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Guest Post: The Alberta Museums Project

The Alberta Museums Project: Looking Back

Misa Nikolic, May 2018

The Alberta Museums Project website was launched in February of 2016, after two and a half years of research. It is an independent scholarly project undertaken by researchers at the University of Alberta and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), a federal funding organization. I was hired as a research assistant for this project, and I spent much of my time travelling back and forth across the province, visiting museums and speaking to staff at all levels, while building a database of all the museums in the province. Our goal as a team has been to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about museums, their changing social role, and their economic impact.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response to our website, we did encounter a small but vocal source of criticism, largely stemming from our definition of the museum. Rather than borrowing a set definition from another organization wholesale, we chose to define the museum in a very broad and inclusive manner. We did not wish to rate or judge museums, as we saw done in the 1996 Heritage Hunter’s Guide to Alberta Museums; such an approach was very much at odds with our goals, which were to promote all museums as places to visit, to work, and to study. We made no distinction between amateurs and professionals, between legitimate museums and outliers. Indeed, borderline cases were the most interesting from the point of view of museum studies, as their very existence brought into question all the basic assumptions we have about museums: what social function they perform, how they are organized, and where they fit into the fabric of their communities. While the non-profit model of heritage museum works for most communities most of the time, there are also museums in Alberta that are privately owned, or run as businesses, and which may have a very narrow focus or unique subject matter. As alternative solutions to the typical heritage museum, some of these make a positive cultural and economic impact on their communities, in ways that might not even be possible using the standard model of governance.

For example, the operators of Trekcetera in Drumheller would probably not be willing to give up control of their museum to a board of governance, given their personal investment in the museum’s collection. Nevertheless they have crafted a unique narrative of film and television history in Alberta that has made them Drumheller’s #2 destination on Tripadvisor. Another museum that refuses to fit the mould is the Flueseum, located upstairs in the Calgary John Fluevog shoe store. Dedicated to its own corporate history and shoe designs both past and present, the museum works in tandem with a contemporary art gallery in the basement to reposition the store as a cultural destination. Visitors have more reasons to visit, and more reasons to return, than simply to buy shoes—a strategy that community-based museums are wise to adopt. Finally, the Jurassic Forest near Gibbons was established by a local business group, who wanted a dinosaur exhibit available to those unable to travel to the Royal Tyrell Museum. While it is billed as entertainment, the motion-activated animatronic dinosaurs (set outdoors along boardwalks) are accompanied by dozens of text panels describing prehistoric life as well as today’s flora and fauna native to the region.

Through examples such as these, we hope to examine how museums help to shape local identity, and how they are shaped by it in turn. Our initial phase of research, which was intended to capture the scale and diversity of the entire museum movement in Alberta, is presented online in a form that we hope is appealing to a variety of users: museum visitors, museum professionals, and scholars in fields such as sociology, human ecology, art history, and of course museum studies. Other outcomes of a more scholarly nature have included conference presentations, journal articles, and a forthcoming book. Part of our funding mandate was to make our results available and accessible to the public; and, given the very broad data collected in the first phase of research, a website was the logical solution. It is our intention to keep this website up to date for as long as possible, and while some errors might be present, we are more than happy to correct them.

My own feeling about the museum community, based on hundreds of visits throughout the province, is that it is a model—a microcosm if you will—of a cooperative economy, rather than a competitive one. Historically, museums have always conducted a quiet trade in artefacts, as well as a steady flow of ideas, technology, even of staff. Outlier museums, however difficult they may be to categorize, do not simply exist to challenge established authority or compete for tourist dollars. They do not steal scarce resources from more deserving institutions. Rather, they contribute to a conversation about what constitutes a museum, how museums take part in the cultural and economic life of their communities, and what museums might look like in the future. They show us what a cooperative economy looks like, an economy based on sharing both material and intangible culture, without the imposition of what Robert Janes has called “marketplace ideology”. But whether a particular museum fits the expected mould or not, they do have certain things in common: they offer a connection to the past; they contribute to the construction of heritage narratives; and they serve as incubators for social change, as forums for the exchange of ideas and stories.

Museums really do more.

A big thank-you to Misa for writing this post for the Small Museums Blog. If you have a topic you would like to write about, please send an email through the contact page.

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