Doors to the Past

‘Tis the season! Museums and heritage parks are opening their doors! Large national and provincial museums are open all year for enthusiasts, but with the onset of spring, the smaller museums rev up to train summer staff, dust artefacts and order stock for their gift shops.

From experience, I know that small-town museums sometimes have amazing discoveries in store for us. One day, while entering the Stettler Town and County Museum, I was surprised to meet a friend coming out the door.

“Oh, I love small town museums,” she said. “In fact, to celebrate my 50th birthday, my sister and I are visiting as many as we can this summer.”

We were definitely kindred souls.

All museums fascinate me, but small town museums are especially luring. Inside the doors, visitors may see a jar for donations, but people are welcome to come in even if they can’t part with a loonie or a fiver.

Usually, the first displays to greet us are related to the community’s First Nations and early settlers. Then, we may be treated to interior design displays of complete living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens as they were furnished in the days of our forbearers. Dresses, costume jewellery and toys suggest the fashion and fun of yesteryear, while commercial displays might range from banks to blacksmith shops to medical offices where displays of primitive dental and medical instruments cause shivers to run down our backs. In other areas, desks, wall maps, blackboards and old books from one-roomed schoolhouses make us aware of how education has changed. Too, we might find carpentry or mechanical tools on display (seemingly ready for use), and more sobering, we will find war mementos donated by local families.

Outside, such museums are often surrounded with by machines of yesteryear, whether related to logging, agriculture, resource development, fisheries or other local industries. Nearby, old cars, trucks, wagons, railway stock or boats are left to the elements or given the most basic shelter to prevent rust and other deteriorating damage. While each machine is truly valued, inadequate budgets mean few storage options.

Fort Chipewyan Museum Faye Holt Collection

Personally, I’ve always found at least one unexpected cultural treasure. A few years ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Fort Chipewyan. There, the entire museum was a cultural treasure! Opened in 1990, the building is a replica of the original Hudson Bay Post. Inside, artefacts, pelts, photos and mementos bring to life the history of Fort Chip, the oldest continuously inhabited community in Alberta. There, I walked in the footsteps of the Beaver, Cree and Chipewyan First Nations. There in 1784, ninety percent of the Chipewyan had died as a result of their first contact with small pox.

Where the museum stood, the North West Company and Hudson Bay Company had fought for the fur trade. Explorers Peter Pond, Peter Fidler and Alexander McKenzie had contemplated maps and made history. How fortunate I was to walk in their footsteps and see the treasures that had been preserved from those early days.

So, I sincerely recommend that you consider every museum—whether big or small—as worthy of a look. Don’t just breeze in and out. Take your time, and be prepared for astonishing surprises.

Yes, ‘tis the season, and these small town museums and their volunteers will welcome you, but perhaps you can drop a toonie or ten into the donation box. Your generosity will be appreciated and help to save more of your precious past.

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