This is a letter from Tracey Turner, former Fort la Reine Museum executive director/curator read at the Friends of the Fort la Reine Museum meeting May 17
Friends of Fort la Reine
Looking back to 2011 when I started working at the museum as its manager, I can assure you that the care and concern for the museum that is in this room today, on peoples’ minds, didn’t exist then.
There was a community memory of what the museum had been “back in the day,” and a few community elders still remembered and cared, you know who you are. Back in 2011, the museum felt very much like a cottage after its owner had passed away, with waning community interest, like tarnished silver it needed to be gently buffed and carefully polished to reveal its lustre from past management decisions, and neglect. In the museum’s irreplaceable built heritage, the houses and buildings reflected the generations of settlers that built the foundations of community here, were filled to the brim with generational possessions, yet they were devoid of any real mandate, direction, interconnections within the museum collection, and more than anything it was missing life!
Immediately I realized how fortunate I was to have a champion advocate of the museum in our midst, a founding member, a board member, and later trusted friend, in Gilbert Vust. Gilbert was a retired farmer, a collector, a restorationist (sic), a connoisseur of Allis Chalmers agricultural equipment, and he was responsible for establishing the world’s largest collection of orange equipment at the Fort la Reine Museum.
I’m not a farmer, but as a museum professional and curator, I respected his dedication and learnt about the significance of his unique and extensive collection. Gilbert was always very respectful to my museum staff team, but more specifically he was very respectful to my accreditation, my reputation, my professional role, and my capacity to bring new life and relevance to a pioneer museum.
It’s important to share that just three days before Gilbert had a tragic accident on his farm down the road from the museum, I had invited him to deliver a presentation at one of our unique new events that I created at the museum inspired by Ted Talks, where people could connect and share their expertise, known as “Meet-U’s. I am so happy that I had been able to hear his talk.
Later I asked his sister for a copy of that presentation after Gilbert sadly passed away on September 3, 2016. At the museum, he is sadly missed. I want to share with you something he wrote as it connects with me on a very personal level. When speaking about the Fort la Reine Museum at our Meet U on August 17, 2016, Gilbert said: “I want this one to last forever,” that the museum had “grown to this, was far beyond my dreams!”
While repairs and immediate remediation of the heritage buildings were necessary I knew that what the museum needed first was a breath of life brought to it. Through the designing of innovative programming, our team brought the museum into modernity, making it a place that people wanted to come to. In just seven years, we delivered innovative programming that delivered tangible results.
In my seven years at the Fort la Reine Museum our team transformed a neglected, charming heritage village into an amazing, and unique cultural heritage experience that showcased our community history. I am incredibly proud of the cultural work that I and my museum team accomplished creating and delivering a unique heritage experience to over 15,000 visitors in 2017 alone in a six-month limited season, representing a 42% increase from 2016, and a significant increase from 2,500 visitors in 2011, the year I began at the museum. Our earning of the coveted status on Trip Advisor as the number one thing to do in Portage la Prairie speaks volumes. Under my direction, the museum had begun to reassert its relevance, transforming from being a static place that never changed to one that was dynamic and that people wanted to visit.
The museum increased its social capital, and profile, attracting not only members, but also a dedicated team of volunteers that were investing their life energy to the tune of $40,000 donated person hours in the museum. The museum was also attracting new partnerships that shared the vision for a history museum that had new found community relevance and attracted funding partners to build our capacity for original programs and infrastructure restoration. Under my strategic direction, we invigorated the museum with new changing world-class exhibits, created and developed content for informative and engaging interactive tours and educational programming, and we created and hosted signature theatrical museum events that are now inspiring imitation nation-wide.
My museum team and I, not only worked to restore the irreplaceable built heritage of the museum site, but also to restore its reputation by rekindling and restoring past relationships and to build new community bridges between and on behalf of cultural groups.
When I say, “museum team” I need to really tell you what this means to me as a director. Being the sole full-time employee of the museum, I only had summer student work placements for museum positions. Over the past few years, I was able to retain and deepen the work experience for returning students and loyal volunteers at the museum and while some are here to share their experiences with me and the museum here tonight, I have to say one thing about this incredibly, clever, talented, loyal, artistic, and capable crew that has come to be known lovingly at the museum as the “flarm dream team”. They made the museum come alive, they always showed up, never left early, would volunteer when not working or volunteered many years before, shared their passions with each and every person that visited, always said, “yes,” and were true stewards and advocates of the museum. We are a museum family. It is important to know that these five student individuals of my dream team resigned as a result of the museum board’s decision to not renew my contract.
Abrupt reactionary decisions affect the lives of people in many ways and it’s important that proper consideration of personal rights must always be held as the standard by which we govern our actions. Many of our resigned student staff depended on their position to finance their fall and winter university studies and turned down other opportunities as they prioritized their role at the museum. I want to say that I am simply touched by the dedication and high ethical standard by which my five dream team staff have held themselves to. I know that you will go on to do great things, and I care deeply about you all.
I also care deeply about the museum. Our season for 2018 was positioned to be our best ever building upon our successes in signature programming, with new educational program benchmarks set, new green projects to be realized. I am grateful for the opportunity to have accomplished so many great things with my team at the Fort la Reine Museum.
As a museum professional and scholar, I have inherent rights and responsibilities that must be recognized and respected in order to accomplish my role as an institutions director. In my time at the Fort la Reine Museum my legacy will speak to a dedicated individual and team that exhaustingly worked towards a museum that came “alive”, a thriving sustainable museum, helping to foster a greater understanding of one another by providing broader perspectives and enhance one’s sense of place, identity, and community. Artifacts are powerful; they transcend boundaries of culture, politics, time and space. Communities can be powerful too.
Constitutional change and review needs to be a sensitive and inclusive process on behalf of all stakeholders and should involve community consultation and executive director involvement. I am deeply concerned as to the welfare and the direction that the Museum is taking, and as a museum professional, bound by the ethics and values of my discipline, and I do have concerns as to the process undertaken. What’s at stake? Our cultural heritage and its intrinsic value is irreplaceable, and once lost, it can never be replaced. There are sustainable independent museum models being demonstrated in the Manitoba museum community. Community consultation and involvement should and must be a part of the museum’s future. So, this meeting and beginning point of the Friend of the Fort la Reine Museum group is the beginning of something very special at the grassroots level, which is where all constructive innovation begins… I would know.