Close-up: 75 years of history in the making

George Barnes, an architect who came up from the coast and was living in the area, had been doing small projects for Kelowna’s museum when he took on the Centennial project—building a new museum home on Queensway Avenue to celebrate the nation’s birthday.

  • Sep. 16, 2011 12:00 p.m.
Photos courtesy of the Kelowna Public Archives

Photos courtesy of the Kelowna Public Archives

Originally it wasn’t what one would call an exciting project.

George Barnes, an architect who came up from the coast and was living in the area, had been doing small projects for Kelowna’s museum when he took on the Centennial project—building a new museum home on Queensway Avenue to celebrate the nation’s birthday.

“We were paid for it, but it was basically volunteer,” said Barnes, who would stick with the museum and help the spitfire director hired to take the reins in that building, Ursula Surtees.

The budget to build the new museum was in the $80,000 range and more than 50 per cent went into the ground—literally.

Barnes sunk $45,000 into a foundation fit to hold the additional storey they would later add, and another two should the city one day decided to expand.

It would have few to no windows, to protect the artifacts, and require a flowing open interior where exhibits could be shown.

And as one can see when passing the Queensway bus loop en route to the classic ’60s entrance, its base material resembled the colour of a long Kelowna winter in the land of cloud inversions—lots of grey cement.

And yet, when it comes right down to it, as lacklustre as the task sounds, building the museum probably had more life to it than any other project the architect ever did, including Kelowna’s airport buildings.

Within the walls of what’s now the Kelowna Museums—rebranded to include five separate collections in four buildings—lie generations of life stories and treasures and the best of the best things community members want to share with their friends and relatives, neighbours and visitors for generations to come as we collectively tell the story of where we live.

Over the summer, the valley-wide collection turned 75 years old, a date marking the anniversary of the Kelowna Museum Society, officially established in 1951.

Started by the Boy Scouts and solidified by the Okanagan Historical Society, the museum collection was stored in garages and historical society member’s homes until the museum society was established.

“A big part of Boy Scouts is about collecting and organizing, so it sort of made sense that they would get involved. And Boy Scouts, what are they interested in? They’re interested in First Nations and they’re interested in animals.

“So it grew up around a collection of First Nations artifacts and natural history artifacts,” explained Wayne Wilson, the current executive director of the museums.

The first building was in City Park, where it was routinely vandalized, according to Ursula Surtees, who is wildly described as the museum’s champion and the driving force who made it what it is today.

From City Park, it then moved into the Willow Inn, sharing space with other clubs like the area’s fish and game club. From there, “the bomb shelter,” as Surtees said it was called, went up and Surtees joined the museum.

In those early years, one would walk down two steps to get into the building, which resembled a bit of a giant basement with an ever-growing collection of Okanagan residents’ treasures dating back to the 1930s.

“We have some of the original artifacts from those early days in the Harvey Collection—as in Harvey Avenue,” said Wilson. “They’re mostly birds and ducks and that sort of thing.”

Taking those curiosities and turning them into a thriving cultural centre for the town was no easy task, and not one Surtees necessarily wanted to take on when she was approached to take over in the Centennial building.

“I agreed to give it a try, but museums here weren’t the same as I was accustomed to, and so I told them they might not like me and I might not like them,” she said.

Surtees grew up in Britain where she had a museum attached to her school and was accustomed to museums being used as teaching tools.

And so, it’s not surprising that under her direction Kelowna’s museums would become the first to establish curriculum-based programming, sending out items from the collections to classrooms with an interpreter and developing a First Nations curriculum with the school district.

“It distressed me to some degree that we seemed to know a fair amount about the First Nations on the Coast, with their totems, and the Prairies, with their war bonnets and teepees, but we knew virtually nothing about the people here,” she said.

Working with Mary Thomas to develop a First Nations knowledge base, she set about trying to teach another side of the region’s history, originally going to schools when the museum was closed in the mornings, then later hiring someone to watch the collection while she was teaching.

Under her tenure, the museum won federal funding to become one of 33 regional historic collections across the country and subsequently added a second storey to the museum building in 1976.

And in the early 1980s, she and her staff—her first staff members were educators, incidentally, and the person who watched the museum so she could go out to classrooms—launched the original Laurel Packinghouse restoration.

Saving that building would become a career highlight for both Surtees and Wilson, who also completed a Laurel restoration in 2010, providing a safe space for the wine museum, orchard museum and wine shop for many years to come.

Over the years, the museum also housed the art gallery for a time.

“I remember in high school, art exhibits were held on the top floor of the library,” said Wilson, noting what would become the Kelowna Art Gallery Society which moved into the Centennial building before eventually establishing its own building.

Perhaps one of the great highlights, though, was adding the regional conservation lab—an event which won Surtees an Award of Merit from the Canadian Museum Association. (See story on page A33.)

“I’ll tell you, I actually wasn’t that thrilled to receive the award because I felt the CMA should have been lobbying for conservation labs across the country on behalf of museums,” said Surtees.

The final lab space opened in 2001, a year after she retired. Surtees had “lobbied and lobbied and lobbied” to get even a hint of funding for the space in the years prior to the achievement.

The first conservation expert, Richard Fuller, was hired on a small line of government funding that afforded just a closet of space for what was the only lab in the Interior. It wasn’t good enough for the feisty director.

“People give you these items and you have to see that they’re cared for,” said Surtees. “Otherwise you get nothing but crazy glue and horrible things happening to artifacts.”

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, Surtees told the CMA exactly what she thought of their inability to go to bat for the country’s museums right in her award acceptance speech, leading to an awkward round of applause and perhaps lending a little credence to her reputation as an outspoken stickler.

Ask her whether she would do it again, though, and she just laughs and says, “Oh yes. You can’t have an organization that’s supposed to represent something, but doesn’t do anything.”

And that determination is really what’s made Kelowna’s museum the success story it is today—the largest museum in the province short of those in Vancouver and Victoria.

For his part, Wilson hopes he has left his mark on the business end of the museum, ensuring the City of Kelowna and those who use the archives and historical resources recognize the service the museum provides.

He established annual business reporting and started looking for new revenue streams—offering prints of the museum’s historical photos to the public, for example, and charging for document research or tours done by staff.

“We’ve got orchard industry artifacts that go back over 100 years and bottles of wine, unopened, from the 1930s with the original government seal,” he said, noting that knowledge-base has a monetary value.

From cattle country to orchard lands to the wine industry, the history of companies like the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company and the South Kelowna Land Corporation are all captured in the museum’s collection along with the understanding of the immigration patterns that went with their development.

The collection is managed like the Smithsonian now, in that it’s more of a scattering of collections and museums harboured under one management umbrella.

“The Smithsonian isn’t a place,” Wilson explained.

“It’s an idea and that’s kind of what we were going for with the five different museums clustered under one brand.”

From the curiosity of Boy Scouts has come the Okanagan Heritage Museum in the main museum building on Queensway, The B.C. Orchard Museum in the Laurel Packinghouse, The B.C. Wine Museum & VQA Shop in the Laurel Packinghouse, The Okanagan Military Museum in Memorial Arena, and The Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame in Capri Mall.

Through the work of countless volunteers and a staff of now 20-plus paid, expert staff members, the museum has expanded to include a fully restored and functional packinghouse—the oldest standing packinghouse in B.C. and a national monument.

The Ursula Surtees Regional Conservation Lab is considered one of the top conservation labs in the country and does work for museums and historical sites around the province. The Heritage Museum contains the maps and photos and documentation local city planners use to establish important baselines and historical understanding to build the city’s future.

In short, the museum is a critical part of Kelowna’s infrastructure, and in the new Cultural Plan, due out this month, there are recommendations to expand its built space again, perhaps bringing all five collections under one roof or, at least, a bigger building.

What that will look like is anyone’s guess, according to Sandra Kochan, City of Kelowna cultural services manager and author of the plan.

But if Wilson can give it one last pitch, he says he hopes people will recognize, through the 75th anniversary celebration, what a critical role the collections play in the region’s cultural life.

“Where we came from reflects our values,” he said. “City planners, they talk about quality of life and understanding the place you live in, well, that’s what we do.

“I think people make better decisions if they understand where they live, understand the lay of the land and its importance.”

Wilson, who  joined the museums in 1978, announced this week he will retire next year.

“I’ll miss working with the community, the individuals with the various groups we participate with. It’s all about the people,” he said.

He hopes to return to teaching geography at the college level and offer his services as a consultant.



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