Museum has always been a leader

I am writing in response to the observation “The 80 stone-cut prints from Cape Dorset are the local museum’s first exhibit from the National Gallery of Canada.

Re: Article A Good Day for Arctic Art by Lana Michelin, Jan. 18.

I am writing in response to the observation “The 80 stone-cut prints from Cape Dorset are the local museum’s first exhibit from the National Gallery of Canada. This was made possible by recent museum renovations that raised the structure’s temperature and humidity controls to national museum standards, said Johnson (Lorna Johnson, the MAG’s Executive Director), who believes this is a coup for Central Albertans, who can now see high-calibre exhibits that would have previously bypassed Red Deer.”

While I congratulate MAG on its redevelopment and bringing the museum and gallery up to 21st century standards, I want to remind everyone that the Red Deer and District Museum was always ahead of the game.

Under the leadership of Morris Flewwelling (now Mayor Flewwelling), the museum was considered for National Exhibition Centre status shortly after opening in its new building in 1978. Because of a moratorium on federal funding for operating grants, this did not get confirmed but the museum was treated as a National Exhibition Centre and hosted both national and international travelling exhibits.

I first became aware of the museum in December, 1980, after returning to Canada from the United Kingdom where I worked at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The head of travelling exhibitions wrote in her Christmas card to me that the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday portraiture exhibit was coming to Red Deer and she suggested that I call the director and ask whether he would like me to give a talk. I did just that in January 1981, and Morris immediately invited me down for the opening on Nov. 11.

On Nov. 11, the gallery was packed and the military was out on the front lawn and gave a multiple gun salute (I can’t remember whether it was 80 but it was a lot!). I did not expect a hotbed of Royalists but that is what I got, and they listened avidly as I told them stories about the portraits and also my visit to St. James’ Palace to meet with the Keeper of the Queen’s pictures Sir Oliver Millar to discuss my research on her portraiture.

I was also able to describe the exhibit’s opening at the National Portrait Gallery in London attended by the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and other members of the Royal Family.

It was the excellence in care of collections that inspired Dr. Kathleen Swallow, a local collector of Inuit and Native Art, to donate her collection to the museum in 1983. I am delighted to see that an exhibit drawn from this collection is being featured alongside the national exhibit.

Swallow was an inspired collector and her gift set the Red Deer Museum apart from all museums of its size in the country.

In 1987, when I became executive director of the Alberta Museums Association, I had the opportunity to visit the museum frequently for provincial meetings, and got to know the staff and collections. I frequently used it as an example of excellent museum practice.

In fact, it was the model for the mid-sized museum in the Standard Practices Handbook for Museums that I developed as the preliminary to the implementation of museum standards.

This was a national first.

The Red Deer and District Museum was truly a “jewel in the crown” of not only Red Deer but also the province of Alberta. It served its own community as well as providing leadership to the Central Alberta Regional Museums Network. Together with the Provincial Museum of Alberta, it initiated the Women of Aspenland research, publishing and exhibit program.

While it is important to think ahead and keep abreast of current best-practices, we must not forget the achievements of the past. The roots of the present are found in the past.

Adriana A. Davies, CM, PhD

Former executive director, Alberta Museums

Association,

and the Heritage Community Foundation

Edmonton

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