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Preserving History On A Shoestring

They preserve the past and they re open for the present, but the future is uncertain for many of this province s smaller museums.

Filled as they are with local collections of artifacts, many run on near empty, with shoestring budgets and scant volunteer labour.

The Manitoba Agricultural Museum is grappling with budgetary constraints and trying to come up with a new business plan after its core funding from the province was reclassified and reduced.

But volunteers maintaining the some 200-plus museums across Manitoba are equally worried about the future. The standing joke is they may become antiques themselves.

We re not a thriving enterprise by any stretch of the imagination, says Nancy Schiltroth, volunteer president of Reston and District Museum. The future is dim I would say. Financially, we re eventually going to fall short of the mark. We find fewer and fewer people want to become members of the board. If you don t have a thriving board established, the outlook for an organization is not good.

Typical of many of the sites represented by the Association of Manitoba Museums, Reston s museum contains domestic items, pioneer business artifacts, threshing machines, a Model T car, stationary engines and the McDonald House circa 1896 that was moved to the site.

Also typical, is their cash shortage. Museums need upkeep; repairs have to be made and utilities must be paid.

If it wasn t for the fact that we have been left a number of very healthy donations through people s wills, we would be in very poor shape financially, said Schiltroth.

That won t last forever, she adds. Equally worrisome is that there are fewer volunteers stepping up to do the work.

Local story

Many of rural Manitoba s small-town and country museums were established in the 1960s and 1970s, in part inspired by centennial events plus the looming spectre of small towns getting smaller and farms getting larger.

Residents joined in true civic fashion, to gather together their local history, eventually becoming caretakers and custodians of thousands of donated items housed in small churches, houses, log homes and schools.

Visitors right now see lovingly maintained collections of artifacts that depict how we once lived, worked, travelled, farmed, worshipped and educated our children, and different locations have different levels of sustainability as far as their operations.

But the looming question is what ultimately becomes of these sites?

These places are threatened, if not imminently, then in the longer term, if their cash and human resource shortages aren t addressed, say those charged with ensuring museums strong position in their communities.

It s very scary, says Monique Brandt, executive director of the Association of Manitoba Museums (AMM), that serves as a voice for the 200 community-based museums it represents. Even with the very limited resources we ve had, we ve created many wonderful museums, and they are treasure troves, she said.

Some of the most interesting stuff in the province is found in these itsy-bitsy small volunteer-run museums, she said. I ve seen things in these places I ve never seen anywhere else.

But their sustainability is tenuous in many cases.

A lot of them just make do with a little bit of money from fundraisers or donations and hope it s enough to pay their telephone and Hydro, she said.

Most rely 100 per cent on volunteer labour. If they re lucky maybe they can scrape up enough of their share to put in for a student grant and have someone come in for a little bit during the summer.

Open usually from June to September, it s when the doors close for winter that another threat looms. The Hydro is turned off. They can t afford to heat these places over the winter, says Brandt. And that means extremes of temperature and fluctuations in humidity take their toll.

We are starting to see the collections and the artifacts that they hold in some cases starting to deteriorate because they can t keep them in proper conditions, she said.

They wish they could do more to help, but their mandate is to support community museums by training those who look after them to improve and maintain their sites, not for revenue building. What we get funding for is to help them be better museums, said Brandt. We re trying to build up more advocacy, she adds.

Provincial funding

A large part of the fiscal woes of these small sites stems from the fact provincial grants are now practically museum pieces themselves. First established in 1970, they were reset in 1991 at up to a maximum of either $1,350 or $3,150, depending on how museums met grant criteria.

Schiltroth said they don t even bother to apply for the grant anymore because so much additional fundraising is required to even be eligible. Now they rely entirely on whatever funds they can raise directly and locally, plus support from their municipality.

The town pays our Hydro bill, she said. That s a real bonus for us.

Many councils do contribute financially to local museum boards. The amounts vary.

What does make the difference in these small museums across rural Manitoba, is both how willing and how able municipalities are to support them, said Brandt.

But that s the other thread these institutions hang by.

The other AMM the Association of Manitoba Municipalities has had its own thoughts about small museums and how they re funded. In 2009, delegates passed a resolution calling museums a vital component of restoring and maintaining the history of the municipality and urged increased funding through the provincial museum grant program.

Money for this sort of thing is getting harder to find at the municipal level, says Tom Bohun, mayor of Grandview, whose council co-sponsored the resolution with the Village of Elkhorn.

Elkhorn s council puts $3,000 a year towards the local museum and that covers the bulk of their insurance costs, Bohun said. The RM also contributes.

But we can t give them what they want, says Bohun, adding that requests have come forward for anywhere between $8,000 to $10,000. We just don t have that kind of money to go toward a museum.

And who ll have the cash to pay the bills for these sites isn t the only predicament faced by these places. The other is an aging volunteer base. Bohun wonders who s next in line to look after these places in future.

Ten years down the road I can see there being hardly any volunteers left, he said. They even had trouble here this last summer finding students to work there.

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About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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