Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Reflections on the AMA Mentorship Program

Mentorship in Alberta Museums: Part 1

In July 2019, the Alberta Museums Association (AMA) launched the Mentorship Program, a flexible, self-directed program for Mentors and Mentees to share experiences, develop skills, and gain insights on the challenges, opportunities, and innovative practices in the museum community. Running from October 2019 to August 2020, the inaugural year of the Program was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post, participants from the first cohort reflect on their experiences adapting the Program to meet their goals.  

Being a Mentor in the Second Half of Life

Gail Niinimaa, Niinimaa Enterprises Inc.

2020 is a year for me where I have definitely moved into the second half of my life. This is a time when I can give back and decide what impact I may want to leave on this world! In 1979, when I started at Glenbow and was given my pension documents to sign, the date of April 14, 2020, seemed very far into the future. I remember remarking to my colleague who was about 20 years older than me that there was no way that I would still be at the Glenbow in 2020! My prediction was fairly accurate – I did formally leave the Glenbow in 2008 after a combination of full-time and contract work over the years – but I have continued to be an occasional consultant for them in the last 12 years, the most recently being in March 2020 right before COVID-19 shut down the world. 


During 2019, I began to wonder how I could share some of the years of knowledge, tips, and tricks of collections management and conservation that I have in my brain. When the AMA offered the Mentorship Program, I felt compelled to participate. I was paired with two young emerging professionals: Caitlind Porter and Jessica Smallman. They were both working at museums in Calgary, so we were able to start a mentorship plan that would work both for me to share my knowledge and for them to question and offer their perspectives.  

Sometimes we worked together and sometimes individually. We were lucky that we planned our joint sharing day at Heritage Park to evaluate their storage and at The Hangar Flight Museum to help with small collections management problems at the end of February, before we were forced to resume our relationships on Zoom! We were able to continue, and our last formal session was an interesting Zoom meeting that I organized with two former Glenbow colleagues, Barbara Greendale, who has recently retired as the Collections Manager of the Calgary Civic Art Collection, and Camille Owens, the Collections Manager at the City of Richmond Museum. During the 45-minute session, Caitlind and Jessica were able ask each of them two questions of their choice, and we had a very enriching discussion. This activity replaced the May activity, which was for me to introduce them to two people in my network, but because of Zoom we were all able to connect for this short period in an online platform and have a meaningful discussion.  

This has been a great opportunity for me to share many of the projects that I’ve worked on over the years and for them to pose questions that they may have and for us collectively to evaluate the field, where it’s going, and what the path forward is for new emerging professionals in this challenging time. We have been able to get to know each other, to listen to problems, offer solutions, and share what may be relevant. For me, the Mentorship Program has allowed me to start to pass on knowledge and to be a role model in the field.  

When I was a young student studying at the National Museum of Denmark, I had a great opportunity to learn in the Textile Conservation lab, which was an extremely enriching experience. I was struck by a comment my mentor, Elsa Ostergard, said to me in the first week of my three-month stay in her lab: “Ask any questions you want, there are no secrets here.” That is how I have tried to work in the field as I feel that the more knowledge we have, the better we can do our job to preserve our culture. 

I have enjoyed both this opportunity and the opportunity to mentor a junior staff member at Fort Calgary (see Part 2). I feel that the AMA Mentorship Program is worthwhile and hope that it will continue to inspire both the Mentors and the Mentees as the knowledge is passed along and the field becomes stronger. 

Perspective from the AMA Mentees 


Jessica Smallman

As an emerging professional in the heritage field, I started my career in 2017 after I decided to return to school for Heritage Resource Management. I was very fortunate to have my first opportunity for hands-on experience with collection artifacts and archives at the Museum of the Highwood. This was just some time after experiencing a devastating flood, and when I started, they were still in the process of developing a new storage facility and planning the eventual large-scale move of the entirety of the collection into this facility. This is where I was first lucky enough to work alongside Gail, albeit only for a short period, as the flood project was wrapping up. It was a very rewarding experience. 

Last year when the AMA provided the possibility for members to join a newly formed Mentorship Program, I was delighted but still somewhat anxious in joining. Even now with more years of experience under my belt, I find it hard not to still feel like a novice, so of course there were the general worries of feeling inadequate in comparison, coupled with the fact that this was a trial run for the program. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had been paired with Gail, someone I’ve known to always be very open about nurturing the growth of other professionals, and to also be co-Mentee with Caitlind, another burgeoning professional. 

I have found being enrolled in this program to be a benefit. Whether this is because of the open dialogue that we created or the fact that it has made me face personal and professional concerns regarding the heritage field, I am unsure. It is more than likely a mixture of both. From the start, we developed a very structured plan, one that went month by month with an overarching topic to discuss and which would have us Mentees working both independently and collaboratively to focus on areas we wished to develop. From October to February, we covered issues that many emerging professionals will likely face, such as grant writing, storage planning, mount-making, community engagement strategies, and conservation techniques.  

Then of course, COVID-19 happened. Working through a mentorship program during a pandemic is a unique experience because in many ways the lack of physical interaction made it difficult and we had to adapt. However, it did bring to light new concerns about what the future of the heritage field will be like. Bless Gail, she didn’t hesitate to turn this pandemic into a learning opportunity, encouraging us to seek out what other institutions were doing to keep reaching their audiences, and encouraging us to develop our own packets of programming and exhibit ideas for future use.  

Ultimately, I gained so many insights about how to grow in this field, a key one being that in the end I’m not alone. Many other professionals, especially emerging professionals, have the same concerns or face similar challenges. By working together and talking about such issues, we are dealing with them and maybe helping each other out. At the same time, this mentorship created a safe space to talk to someone who has seen so much change throughout their career and who at some point faced similar issues and overcame them, and that has helped to quell my unease and uncertainty in what will hopefully be my lifelong career.

Caitlind Porter

While at the University of Calgary during my undergraduate degree, I decided against academia as a career and focussed instead on opportunities in the museum and heritage world. Perhaps there was some naïveté about the path a career in the museum world would lead me down, one that has been worthwhile but winding thus far.  

When I decided to apply for the AMA Mentorship Program, my goal was to figure out how to take the next steps in my career and find full-time employment after completing school. I completed a Graduate Diploma in Cultural Resource Management from the University of Victoria and a Professional Specialization Certificate in Collections Management in August 2020. Admittedly, I had a bit of anxiety before officially meeting Gail as she is well-renowned in the Alberta museum community. Once there, her welcoming nature and desire to share the knowledge and skills she has accumulated through her career assuaged this anxiety. Aside from sharing resources and expertise, she has a strong motivation to ensure that the upcoming generation of museum staff is prepared to accept the opportunities and challenges that will open up as established individuals in the field retire in the future. 

In November 2019, we discussed how the museum world has changed, the importance of collaboration and community engagement, and the most important skills museum employees should have to succeed in their jobs. Little did we know the relevance of those topics and how much impact COVID-19 would have on individuals and various institutions of all sizes globally. 

For our mentorship, we switched to monthly Zoom meetings. As we examined how museums remained relevant in a world that physically shut down and gradually re-opened, we also discussed the increased importance of access to technology. In a changing world, words such as perseverance, flexibility, and innovation emerged as traits that, in addition to other factors, could make or break the continued survival of museums, archives, and other arts institutions and the individuals who work there. 

COVID-19 has illuminated and exacerbated existing societal inequalities, which may indicate that some things post-COVID-19 can change for the better. As museums seek to remain relevant, museum staff must be ready for the accompanying challenges to meet evolving societal needs. 

Through the AMA Mentorship Program, we did accomplish our mentorship goals, perhaps in different ways than expected. We are optimistic that people have realized how vital arts, culture, and museums are to our overall health and mental well-being. Under Gail's tutelage, through her willingness to share her knowledge and insights, I am open to the opportunities and challenges that the future holds and feel a bit more prepared to do so. 

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