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NNSL Photo

Curator Kevin Brunt and one of the displays at Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The keeper of a culture

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 08/03) - Newly arrived in Fort Smith, Kevin Brunt has taken on a culturally important role in the community as curator of Northern Life Museum.

News/North: Do you have any plans to change Northern Life Museum?

Kevin Brunt: I definitely take my guidance from the museum society and the board of directors right now. That's entirely intentional. I suppose I could come up with a bunch of plans and a bunch of ideas, but because I'm not from here and because I just moved here, it's not really appropriate.

I don't have the authority and I don't have the wisdom to guide the museum that way. The longer I'm here, because I'm most intimately connected with the collection, I think over time hopefully the onus will pass more to me and it's something that I will take up.

N/N: Did any of the artifacts surprise you when you first arrived at the museum?

KB: There are mastodon remains and there are whale bones. There are things like that. Even to the point of National Geographic maps that we found. What is that doing there? But at the same time we don't want to be in too much of a rush to throw anything away because you don't know why it's there.

N/N: How does Northern Life Museum compare with museums in similarly-sized towns in the South?

KB: In the town I was living in before I came here, we were working out of a room in an abandoned high school. We had no power or water or anything like that. It had mostly archival stuff -- photographs and that kind of thing. We plugged extension cords into the emergency lights and duct taped them along the hallway to bring power in. The town was a similar size, if not bigger, than Fort Smith.

N/N: What is the importance of museums, in general?

KB: In my opinion one of the more long-lasting and important effects of a museum is holding things in trust for the community. But also there's the education aspect of it, working in partnership with the schools and the college, and cultural institutions, too. That isn't something that I notice in the south very much, but definitely here.

N/N: Is there a target date to open the upstairs galleries, which have been closed for several years?

KB: The target date is to open for the summer. We want to open it for tourist season, but at the same time tourists really aren't our target audience. It's Fort Smith and the surrounding communities.

We'll get about a third of the exhibit done and then open it to the public. I think that's important because it's been closed for so long. I've met people who have lived here for years and have never even been on the inside. Inviting people in to take part in the design and the installation is really important. It gives them an idea of what it takes, because it's incredibly time-consuming to put these things together.

N/N: What's the job of a curator?

KB: A curator is the person who understands the context of the collection. I've only been here for about two months, so I'm still learning our collection. As the curator, my job is to know intimately what we have and why we have it. It's my job to look at it to see what it is and the context, and to do the proper research to determine if it's appropriate to be in our collection or not.

The majority of my time now is constructing exhibits in the main gallery, but hopefully when that's done we can turn our attention back to the collection, because ultimately that's the purpose of the museum.

In my mind, the more important role of a museum in a community is to hold in trust. In the same way that an archives hold the records, a museum holds the cultural properties.

N/N: Where are you from originally?

KB: From a little town near Ottawa called Morrisburg, named after Sir James Morris, who was a Loyalist settler during the American Revolution.

N/N: What's your background in the museum field?

KB: At university, I did archaeology and anthropology and human evolution at Trent University in Peterborough. I did a few archaeological digs. I did excavating and the initial cataloguing and preservation of the artifacts that we found.

N/N: How many years have you been in this field?

KB: About nine years, studying and working. I was 19 when I did my first excavation and I'm 28 now.

N/N: What attracted you to museums?

KB: In Peterborough there was a college that had the curatorial side and the conservation side, and there was an aboriginal collections program there. After I finished my university, I went on and did collections, conservation and management. Basically, that is understanding why things deteriorate, understanding all the different kinds of material that would come into a collection and how they interact with each other.

N/N: Was there anything in particular that attracted you to Northern Life Museum?

KB: There were a couple of things. When I was in school, I worked for a summer in Dawson City, Yukon. It was a great experience, and I was just very interested in coming back to the North after that. I was always looking for something in the North. That was the primary reason. Also, Northern Life Museum is a small museum, so it was an opportunity to learn.

I was really interested to get into the public and the curatorial side of things, like setting up paintings and exhibits. It was just a great opportunity to progress.

When I was going to school, the biggest thing I had an interest in was making mounts, the things in the display that hold the artifact in a way that doesn't damage it. Here, I would have to build every one of the mounts for the displays. There are easily a couple of hundred artifacts going on display.