Whistler Museum celebrates 25 years 

The Whistler Museum and Archives Society looks to the future

click to enlarge Humble Beginnings
  • Humble Beginnings

Most museums have a mere five per cent of their collection on display. Sarah Drewery, collections manager for the Whistler Museum, can't say if that's true for her place of work, but it's safe to say the archives are flooding several storage rooms in locations all around Whistler.

The Museum turns 25 this month and has collected a wealth of items that tell the story of Whistler's expeditious growth over the past century, from its beginnings as a trapper haven at the turn of the century, to the birth of the ski resort, right through to the 2010 Winter Games.

Needless to say, there's a score of artifacts to store and, in the wooden bungalow sandwiched between the Whistler Library and the Pinnacle Lodge, not enough space to store it all.

"We could do with some more storage," she says with a laugh.

Drewery is sitting in a room in the back of the museum with her colleagues Leah Batisse, the museum's executive director, and Alix MacKay, manager of education and marketing. Together, they deal with the day-to-day operations of the museum — which means, basically, they do everything. An archivist is also an IT expert, a graphic designer, a customer-relations expert. Likewise, the room they now sit in serves as boardroom, lecture space, lunchroom and more.

And such is the story for the small museum in the heart of Whistler. But lack of manpower as there is, the museum has come a long way from its first 11-by-17-foot space in the basement of municipal hall in 1987.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing — funding has always been an issue and the museum closed down for a few years reopening in 2009 —but on its 25th anniversary, museum staff are all about looking forward.

"Our job right now, as I see it, is continuing to build on our momentum and growing our numbers, and that's what we're focused on," Batisse says.

The museum was a pet project of Florence Petersen, who started it as a promise to Whistler pioneer Myrtle Philip to document the community, as it existed before the ski industry transformed the town.

"I knew some of the old timers who felt that when skiing came, they'd be forgotten," Petersen says. "I said when I retired that I would collect photographs and stories to show and leave proof that they had been here."

She founded the Whistler Museum & Archives non-profit organization in 1986. The community was much smaller then and the response and support for the project was "above and beyond" what she had expected. Old timers began dropping boxes of memorabilia on her doorstep — books, clothes, pictures and so on — that soon started to fill up her limited storage space.

And indeed, if it weren't for the museum, few if any people would know about the Valley's pioneers. Today there is little left in the town's infrastructure that indicates a lifestyle that pre-dated the ski industry.

The Whistler Museum has an entire archive dedicated to preserving that memory — days before indoor plumbing, before central heating, before snowplows.

"It was the pioneers that we focused on because a number of them were still living elsewhere that we tried to contact to get descriptions of life as it was and what it became while we were here," Petersen says.

The library opened in July 1986 There was a big to-do, with government officials and the like. A wheelchair-bound Myrtle Philip was there. The museum then was relegated to a corner of the first Whistler Library, located in the basement of municipal hall.

The need for proper museum space has been a constant theme for its 25 years as an institution. Even Petersen says she hopes for a "proper museum" soon.

Batisse says, "We can't stay in this location forever, but I don't have any specific plans for that. Our biggest challenge is our location, so I think for us to really grow we'll have to be in a more central location."

There are now talks of the Canadian Ski Museum relocating from Ottawa to Whistler to open a new facility, in cooperation with the Whistler Museum. The talks are at their most preliminary stages, with Peter Alder spearheading the initiative. But Whistler Museum president John Hetherington says it's little more than a dream at this stage.

"It would be great if it were to come about but we're certainly not putting all our energies in that direction," he says. "It would be foolish of us to put all our energies in that direction because it may or may not come about. In the meantime we have a museum to run."

And as nice as it is, the focus for staff and board members on its 25 birthday, is about working with what they already have — developing strategies moving forward.

"I would like to see it continue to be a strong part of the community, to start to reach outside of the boundaries of Whistler and bring up some of those regional visitors, and keep moving forward all the time," Batisse says.


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