Undervalued Alberta museums rich in heritage, but struggle with funding

With such a culturally and historically rich city centre, many Calgarians forget about the equally opulent surrounding areas.

The rural areas within a 70-kilometre radius of Calgary boast nine museums or heritage sites.

Although this may be surprising, these buildings have been part of our province for decades. And they continue to serve the community with accounts and artifacts of their past.

New concept, old values

With an ever-growing inventory of antiques and archives, Airdrie’s Nose Creek Valley Museum only ever displays about one-third of their collection at one time.

Photo by Olivia Condon Located only 44 kilometres outside of Calgary, the city of Okotoks is loaded with small town charm and comfort that is sometimes lost in a big city.

Among the quiet, older part of the city the Okotoks Museum and Archives is housed in an old Victorian style home.

The 19th century museum offers an array of antiques. From a washing machine to children’s toys and games, manager Kathy Coutts said their collection is always growing.

“Through the help of our donators, we are building a hands-on area in our attic, which will serve as an exciting addition to our school program,” said Coutts.

In addition to the many local school programs, Coutts said the museum does its best to get out into the community with what resources they have.

“It will never stop being important to honor those who came before you and all of the determination and hard work they gave to make Okotoks what it is,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”

However, the museum sees this cycle of success and struggle all too often.

“The federal government eliminated a major program that we traditionally had accessed funds for,” Coutts said. “We have had to readjust our priorities based on the changing grants or the reduction of grants, and that is never easy.”

The “funding” Coutts is referring to is operated through several provincial and federal government programs to restore and preserve Alberta’s history.

In addition to being able to apply for project-based funding, museums can also apply for numerous restorative and other up-keep grants.

Turning to the community out of necessity

Some museums, like Airdrie’s Nose Creek Valley Museum, charge a small admission of $2 to combat the sometimes unstable financial future.

Curator Laurie Harvey added the museum also has two meeting rooms to rent out, which brings in monthly revenue.

Harvey said the museum image needs to adapt to the future and the needs of the community.

Built as an addition to the city’s old Presbyterian Church, the Roulston Museum in Carstairs teaches of the culturally vast area between Calgary and Edmonton.

Photo by Olivia Condon“People’s perceptions of museums as boring places where old things go to die, it needs to be changed,” she said. “We are doing the best we can to do that.”

Harvey said it’s important for people to care about these heritage-rich gems within their community.

“It is hard to see where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.”

Harvey is trying to make learning about the past fun with a new educational tool for local schools.

“We now offer kits that schools can come and pick up to take to the classroom, and they can also ask for the curator to come talk to them,” she said. “We are adapting as we see fit, and I think it’s producing great outcomes.”

Future plans hope to entice visitors

Only 40 kilometres further to the north is another interesting heritage site, the Roulston Museum in Carstairs.

Built as an addition to an old Presbyterian church, this museum and its society were born out of the city’s desire to preserve.

“They wanted to see something happen to the church rather than it just getting demolished,” said manager Michael Dougherty. “So, the historical society was formed and the church was given over to us.”

The museum and its projects, like an upcoming exhibit on the Calgary-Edmonton Wagon Trail, are funded through a number of streams, including the Alberta Museums Association (AMA).

Even if museums don’t apply for some of the AMA’s grants, the Alberta Historical Resource Foundation (AHRF) is there to pick up the slack, said Matthew Wangler, executive director of Historic Resources Management.

“The direct funding the AHRF provides to small town museums assists them with projects that are not eligible for funding through AMA grant programs,” said Wangler.

With so much heritage and learning potential, it may come as a surprise that many Calgarians do not know about small town museums.

“I’m amazed that there are so many [museums] so close to us that I didn’t even know about,” said single-father Blake Desson.

“Now that I know, I will definitely take my kids out there,” said Desson. “We are always looking for things to do once they are out of school.”

ocondon@cjournal.ca