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‘The possibilities for this small-town time machine are truly endless’

A Q&A with Pemberton and District Museum and Archives Society outgoing curator and executive director Niki Madigan
Niki gets the grant for the Schoolhouse and John Arn Cabin
After 14 years as the executive director of the Pemberton and District Museum and Archives Society, Niki Madigan is stepping away.

The Pemberton and District Museum and Archives Society is on the hunt for a new curator and executive director, as Niki Madigan prepares to step down after 14 years in the role.

Madigan “has brought a unique skill set to the museum. Her strengths include leadership, organizational skills, integrity, and youth mentoring; as well as her dedication to her work, chronicling the history of Pemberton and area,” said museum president and chair Brenda McLeod in a release, adding that “it has been a tremendous privilege and honour to work alongside Niki, and to learn the workings of our museum from her. The impact of the incredible work she has done will be felt at the museum for generations to come.”

Madigan’s responsibilities at the site—which today counts five historic buildings and three modern builds among its structures—included handling the museum’s policies and procedures, archiving, developing programming and events, and writing grants, to name just a few.

Prior to officially hopping on board as curator and director, Madigan spent six years volunteering for the organization as a director on the museum’s board (she remembers one board meeting in particular where a debate about whether to buy a computer was raging).

“I just thought the museum was a treasure that not a lot of people seem to know about, which I thought was amazing,” she recalled.

Madigan will officially leave the position later this spring, before the 2022 museum operational year begins in May. While she admits “there’s no right time to move on,” from the community she’s called home since 1995, Madigan and her partner have decided to relocate back to their hometown in the Ottawa Valley to be closer to family.

Pique caught up with the longtime Pemberton resident to talk about her years with the museum and what’s next for the non-profit.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Pique: What have been some of the biggest projects that have gone on at the Museum during your time there?

Niki Madigan (NM): There’s been a lot of exhibit development, because [when I started], the museum was only open two months of the year—maybe three. Since 2001, there were new buildings added to the site. So the footprint has continued to grow, so therefore the exhibits as well.


What are some of the initiatives that the Museum has put out that have resonated the most with the public, in your view?


NM: I think this most recent project, with the restoration and replication of the Pemberton Station School and the Arn Cabin.

The museum was gifted the buildings by the school board in 2013, and it took us until now to get the funding in place and the logistics to save those buildings. There was always a lot of community interest, generally, in that outdoor school facility because so many kids, including in Whistler, went to that outdoor school and did pioneer activities. The whole facility almost burned down during the 2009 wildfires, too. We’ve received a ton of community support and donations towards this project, and a ton of support from Heritage Canada, the province, and local foundations. We were kind of stalled out through the pandemic—I was concerned that interest would wane, but we saw even more interest and more support that got us over the hurdle of the pandemic and got the buildings in place.

They’re empty spaces that are ready for exhibit development, and I think it’ll be a cool community engagement project. It’ll provide space for school groups in the spring and fall because at the site [currently], most of the Heritage houses aren’t heated—it’s challenging on a cold, rainy day with a group of 30 kids, when all of a sudden space is really limited. The schoolhouse will really help with that.


What’s something interesting that you’ve learned about Pemberton during your time with the museum that you might not have had the opportunity to find out without this job?


NM: I guess the depth of knowledge here about the region—the Lil’wat [Nation] and the deep knowledge there, about the land and the people. I don’t know that I would have gotten that kind of experience in another job, just because I’ve had to work closely with Lil’wat Nation, especially the lands and resources department, because of repatriation requests, and even just trying to understand what items we had in collection. I just found people so supportive and helpful. The Charlie Mack book blew my mind—The Lil’wat World of Charlie Mack.

Continually, year by year, [I’d] think that I understood it all and then find more information, or more knowledge would be shared and the story would just get deeper—I’m thinking of [Mount] Meager.

Recently, there were some archaeological studies and the archaeologist was sharing with me the fact that Mount Meager likely was higher than it is today, because there was a volcanic explosion 2,500 years ago. Some of the traditional stories had said that you could see the ocean from the top of Mount Meager, which you can’t today, but before the top of the mountain blew off, you could.

And how small Pemberton was for so long, until recent times—like, we’re talking under 500 people. I mean, everybody knew everybody; they knew your business before you did … and you can really see it in the community collection, like the archives and the newspaper clippings. Somebody had a baby and it was announced; somebody went for a trip to [Vancouver] Island to visit relatives and came back, and that’s a news item in the paper.

[Working at the museum] was just like working in a time machine, really. You would just be able to go to a different time through the records or the objects or the stories that people would tell you.


What role do you see the museum playing in the future now, as Pemberton continues to grow?


NM: I would think still building those community connections. For me, the community events at the museum have been a highlight: the homemade food, the music, the long-arm draws, the 50/50s, the baking—did I mention the food? You see community connections formed at these kinds of gatherings. You see people talking and they hadn’t caught up in 10 years, or the new people talking to older people or young people hanging with seniors. I just think the museum is an awesome backdrop for that.

With these new buildings, the hope is that there would be more community gatherings and events, because that schoolhouse will also be a space available for private use.


What advice would you have for the person who is going to fill your shoes?


NM: The museum will tell you what it needs. And [so will] the people involved with it. I feel that there was a lot of guidance and mentorship and visions for the site—I don’t want to take any credit for what happened there, I’m just a really good grant writer. And so it was lots of administration; I’m good at administration and I was able to be the arms to get that stuff accomplished.

But this Pioneer Village concept and what’s happened there has been in place since 1982, when even though it was a volunteer entity, they catalogued everything …  it truly is amazing what the volunteers did, even before funding. I think it’s just such a gem for a town so small—you think of all the small towns in Canada, and how many of them actually have a museum that runs like this?


Is there anything else that you want the community to know?


NM: I learned more than I thought I ever would running a small community museum. It’s been a great job, and it’s a tough decision to leave.

The museum is a recognized Heritage Institute, with recognition from Heritage Canada, because it’s got a significant regional collection. We do get annual funding, and we’re able to access provincial and federal grants, so I really think the possibilities for this small-town time machine are truly endless.