Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Flood and Fire: A Story of Resilience at Heritage Village and Heritage Shipyard

by Roseann Davidson
Executive Director, Heritage Village and Heritage Shipyard

Natural disasters hit our city and our museums not once, but twice. This is our story.

The Hangingstone River Flood of June 2013 devastated Heritage Village (formerly Heritage Park) and we wondered how we would ever function as a museum again. The damage to our buildings, infrastructure, collections, and archives was beyond our comprehension. 

Yet four years later, through the tireless work of our staff, Board of Directors, volunteers, and external partners, we began a new chapter. Our new beginning placed us in a position to become bigger and better than we could ever have imagined. We affectionately grew to call this time as our “flood of opportunity.”

The Hangingstone River Flood leaves Heritage Village (then Heritage Park) under water.
All images courtesy of Roseann Davidson

During this period of rebuild and restoration, we faced what we felt were unsurmountable challenges. Ten days after the waters receded, we were allowed back into the site, and what we discovered was complete devastation. Our staff and volunteers’ physical and emotional safety were our primary concerns. Precautions were taken to protect them from debris, mud, mold, and, as much as possible, burnout.

The landscape and buildings sustain the worst damage.
Fourteen of seventeen buildings sustain significant damage
Most of our historical buildings, our large outdoor artifacts, and collections were covered in mud and debris; mold was setting in. As we assessed the situation, we soon discovered we had to move as much of the collection as possible off our site. 

Acquiring proper storage for our collections and archives was particularly difficult as storage was in high demand at this time, and finding the climate controlled conditions that our collection required was next to impossible. Staff worked laborious days assessing our collections for damages, isolating mold infested objects, and cleaning objects with the help of community volunteers. 


The local community – including landscaping companies, local forestry rangers, and individual volunteers – offers support.

Because the Village is located in a flood zone, our insurance would not cover the costs to rebuild. We were then challenged with procuring funds to cover what would become a $14 million project. Another of the challenges we faced was finding qualified contractors with knowledge in heritage conservation and preservation.

Emergency work is needed to remove mold and stabilize the historical buildings. The Chateau Gai (Grey Nuns exhibit), which sustained significant damage, is pictured here before and after being restored.

By 2016, both of our museums had undergone extensive renovations. Heritage Shipyard was due to open in May 2016, and Heritage Village was nearing the completion of the rebuild with new exhibits scheduled to be open later that summer. However, this was not meant to be, as another disaster was on the horizon.

The Fort McMurray Wildfire is seen from the front steps of Heritage Village.

The Wildfire of May 2016 shattered our dreams of opening the museums to the public. The devastation of this natural disaster took its toll on our community and greatly affected our museum facilities, contractors, and staff.

Our biggest challenges this time was getting permission to return to our homes and our museums after our massive evacuation of 88,000 people from Fort McMurray. We were out of the community for one month. The contractors who had been working on the rebuild were not able to return for nearly two months and this setback cost us further delays in the opening of both sites.

Heritage Village is a major construction zone, and potentially more fuel for the fire with many piles of lumber, scraps, and – of course – the log historical buildings.

We were very thankful that both museum sites sustained only minimal damage from the fire; however, we still had to deal with damages to our collections due the soot throughout the facilities. All of the collections and archives had to be sorted for damages and thoroughly cleaned. Our gift shops’ merchandise had to be inspected, sorted, and damages removed and reported to our insurance company. Once again, staff worked countless hours.

You can imagine our delight when we were finally able to open the Heritage Shipyard in July, and Heritage Village in August, 2017. The museum sites, the ships, the buildings, the artifacts, the exhibits, and the visitor experience have been revitalized. The changes are both stunning and inspiring.

Rebuilding offered the opportunity to update the exhibits.

As part of our rebuilding efforts, we have rebranded ourselves as the Fort McMurray Heritage Society. Our two cultural destinations are now called Heritage Village and Heritage Shipyard. Our new names and graphic identities make our presence known and our relationship with the two venues easier to recognize in the community. It also reflects the improvements that have taken place in both destinations.

Heritage Village and Heritage Shipyard

I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to our museum network friends and to the Alberta Museums Association and staff for the outstanding support we received during these challenging times. Knowing that we were not alone on this journey was reassuring and motivating.

As we build resiliency within our organization, we are once again looking forward to our future. Fort McMurray is striving to attract visitors and shed its reputation as an unreachable, remote community. We are so much more than oil. Our community is rooted in the fur trade and was historically reached by train, barge, ship, dogsled, plane, and floatplane among other methods of transportation.

Some of this multifaceted history is depicted in the Fort McMurray International Airport: YMM’s wonderful observation area showcases the history of flight in our area. Next time you are flying in or out of Fort McMurray, visit the observation area to view what we are sharing with folks, and how they too can discover our rich heritage and explore our two destinations, Heritage Village and Heritage Shipyard.

This article is part of an ongoing series curated by the Alberta Museums Association (AMA) on the organizational life cycle of museums. Members of the AMA can read more about the experiences, challenges, and successes of Alberta museums in their ongoing journey to sustainability in the Fall 2019 issue of INFOrm. Have a story to share? Email us at communications@museums.ab.ca.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Wholeness in Action: Arts and Health Month Spotlights AMA’s 2019 Conference Theme

by Dick Averns

On the heels of the recent Alberta Museums Association (AMA) conference,
As a Whole: Well-being, Health, and Museums, it’s refreshing to learn that November is recognized in many communities as Arts and Health Month. The goals for this event, as noted by Arts Health Network Canada, are “to promote the integration of the arts—including literary, performing, and visual arts and design—into a wide variety of healthcare and community settings for therapeutic, educational, and expressive purposes.” 

Leading the way in Alberta is Edmonton, with Mayor Don Iveson issuing a City Proclamation on November 1. This was presented at the McMullen Gallery, located at University of Alberta Hospital, by Councillor Jon Dziadyk.

For the proclamation launch, speakers in addition to Councillor Dziadyk represented a wide range of constituents, including Tyler Sherard, Executive Director of the Friends of University Hospitals (the managing organization for McMullen Gallery); Amelda Foster, Executive Director of the University of Alberta Hospitals (UAH); Sparrow Grace, a musician and staff artist at UAH; Meaghan Patterson, Executive Director of the AMA; and myself, Dick Averns, an exhibiting artist in the current McMullen Gallery show, This Art Makes Me Feel….

This Art Makes Me Feel... at McMullen Gallery.1
Image courtesy of Ellen Cunningham.
Adrian Stimson, Buffalo Boy, 2004.
Image courtesy of Dick Averns.

I highlight these speakers not by way of making a laundry list, but to illustrate the degree of commitment towards a genuinely interdisciplinary collaboration. Politicians, health executives, museum professionals, and artists came together for the benefit of broader communities—wholeness in action!

The gathering also included representatives from the Canadian Mental Health Association Edmonton Textiles Group, the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, CRIPSiE (Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton), and the Arts and Humanities in Health and Medicine program at the U of A. These constituents all demonstrate the breadth and depth of practices situated in Edmonton, and further highlight the relevance of the programming at McMullen Gallery.

The activities and initiatives at McMullen Gallery are a cogent example for how to embody designations such as Arts and Health Month as everyday practices. For those who attended the AMA’s 2019 Conference, McMullen Gallery may ring a bell as the host of the pre-conference program.

During the pre-conference, delegates saw Integrated Art Collections Placements in the University of Alberta Hospital, visited the McMullen Gallery, and undertook activities presented by the Artists on the Wards program staff. The pre-conference program was convened by Ellen Cunningham, Collections Manager at McMullen / Friends of University Hospitals; Chrystal Plante, Indigenous Coordinator for the Stollery Awasisak Indigenous Health Program; and Shirley Serviss, Staff Literary Artist with the Friends of University Hospitals/Artists on the Wards Program.

Touring the Integrated Arts Placements at the U of A Hospitals.
Image courtesy of Dick Averns.
Pre-conference workshop at the U of A Hospitals.
Image courtesy of Dick Averns.

Attendees learned from Ellen about the incredible collection of 2,000 artworks owned by the Friends of University Hospitals, many of which are in curated displays throughout the hospital in public, patient, and employee settings. Touring the site afforded firsthand experience of displayed artworks, including visits to an Indigenous family room for patient visitors and an Aboriginal Gathering room replete with murals and daily smudging ceremonies.

Turning to McMullen Gallery, the venue was created in 1986 as a purpose-built art gallery and is located adjacent to one of the hospital’s main entrances. Regular exhibits afford what Chrystal described as “beauty and lightness at a time when everything else in the hospital may be less so, or more challenging.” CARFAC fees are available for exhibiting artists, the Gallery accepts submissions, and a look at its exhibition history indicates a strong program supporting the ethos referenced by Tyler Sherard of “hospitals as living museums.”  

Sanctuary at McMullen Gallery, featuring work
by Noemi de Bruijn and Julya Hajnoczky.2
Image courtesy of Ellen Cunningham.
This Art Makes Me Feel... at McMullen Gallery.3
Image courtesy of Ellen Cunningham.

Complementing these initiatives is the incredible Artists on the Wards program supported by five professional artists, all employed on .5 FTE contracts, delivering personalized artistic experiences to patients on the wards. A mix of literary, visual art, and musical activities are offered, providing spirited, meditative, and holistic experiences for patients and families during times when conventional medicine may not nourish all needs.

In conclusion, the high level of collection management, exhibitions, and active programming is unique within Alberta Health Services settings. These initiatives, along with awareness opportunities such as Arts and Health Month, stand as models for adoption elsewhere and as evidence of the value and benefits for functioning As a Whole.


Author Dick Averns is the Curatorial Coordinator for the University of Calgary Founders’ Gallery, located at The Military Museums in Calgary. For the 2019 AMA Conference, he was both a member of Conference Program Committee and Keynote Moderator. He is a practising artist, regular reviewer of art for publications including Canadian Art and Galleries West, and he also works part-time as Engagement Coordinator for CARFAC Alberta. 


1. Pictured (left to right): 
- Dick Averns, Canadian Airman Duff, 2009
- Karen Brownlee, Abstract Grain Elevators #1, 2002
- Tim Okamura, The Elevator, 2003
- Lori Lukasewich, Good Dog, 2010
- Gloria Mok, Landscape of the Mind #3, 1993 

2. Paintings by Noemi de Bruijn (left to right):
Adirondack, Homesick, Boathouse, Triumvirate, and A House on A Rock

Sculpture by Julya Hajnoczky:
On Plinths: Glenmore Reservoir 1, Glenmore Reservoir 2
On Wall: Pacific Rim 3, Pacific Rim 4, Barrier Lake 2, Kokanee Creek

3. Pictured (left to right): 
- Lori Lukasewich, Good Dog, 2010
- Gloria Mok, Landscape of the Mind #3, 1993
- Eric Moschopedis, A Body for Bears, A Body for Lightning (A Quilt for Danny Kelly), 2012
- John Hall, WHAM!, 2010
- David Svendsen, Incommunicado, 1991
- Dawn Detarando, Prairie Rubbers, 2009

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

An Interview with Keynote Presenter Professor Helen Chatterjee

Professor Helen Chatterjee will be delivering the closing keynote address, “Museums, Health, and Well-being: The Bio-psychosocial Impact of Museum Participation,” at the Alberta Museums Association 2019 Conference. In advance of the conference, Prof. Chatterjee spoke with Ann Ramsden, Executive Director of the Arts and Heritage Foundation of  St. Albert, for an interview.

You are a professor of Biology specializing in genetics, evolution, and environment. With this academic background, how did you become interested in museological research?

I trained as a zoologist with a PhD in primatology, and my zoology research has always involved using zoology museum collections to look at morphological adaptation, evolution, and conservation of endangered species. During my PhD, I ‘inherited’ University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology. Initially, I began as a TA, teaching using the collections, but when the Curator retired, I took on that role. I ran the Museum for ten years before becoming Director, then Deputy Director of UCL Museums for five further years. I still use the museum today for teaching and research.

During my time at the Grant Museum, I began researching object-based learning and the value of museums to health and well-being. Ten years ago, I was awarded the first ever UK research grant to explore the role of touch and object handling in relation to well-being and health, and my work has expanded from there.

Tell me about the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance and your role in it.

Initially, I co-founded the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing with colleagues from National Museums Liverpool, but we had always planned to merge with the National Alliance for Arts, Health & Wellbeing due to the many synergies between arts, artists, arts organisations, and museums. We did so last year to form the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance; we provide the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, to which I am also an advisor. We are currently setting up a National Strategy Centre for culture and health.

What can museums offer in terms of health and wellness? Is this the same for human history and natural history museums and collections?

Our research shows that whilst natural history and archaeology collections are more popular, eliciting well-being is less about the actual objects used and more about the nature of the conversation and the quality of facilitation.

Our main research findings are that museums offer positive social experiences, leading to reduced social isolation; opportunities for learning and acquiring new skills; and calming experiences, leading to decreased anxiety. We have also found increased positive emotions (e.g. optimism, hope, and enjoyment), increased self-esteem and sense of identity, positive distraction from clinical environments, and increased communication between families, carers, and health professionals.

What barriers have you encountered with participation in cultural events?  What strategies can you suggest for museums to overcome these barriers?

Transport and psychological barriers are the biggest. I often hear, “Museums are not for me.” However, once participants are supported in their visit – with awareness of any physical or psychological challenges they may be dealing with – they have a different view of museums.

Who are museums’ partners in health and well-being?

Partnerships in health might include hospitals and primary care providers, and in social care, residential care homes. Partnerships may also be developed with not-for-profit charities, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, and other voluntary or support organisations.

How do we train museum staff, volunteers, and board members to become active participants in health and well-being?

Partnerships with health, social care, and support organisations are essential as they will often help to provide relevant training and support. There are also initiatives such as Dementia Friends or Mental Health First Aid and Safeguarding training. There is also a need for this kind of training to be included in museum studies programs.

The foreword of the APPG Creative Health report notes that “[c]ulture change cannot be imposed by government, and we are not asking for legislation or organisational upheaval or more public spending. Government can, however, support the process of change.” Does this mean that museums and cultural institutions need to reprioritize within existing resources?

Yes, I think well-being needs to be strategically embedded in organizational strategies, staffing, and structures to support well-being provision across the whole of the service.

Professor Helen Chatterjee is a Professor of Biology in UCL Biosciences. Her research includes biodiversity conservation and evidencing the impact of natural and cultural participation on health. She co-founded the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, is an advisor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Health, and sits on the Royal Society for Public Health’s SIG in Arts and Health, and the IUCN Section on Small Apes. Her interdisciplinary research has won a range of awards, including most recently the 2018 AHRC-Wellcome Health Humanities Medal and Leadership Award. She can be found on Twitter: @h_chatterjee

Prof. Chatterjee’s Keynote Presentation opens the second day of sessions at the AMA 2019 Conference, on Saturday, September 21. Prof. Chatterjee will also hold a Keynote Follow-up session Saturday afternoon. For more information about these sessions, please view the 2019 Conference Program.

Monday, 26 August 2019

A Preconference Conversation with Keynote Presenter Dr. Carol Ryff and Moderator Dick Averns

Dr. Carol D. Ryff will be delivering the opening keynote address, “Bridging the Museum Experience to Well-being and Health,” at the Alberta Museums Association 2019 Conference. In advance of the conference, Dr. Ryff sat down with Dick Averns, artist and engagement coordinator with CARFAC Alberta, for an interview. 

Averns: Thanks for sharing some insight into your work, Carol, on the Conference theme, As a Whole: Well-being, Health, and Museums. So, how does your work and research promote health and well-being, and how do you see museums as relevant?

Ryff: For the last thirty years, my research has addressed three main questions: What is human well-being? How can we measure it? And how does it matter for health? My past research has not explicitly linked museum experiences to health and well-being, although I am an advocate for work in that direction. I’m especially interested in how partaking of museums might impact people’s sense that their lives have meaning, purpose, and direction, as well as their sense that they are experiencing personal growth over time.

So in the future, do you see museums playing an increasing role in the fields of health and well-being?

There is growing scientific evidence to show that encounters with the arts – broadly defined to include visual arts, music, literature, poetry, film, and dance – do contribute to human well-being and facilitate recovery from illness. Great art, for example, can inspire deep reflections about beauty or pain or historical change. Indigenous art is also a form of broadening personal experiences with music, dance, and self-expression.

In general, I subscribe to the philosophy that life-long well-being (including self-knowledge, quality ties to others, purposeful engagement, realization of personal capacities) requires continual learningthe taking in of new sources of information. Museums are a great place for broadening our personal horizons.

How do you envision museums building partnerships or making connections in order to act for the benefit of individual and community well-being?

In Denmark, a country that contributes extensive public support for a wide array of museums, there is emphasis on “evidence-based curating.” Effectively, the government wants more assessment of how museums matter. As an example, some there advocate for “art on prescription,” which encourages older persons to visit local museums, become engaged with museum activities, and use these places as forums for continuing education.

That’s a great example. I wasn’t aware of this in Denmark, although I do know that the UK has been a pioneer in social prescribing. The Kings Fund has a great introduction.

There’s also an organization in the UK, People United, that seeks to promote kindness in community contexts via the arts. Museums can also play a part in such endeavours.

In Philadelphia, the Porch Light Program created community art projects, murals, in run-down neighborhoods. The work involved partnerships between local residents, health and policy officials, and researchers. Their evidence shows that creating these striking murals has enhanced the sense of safety and efficacy in these neighborhoods.

I like this example because it embraces public art and speaks to the possibility of museums taking a lead in initiatives that go beyond their own walls, and considering community art and social practice.

Turning to the AMA conference, Carol, what takeaways would you like attendees to garner from your presentation?

I hope to convey that those who are involved in curating museums are doing more than managing repositories of human culture. They are providing not just opportunities for learning about and engaging in history and the arts, but also possibly playing important roles in how to approach contemporary life challenges.

What is missing to date are more systematic assessments of these wider impacts of museums. This is a field where collaboration and partnerships with researchers studying human health and well-being has important future potential.

Thanks Carol, this is illuminating for sure. I look forward to your session and talking more in person and with our conference delegates.

Likewise. Thanks Dick.

Dr. Carol D. Ryff is the Director of the Institute on Aging and Hilldale Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has investigated how psychological well-being varies by age, educational status, and cultural context, as well as by the challenges and transitions of adult life. Her research considers whether well-being is protective of good health, how some are able to maintain or regain well-being in the face of adversity, and what neurobiology underlies this capacity. Recently, she has become engaged in linking the arts and humanities to well-being and health.

Dr. Ryff’s Keynote Presentation opens the AMA 2019 Conference on Friday, September 20. Dr. Ryff will also hold a Keynote Follow-up session Friday afternoon. For more information about these sessions, please view the 2019 Conference Program.