn’t particularly care about the museum itself—enthusiasm for an urban renewal mega-project that held the promise of major economic development for the struggling northeast quadrant of downtown, a plan that would link the arts district around Churchill Square with Chinatown to the north.

The province held another architectural competition, which lured some of the world’s biggest names, including Japan’s architectural legend Fumihiko Maki and the New York-based Richard Meier. But despite the international competition, the contract went again to Edmonton’s Donna Clare and Toronto’s Michael Lundholm, who already had an intimate knowledge of the museum’s collection and its needs.

Clare and Lundholm’s winning design was simple on the outside, which disappointed some critics who were looking for a flashy, “iconic” building. But although they couldn’t speak out publicly, museum staffers loved the design, which provided lots of intelligent, functional display space for collections and opened up curatorial workshops and labs, so that visitors could actually watch the RAM’s conservators and scientific researchers in action.

Some citizens complained that the government had rushed the process—that the competition had been too short, the design-build budget process too miserly. But Stelmach, perhaps remembering what had happened to Klein’s legacy project, was determined to ram through his RAM vision before he left office. His instincts were right.

Last October, three weeks after she was sworn in as premier, Alison Redford pulled the plug on the Royal Alberta Museum. Her new infrastructure minister, Jeff Johnson, put the blame on the federal government, claiming Ottawa had reneged at the last minute on $92-million in promised funding. The Harper Conservatives angrily retorted that the only federal dollars ever earmarked for the museum were the $30-million pledged by the previous Liberal government. As the provincial and the federal Conservative parties engaged in civil war, the poor RAM was caught in the crossfire.

Aboriginal art from the Southesk Collection

Aboriginal art from the Southesk Collection. (Leroy Schulz)

Then, in late November, Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn held his own surprise RAM press conference, announcing that Ottawa would contribute an additional $92.5-million after all, for a total commitment of $122.5-million toward a $340-million project. Perhaps thinking that the Redford government wasn’t so deeply committed to the RAM, Hawn added one politically stinging proviso: the province must start museum construction by November 2012 or forfeit the $92.5-million.

Given that none of the provincial government’s previous grand announcements about major renewals at the RAM has come to pass, small wonder this latest news has been met with only cautious enthusiasm by museum proponents.

Even if we do have the money and political will to build a new box for our treasures, the museum’s holdings will still need to be used in a way that inspires Albertans.

The RAM has some remarkable artifacts hidden away in its storerooms, the stuff of a truly A-class museum—including the Southesk Collection, one of the world’s finest assortments of plains Aboriginal arts and crafts from the 1850s, collected by the Earl of Southesk, an eccentric Scottish nobleman and poet and the first celebrity tourist to visit Alberta. In a new space, staff also hope to show off the RAM’s fossil collection of giant ice-age mammals such as woolly mammoths, ground sloths and short-faced bears, with the hopes of becoming a Tyrrell-calibre centre for the exhibition of such creatures.

“The collections are fantastic,” former director Bruce McGillivray says. “For example, we have the best military history collection west of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and none of it is on display. The collections would absolutely blow people away.”

“A museum should be a celebration of everyone who came before us—the First Nations, the pioneers, the people who built Alberta,” says the Royal Canadian Geographic Society’s John Geiger. “To deny young Albertans the chance to learn first-hand about the sacrifices of the people who built this province is to deny your own essence. Their story is really the Alberta story, and without it, frankly, the sense of what it means to be an Albertan will be lost. You might as well just be Colorado.”

There are those, however, who see museums as an elitist waste of public dollars. The Wildrose party has spoken out forcefully and repeatedly in favour of cancelling or delaying the RAM’s renewal. One Edmonton-area federal Conservative MP, Brent Rathgeber, went so far as to criticize his own government on his blog for supporting the RAM, arguing that a provincial museum is not a proper beneficiary of federal funding.

But programmed and resourced properly, a new RAM could be the embodiment of populist democratic values, a place where anyone, regardless of age or background or education, could come to learn about their province, their country and their world.

“This is a province with an absolutely spectacular history,” says Geiger. “People say history is boring, but Alberta’s history is exciting. It tells a vital story about what Alberta stands for in Canada and the world. We need an opportunity to understand and celebrate that.”

Geiger, of course, is an historian. For McGillivray, an ornithologist by training, the RAM also needs to be every bit as much about Alberta’s natural history. “The language of science can be very technical and jargon-filled, and hard for lay people to understand,” he says. “The absolute best role of the museum is to be the voice of the scientist, presented in a way the community can understand. A museum should be a trusted source of information, to bridge the gap between scientists and the community.”

Camrose native William Thorsell is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and a former CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. He suggests the new RAM should focus on Alberta but also look well beyond our borders.

“A museum is part of the life of a great city. It’s part of the life of the mind as well as the soul. I think in a provincial museum you want to get a good sense of where the province has come from, both in terms of natural history and culture. But it’s also very important to provide lots of great space for temporary shows and travelling exhibitions. You want to tell the Alberta story, but you don’t want the museum to be, if you’ll pardon the expression, too provincial. You want to bring in shows of great diversity.”

David Goa, who spent years building the museum’s ethnocultural collections of materials from Ukrainian, Doukhobor, Muslim, Chinese, Jewish, Scandinavian and other immigrant communities, sees things through a different prism. Museums today, he says, are too attached to their artifacts, to their collections of cream cans. Too much money and time, he says, has been devoted to collecting things, rather than documenting the particular, individual stories that give those things context, meaning and narrative.

“Museums should not be about objects,” he says. “Objects are about subjects. The question should be What is the subject of the object? What is the story that swirls around it? Western Canada, especially Alberta, is one of the least-studied places in the world. We know more about Siberian shamans than we do about the United Church of Canada. If the museum is positioned to care for this particular part of the world, it has to have not only collections but has to do the field research into the cultural history of the community.”

The RAM, Goa says, can’t hope to compete with great imperial museums such as the British Museum, founded on their global colonial collections. Instead, he says, it should focus on tellingAlbertastories and telling them well. “The 21st century will, of necessity, be the century of the regional and local museum, because it is the century of globalization. As globalization deepens, people become more interested in the local and the particular. The love of one’s own is the ground upon which one stands to love another.”

The museum’s collection is fantasticand almost none of it is on display.

But the challenge isn’t just what the museum should put on display and how—it’s whether it can be freed from government fetters.

“There’s no reason for a museum to be a department of government,” Thorsell says. “That’s kind of crazy. Why would you prevent your museum from raising money? You’d think that in a province like Alberta, they’d say ‘Why not be very entrepreneurial in your approach, instead of Soviet?’ The Alberta  left was very entrepreneurial, but it sounds like they’ve become very statist.”

Thorsell says it’s also vital that a museum have its own dedicated board of directors and an independent CEO who can “sell” the museum and its programs to the public—and who can push the museum to take risks with programming.

“The CEO needs to personify the institution, to be part of the marketing machine. You need people who can be enthusiastic, who can get people excited, and who also tackle all kinds of controversial topics without worrying about what the minister will say.

“I view the museum as the agora,” he adds. “In a world where our cities are so diverse, museums are the common ground where people can come and claim their common ground. They are places where all kind of issues are debated and discussed. Museums, if you use your imagination, can be lively, controversial, provocative places.” But, Thorsell warns, museums can’t take those necessary programming risks if they’re constantly worried about political fallout. “Start a sort of Free Willy campaign for the RAM,” says Thorsell. “It needs perestroika and glasnost. Free the museum!”

It’s a worthy rallying cry. To paraphrase that historic Alberta bumper sticker, let’s not “throw” the opportunity away this time. Let’s finally build a Royal Alberta Museum worthy of the name. Then let’s give it the resources and the freedom to make it something we can all treasure.

Paula Simons is a columnist with The Edmonton Journal and a winner of five National Newspaper Award citations of merit.

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