A new film depicting the plight of small-town museums is a cautionary tale of what rural communities will lose if they’re closed, say museum advocates.
These aren’t merely collections of curios, tools, books and other things donated by local pioneer families, says Monique Brandt, executive director of the Association of Manitoba Museums.
They’re tangible connections to local history. But many face an uncertain future.
“They’re struggling to stay open,” Brandt said.
Some face the very real possibility of closure and collection dispersal one day.
“We’re hoping that this maybe opens eyes up to people a bit more.”
‘This’ is the “The End of Our Memories,” a documentary released this summer for the Manitoba Telecom Service series “Stories from Home.”
It was co-produced by Gimli-based filmmakers Andy Blicq and Huw Eirung and premiered in July at the Gimli Film Festival. The 25-minute documentary takes viewers to locales throughout rural Manitoba where volunteers describe their struggles with dwindling volunteers and next to no cash to make upgrades or develop programs to boost revenues.
Blicq said he was personally touched by their troubling tales which he says are really a bellwether issue about what’s going on in rural Canada.
“It’s a symptom of much larger issues around change,” he said, adding that small museums are falling through the cracks as demographics shift.
“Populations are aging and shrinking. People are very busy. It’s difficult to find people to volunteer and it’s a lot of work. It’s difficult to make these museums run anymore.”
Blicq said he hopes this film also shows why more people should care about what’s happening to these sites.
“The museum is a repository of the community’s memories,” he said. “Lose that and that connection to our past is gone. So is a fundamental way of telling a story all Canadians, including those with no connection to Canada’s pioneer past, need to hear.
“You’ve always been able to come to Canada with nothing, and work hard and find a future for your family.”
He hopes the film can start a more urgent conversation about the issue.
In the film several volunteer museum operators are interviewed about what they do and why they persevere to keep one going, including St. Malo’s Edmée Gosselin, the museum’s proprietor and last board member. She talks about the significance of the historical artifacts to the community, but also the very real prospect having to close up the site permanently.
“I’m tired,” she says in the film.
The documentary also tells the story of the intense grief residents felt when an arsonist destroyed the St. George museum in 2014.
National museum management expert Pat Bovey is also interviewed, and says the woes of small-town museums are by no means a Manitoba phenomena, but a problem right across the country.
But she sees not “the end of an era” but “time for a quantum change,” in how museums are operated.
That view is echoed by Peter Cantelon, executive director of the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. He speaks in the film about Morden deciding to focus on its very specific collection, as well as concentrate on giving museum visitors more hands-on experiences.
“It’s difficult to simply be a large space that people walk through and leave,” he says in the film. “You can’t be in what some people see as a maintain mode or a good enough mode because there isn’t any such thing.”
Small-town museums in search of their future must know their target audience, develop a business plan and market a focused experience to funders and the public, he stresses.
Brandt says that’s what more would like to do, but often it’s simply a lack of people to do these things.
The story of small-town museums isn’t entirely bleak either, however.
The film also describes sites doing well, including the 13-acre Arborg Multicultural Heritage Village site on the edge of the north Interlake town. There they’ve found new and innovative ways to engage and keep volunteers, including offering a complimentary fall supper on site to those buying an annual museum membership.
It’s a way to keep loyal volunteers happy, explains the museum’s manager Pat Eyolfson in the film.
Brandt says all their association can do to help those struggling is to share ideas and advice and point museum committees to potential resources. The status of this province’s approximately 200 small-town museums does vary from place to place, she added.
“There’s some doing really well and some that are dying or dead,” she said.
The Association of Manitoba Museums hopes to help distribute “The End of Our Memories” as a DVD so it can be made widely available to the public.
The association hosts its annual general meeting in Boissevain September 22 to 24.