An overwhelming majority of Albertans believe that historical resources are important to their overall quality of life — although few people report actually visiting them. But at least one local museum reports they are actually seeing increases in visitation by their use of technology and community engagement. 

The Canadian Museums Association states museums “are valuable resources in the research, preservation and interpretation of Canada’s heritage. Museums and galleries foster a better understanding of Canadian life and its history.” 

Meaghan Patterson, executive director of the Alberta Museums Association, believes that museums can provide a window into the past. 

“No matter who you are and where you come from, you can always find value in visiting a historic site or museum,” she explains. “I think that there’s really something for everyone to learn and experience.”

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Children looking at an exhibit at the Hangar Flight Museum. Photo by Jazmine Canfield

The value that Albertans place in visiting historical sites can be seen in the Alberta Culture and Tourism 2018 Survey of Albertans. 

The survey, which polled 1,000 randomly selected Albertan residents between Jan. 22, 2017 and Feb. 27, 2017, found that 93.9 per cent of Albertans feel that historical resources are important to their overall quality of life.

The survey is the latest data available from the provincial government on this subject. 

Rachael Cristine Woody, museum, archives and cultural heritage consultant, says it’s not surprising that Albertans have such strong feelings about historic sites. 

“It’s a touchstone for you and the place where you live, the place where you have your life from, where you were born, where you grew up.”

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Plane at the Hangar Flight Museum. Photo by Jazmine Canfield.

She explains that museums are culturally and historically significant sites that impact your life by creating a sense of place. 

“The history that has happened there, the people that have lived there. It’s just such a great way to connect into who we are and why we do what we do,” she says. 

Woody says that in visiting museums, people can acquire a better understanding of different cultures.

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Woody’s dissertation was on the Sumerian goddess Inanna. She is photographed here at the British Museum, standing in front of a common depiction of Inanna. Photo by Tobias Inman

However, despite that value, the Alberta Culture and Tourism 2018 Survey of Albertans reports that from 2001-2018 there has been an overall self-reported decrease in their attendance.  

Each year, the survey asks participants if they recalled visiting a historical resource in the past 12 months.

In 2001, the survey reported attendance rates were at a high of 68 per cent, but by 2017 attendance reached a low of 45 per cent with the temporary closure of the Royal Alberta Museum. In 2018, the number rose back to 50.8 per cent.

Patterson disputes those numbers, explaining that visitation to museums and historic sites across Canada and Alberta specifically has been growing over the last number of years.

Citing a 2017 survey of heritage institutions conducted by the federal government, she said, “This data demonstrates that over that time period [2011-2015], attendance at Alberta’s museums and heritage sites has grown from 4.5 million to 7.4 million.”

But the Alberta Tourism Market Monitor February 2020 also reported a 8.3 per cent decline at historic sites and museum attendance in 2018, the latest such data available.

In his book, “Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century,” Graham Black suggests that the declining attendance of historical sites is happening because there is a growing failure to attract the under-35s or to replace the declining traditional audiences.

“The impending crisis in attendances is hidden by a continuing boom in cultural tourism, by the short-term boost to visitor numbers following major capital schemes and by the continuing popularity of blockbuster exhibitions.” 

Brian Desjardins, executive director of the Hangar Flight Museum, says that because more people are struggling financially there has also been an effect on museum attendance.

“The economy and discretionary income, it’s limited, right? Whether it’s oil and gas [there is a] trickle-down effect. We’re all struggling.”

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Brian Desjardins standing in front of the Hawker Hurricane plane at the Hangar Flight Museum. Photo by Jazmine Canfield.

But the Calgary-based museum – located at the junction of two roads named after two of Calgary’s WWII flying aces, William Lidstone McKnight and Frederick McCall – has worked hard to increase their attendance by engaging with the community through marketing, new exhibits and school bookings. 

The museum also hosts special events like their recent National Aviation Day event on February 23, 2020, that celebrated the 111th anniversary of powered flight. 

As the museum increased its efforts to market and engage with the community, attendance has risen 10.3 per cent from 2017. 

“I think we’ve done a good job and the numbers show it,” says Desjardin. 

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Plane at the Hangar Flight MuseumPhoto by Jazmine Canfield.

Increased attendance at the Hangar Flight Museum could also be a result of their efforts to make the museum more interactive by incorporating innovative technology in their exhibits.

Adding these non-traditional displays to museums is an important aspect moving forward, Woody explains museums need to think out-of-the-box in how they present their exhibits. 

“We are shifting our experiences and our preferred methods of accessing culture to be more online, on-demand, virtual,” she says. “We are going to have to get creative.” 

Creating interactive displays is one of the ways that the Hangar Flight Museum has adapted, incorporating tablets and music so that guests can have a more tangible experience.  

The Hangar Flight Museum complements their aircraft exhibits by their recent addition of virtual reality simulations, allowing guests to virtually enter and fly the aircrafts they have on display. 

“We added a permanent ‘The Oculus Rift’, a virtual reality console that offers interactive and immersive educational experiences,” says Dejardins.

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Earnest Alama using “The Oculus Rift” at the Hangar Flight Museum. Photo by Jazmine Canfield.

The simulation lets visitors experience the 1943 Berlin Blitz, A Virtual Reality Spacewalk and Rapid Fire: a brief history of flight. 

“When kids come in and they see all these aircrafts they’ll definitely go and look at them, but then they’re also looking for more of a real experience.” 

Within the next year, they will also be incorporating a Douglas DC-3 Civil Aviation Aircraft simulator, allowing people to sit inside the exhibit and look at screens showcasing what it would be like to be inside the plane.

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The Douglas DC-3 Civil Aviation Aircraft Simulator before the screens are placed in, currently in the works. Photo by Jazmine Canfield.

“One of our volunteers, Don Bayly, is nearing completion of restoring our [Douglas] DC-3 simulator. When completed, we will be adding it to the main hangar floor for another interactive experience,” says Dejardins.

The ability to interact with exhibits not only makes the experience more intriguing, but it can also help people get a better understanding of what they are learning about. 

“We need to start creating and presenting curated experiences with the museum in a virtual setting. I think there’s great potential there with stuff that we already have digitized,” says Woody. 

“We just need to repackage it in a more engaging way.”

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Editor: Monique LaBossiere |

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