By: Caroline Posynick
Just like most communities these days, the museum sector in British Columbia has been going through some challenging economic times. The funding model still has its foundation in federal and provincial support and, as we all know, there’s not a lot of money for culture and heritage in the pot right now. Truthfully, it looks like there may never been enough to go back to previous funding levels. Ever. Pretty scary stuff and it is threatening the very survival of museums in BC. To keep the doors open, there have had to be some concessions, and some adaptations.
Adaptability. Sounds a little like ‘difficulty’. And it can be a reach for many, but we are trying.
The British Columbia Museums Association has been actively developing a working relationship with the tourism sector. Tourism is seen by the provincial government as an important business group to support to create healthy and prosperous communities. Although aligned, tourism has some issues that are separate from museums (of course), and so we must ask ourselves - is this a healthy relationship for museums to nourish? I believe so, for it both helps museums look at visitor needs, whether they local or out-of-town, and it helps us see how the work we do fits into a larger economic picture of our communities. And so building this partnership, as long as we don’t get lost in their goals alone, currently helps BC museums grow by getting us ‘to the table’ in funding situations to see where museums can adapt to serve government initiatives.
These challenging times have also hit me on a personal level. I have promoted that I have a Master of Arts in Museum Studies, with a specialization in collections management, as a way to work in the cultural sector. The very difficult truth of the matter is that this has been a hard sell, at least here in Canada. To the outside world, there is no apparent place where I might fit besides museums; to the museum world, I am too general for a large museum placement and, on paper, too specialized to be considered for a position in a small museum where collections management is only part of the job. Not easy.
I have worked my way around this lack of easy marketability by literally knocking on non-museum institutions and saying ‘you need someone like me to care for your collections’ (and one temporary contract turned into a four year placement!), to being aware and available for projects that had short-term needs for intense collections management specialization. I have also explained that my degree is more than just caring for museum collections alone – that I have also had programming, exhibition, conservation and finance training. I have taken courses to further cross-train in exhibition development, archives records management, and leadership and the like. I have accepted opportunities to work in museum support organizations. Bottom-line, though, is that my skill set has had to evolve in order to be employable in the heritage and cultural sector in BC.
But yikes. Evolution. Does this mean I can’t change back to being just about museums and their collections?
The economic reality is that I am not able to justify that I can only work in a museum in order to participate as a cultural preservationist and promoter, through collections or otherwise. I believe have been stuck with the thought that museums, along with my training and experience, exist in isolation to the rest of the heritage sector. Does this mean I have ‘lost the battle’ and my love for museums is over? A couple of years ago, I came dangerously close to saying yes, this situation is hopeless and museums and the work they / I do is doomed. But now I firmly believe that the truth of the matter is that museums are a greater part of a whole of the memory institutions that include libraries, archives, national historic sites and, yes, the tourism industry. We are all trying our darndest to preserve and present humanity and the natural world in our communities, and to promote what makes us special. Pooling our efforts and working together makes us stronger; it does not dilute one cultural focus over another unless we choose to remain in our silos and become defensive over definitions.
My current position has me working in an archives located in a library at a university that also happens to be a National Historic site. Every day I find that the integration of disciplines in the very fabric of my job encourages me to build and leverage working with other cultural-oriented institutions. And, no, I haven’t lost my love of museums, nor do I believe that my museum-centric training has been for naught. Through necessity, I have widened my circle and view. This has enabled me to see that the work in museums, archives, libraries and heritage sites can to be clustered together to provide a strong united whole for community service and cultural preservation. Pretty exciting stuff. And so, simply put, I believe that the very survival of museums and their professionally trained staff in BC depends on us being willing to adapt and evolve.
Caroline Posynick graduated from John F. Kennedy University in 1997. She now lives in Victoria, BC, Canada, where she recently landed her first permanent, full-time job as Archivist for Royal Roads University. There she arranges and describes material about the on-site castle and formal gardens, documents the legacy of the military college that was there for 55 years, plus archives the important happenings of RRU. She also dodges the resident peacocks that, word has it, tend to throw themselves at her office window during mating season, which is almost upon us!