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History Repeating

Museums and archives may have more to say about the present and the future than they do about the past, but the past is still important

By Jehanne Burns and Leslie Anthony 



It was the chance for a weekend get-a-way spot that spurred Florence Petersen and four friends to purchase a small cabin at Alta Lake in the mid 1950s. At the time, the valley was a quaint summer fishing resort with only a handful of year-round residents.

In the years following, the town of Alta Lake would transform from these humble beginnings into the internationally renowned four-season resort of Whistler. With so much change taking place in the '70s, early pioneer Myrtle Philip and Cypress Lodge owner Dick Fairhurst confessed to Florence their worry that the early days would soon be forgotten. Florence eased their fears by promising them that she would somehow ensure that their stories would be remembered.

True to her word, after retiring from school-teaching in 1986, Florence kept her promise by starting the Whistler Museum and Archives as a charitable non-profit society, and continues to be the museum’s most popular ambassador. 

Over twenty years later, with Whistler having grown beyond the early trailblazers' wildest dreams, the Museum is proud to continue to collect, preserve, and tell the stories of mountain life and the people who live it. Thanks to the seed planted by Florence, the Whistler Museum has grown to be keeper of over 5,000 artifacts (three dimensional objects) and over 116,000 archival (one dimensional) documents and photographs. The relics comprising the collection range from bizarre to compelling: an old fashioned enema kit; Eldon Beck's original sketches of the village; Rainbow Lodge's guest register; remnants of the infamous Boot Pub such as old ski boots and photos from the “Boot Wall of Fame”; Gord (Roxy) Harder's sticker-covered fridge; GODA correspondence from the 1968 Winter Olympic bid; and photos of Pierre Trudeau with Franz Wilhelmsen and Jim McConkey, to name a few.



Whistler's Museum is funded through a variety of sources: 47 per cent municipal; 12 per cent provincial/federal; 18 per cent special project grants; 16 per cent education programs, events and admission revenues; seven per cent sales and services—e.g. photo reproduction and use fees, research requests, and the museum shop. Despite the multiplicity of funding sources, it adds up to a fairly thin budget. In February 2008 the Museum closed its exhibits in light of recent funding cutbacks to focus its energy on specific initiatives.

Behind the closed exhibits the Museum is working on a plan to re-invent and revitalize itself. This process involves a move to the Museum’s new home in the former library building. The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has committed to upgrading the new museum building to look more appealing and the location will provide the Museum with increased space and street presence. One key initiative will be relocating the front door to the corner of the building, making it visible from the street. Martin Pardoe, manager of parks and planning for the RMOW believes that the move “… is a stepping stone towards a greater Museum presence that augments the Resort's offerings to the growing cultural tourism market.”

In conjunction with the move, the Museum will also be launching a new exhibit as an initiative set out by the 2010 Strategic Framework. The new extensive exhibit will cover Whistler’s journey to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. This remarkable story is currently told nowhere else.

By producing this exhibit the hope is to use residents and the community’s own unique voice to tell Whistler’s story to the world, and share their knowledge and passion with visitors who are always curious about the critical moments that shaped the design and rapid development of the resort.

Highlights of the over half-century journey include: Whistler’s rise as popular summer resort in the pioneer times; Garibaldi Olympic Development Association's initial bid for the 1968 Winter Olympic Games; other unsuccessful bids for 1976, 1980 and 1988; formation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler; the building of a resort; and the successful bid to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. The resulting exhibit will be a permanent legacy that can be incorporated into any future facility that the Museum may inhabit after 2010. This legacy is what the Museum is putting first and foremost.

“Soon we’ll have the distinction of co-hosting the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, only 30 short years after the construction began to create this world class destination resort,” says Mayor Melamed. “How did we get here? Who were the visionaries and what were their stories? So much has happened in such a short span of time that we have a very rich and colourful history. This history that has been documented by the Whistler Museum and Archives Society. They play a critical role for local residents and visitors alike as caretakers of the stories, the people, and the natural history of the valley. Through multiple mediums they share the richness of our past to help us understand the special character that has made Whistler this place of wonder and inspiration.”

Strong support of this initiative has been forthcoming from two key local foundations. The Community Foundation of Whistler has committed $30,000 to the project, saying that this “… project provides a unique opportunity to showcase Whistler’s natural history to both local community members and visitors from around the world... We have confidence in the Museum’s ability and wanted to demonstrate our support for their continued good work.”

In addition, the American Friends of Whistler (AFOW) have also committed $20,000 stating that they believe “… this new exhibit will be an excellent chance to celebrate Whistler's unique history and a place for people to gather and be inspired.”


Museum Services:

As well as focusing on moving and developing the Museum’s new comprehensive exhibit the Museum is also focused on providing other museum-related services including archival photo reproductions and historical research requests. With 2010 quickly approaching the spotlight on Whistler is getting brighter and the Museum is seeing an increase in information requests. The Museum fields photo and research requests from media organizations such as the BBC and CBC, law firms, authors, filmmakers, travel writers and general researchers.

With the new exhibit under construction the Museum also strives fulfill its mandate of celebrating Whistler’s stories by maintaining the Museum’s key programming initiatives mostly funded by the B.C. Direct Access Gaming Grant and Cultural Capitals of Canada. Some initiatives include the Museum’s popular Community Now film project that in the past four years has documented different local demographics in four short films. Currently, a full-length feature film is being put together to be premiered in February 2009 as part of Celebration 2010. The goal of the film is to share the stories of the community of Whistler in 2010 and to preserve them in perpetuity.  

Another programming initiative is the Museum’s “Valley of Dreams” walking tour. 0The tour looks at Whistler’s history through the lens of “dreamseekers” as a theme that is woven through the time. From Myrtle Philip to local Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, it is the individual dreams of the people of Whistler that have and will always push Whistler forward. Still in its infancy the Museum is looking to grow the tour for the summer of 2009 with additional seed money from the Cultural Capital of Canada in efforts to make it a feature Museum program. The tour will run daily June, July, and August and is available for private bookings anytime of the year.  

In keeping with the Museum’s programming mandate, as this issue hits the stands the Whistler Museum’s “Feeding the Spirit” event will be kicking off. The event is born directly of the notion that Museums in modern times can’t rest on their former Descartes-esque attitude of “we exist therefore we are,” but can also serve to help meet the needs of the community with the resources they possess.

Seasonal workers always have a pressing need for food, and the community needs these people to gain a sense of place. Thus, the Museum will open its exhibits for the night so that newcomers, locals, visitors and the likes have a chance to explore the Museum, eat some good food, hang with friends, and possibly win free groceries just for coming. This will aid seasonal workers in nourishing both their bellies and minds, let them know the Museum exists, and foster the understanding that there’s a community in Whistler they can be part of. Come join us from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 27. Where to find the Museum? We are located behind the library on Main Street. Just go up the ramp, around the corner and you’re there.


Museums in a Broader Context

“What do museums do anyway?” is a commonly asked question. Museums range in purpose from “education needs and spiritual ones, social and physical needs, psychological and economic ones—museums are among the most remarkably flexible organizational types that a modern society has available for its use,” says Stephen Weil, museum studies professor at the Smithsonian Institute.

According to Mike Wallace, Professor of History at John Jay Collage, perhaps the greatest contribution of a museum is helping people “...develop their historical sensibilities, strengthening the ability to locate themselves in time and enhancing their capacity as citizens to be historically informed makers of history.”

But British Museum director Neil MacGregor believes that it can perhaps be put more simply, that Museums accomplish three things: explore history; document the present; and engage the public through a variety of programming initiatives. Thus, the Whistler Museum aims to be a cornerstone of the community by embracing Whistler’s heritage. It’s main purpose is to strengthen community ties, inspire stewardship of the natural and built environment and achieve financial stability.

Not every museum can be a Louvre or a Smithsonian, but these centres of excellence accrue untold cachet and intellectual riches upon a country, and any such institution is inevitably the apex of a pyramid of smaller, more specialized, often seasonal museums that are important for historical reasons.

Local author Stephen Vogler suggests that “Museums are important because they allow us to maintain a connection to the past... In a valley that changes so rapidly, it’s vitally important to see what has gone before, to find patterns of life that repeat and create a sense of continuity. And of course the museum's also great for discovering cool retro ski fashions.”

There’s an expression among collectors: One man's garbage is another man’s treasure. Amusingly, museums exist and need to operate on the notion that the same goes for generations, countries, and cultures. Museums are the spokes of the global wagon wheel of knowledge and understanding, for which virtual or half-baked versions likely wouldn’t suffice; without real spokes, there is no real wheel.


In Conclusion:

Whistler is indeed a magical place which has come to embody many of our own dreams. People from around the world arrive here intending only to visit and end up captivated enough to stay and make a life here. What makes people come here to search for their dreams and why they stay to achieve them is what needs to be remembered — for all those stories have paved the way for what each of us now does on a daily basis. Collectively, it’s all these stories — remarkable tales told nowhere else — that we want to share with the world.

And if we don't preserve and tell our own stories, who will?

You can support the Whistler Museum and Archives Society by becoming a member, making a donation, attending events, supporting fundraising efforts, pointing visitors in the Museum’s direction and visiting us yourself (once the Museum launches its new exhibit in   2009). For more information please contact the Museum at 604-932-2019 or visit .