Museum looks to continue success of their Oral History Project

For the past several months the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre has been conducting interviews of those who knew Canmore in its early days, and now the museum is looking for a volunteer coordinator to donate their time as the museum continues its Oral History Project.

Though they are looking for an individual who is passionate about collecting stories, Edward van Vliet, the director of the museum, said they are also looking for someone with administrative skills as there are already a dozen volunteers signed up to collect Canmore’s stories. The process now, after roughly six months, is fairly streamlined and the volunteers who have set up interviews with one of the 100-plus members of the community pick up the recording equipment from the museum and visit with the subjects for as long as they need to.

The volunteers have already spoken to two dozen of those individuals identified in what van Vliet called an ongoing project.

“Right now the focus is let’s capture the stories we can, while we can.”

If the museum can get to all of those already identified, van Vliet said he believes it would be a fairly comprehensive record of Canmore’s earlier days.

“We have spoken to mining families, but we’ve also spoken to families that were involved with the dairies, for instance,” he said. “We’ve talked to teachers. We’ve talked to people who ran businesses. We’ve spoken with people who have wartime reminiscences. We are shooting to get a cross-section of Canmore culture, society and history.”

Collecting information for the oral history project is, van Vliet said, a time intensive labour. And there is a recognition that the generation that has seen Canmore in its early eras is getting older — won’t be around forever — and already many members of the generation are starting to pass on.

“Since we can only tell the stories with the objects and documents that people give us, often we get a lot more information about life during those days from talking to the people than we do from those objects,” van Vliet said. “You get all those local details and you get all of those stories of individuals. Usually when it comes to books and documents, it’s the broad strokes. This gives us the great, interesting details.”

The Oral History Project originated in the recording of Canmorites from the older generation in the 1980s, then an exhibition at the museum five years ago, Changes, included interviews of a number of residents about the changes the town had seen over the years.

Van Vliet called the work done for the exhibition, “a good starting point” because, he said, “when people talk about changes they have to talk about the past in order to talk about the present.”

The museum received a grant through the Alberta Museums Association for the project, which was spent primarily on the equipment used to capture Canmore’s stories and other preparations required to allow the project to move forward.
Though it would require further funding, van Vliet said, a goal “down the road” would be to have the equipment available such that an interested member of the community could come in to the museum at their leisure and sit down and record their stories.

The information is being collected by volunteers, who have received some instruction from the museum, including a template of the types of questions the project aims to have answered.

The collection of stories was spearheaded by locals Rob Alexander and Mary-Beth Laviolette.

Laviolette was the former project administrator and will continue as a volunteer, conducting several interviews over the course of the summer.

“The interesting thing about interviewing people is that they often don’t think what they have to say or their own experiences are that interesting — people tend to really downplay their own life experiences,” she said. “All communities share certain things in common, but their histories are unique, the people who inhabit them are unique, the reasons why people come to live in a certain community are often quite different from the community next door and so on — the don’t see that perspective.”

Laviolette said she was interested to hear about Canmore’s convent of nuns who worked in the community, including teaching English to some of those who came to town without speaking the common language.

She also heard how some of the “old-timers” were disappointed with the renaming of Ha-Ling Peak.

“It’s because they don’t know who Ha-Ling was and they also felt that the name Chinaman’s Peak recognized the fact that there were Chinese people living here and working in the valley and it gave recognition to them as well,” she said. “They didn’t see it as a racist term.

“It’s always interesting to try to understand how different generations will have a different point of view on things.”

Those willing to conduct interviews are always welcome, but a replacement to take over Laviolette’s coordinating duties is required. Contact the museum at (403) 678-2462.

Source: Canmore Leader, July 15th, 2010

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