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Where no museum has gone before

Whistler Museum plots unique course for its future



"What do a rooster and a marmot have in common?" Whistler Museum tour guide Andrea McGavin asks at Village Stroll bridge on a warm Thursday evening.

The Vancouver scientist in the group doesn’t know but the Bellingham family figures it out. Name origins for Blackcomb and Whistler mountains: the rooster’s "comb" which pioneer Alex Philip imagined one of the peaks looked like and the marmot’s whistling call that local pioneers heard on Whistler Mountain.

Taking visitors on historical walking tours is one way of making the museum more relevant to visitors, says former curator turned project manager Kerry Chalmers.

For the past two years a Whistler Museum and Archives task force has been pondering the 20-year-old museum’s future. Knowing that the museum has outgrown its present home in portable trailers beside Whistler Library, the eight-member task force, with community input, has been carefully examining what kind of museum it should become.

"We want to make sure we do our homework and take the right path towards the realization of our vision of working as a nationally and internationally relevant organization," Chalmers said.

A six-month market analysis has determined that residents and visitors want to know about local and natural history, the environment, and mountain life, including arts and culture. But how to best present this information is challenging.

"There’s no other Whistler so there’s no other place to look to see where this can be done," Chalmers said.

The task force checked out similar situations in Nelson, Banff, Campbell River and Alaska, and came to the conclusion that Whistler needs its own unique model, one based on community integration.

"The museum needs to be a very alive institution that reflects and responds to community on a regular basis," said Chalmers, who is overseeing the project. "Whistler’s active, outgoing lifestyle demands a museum that stays in stride."

How to be that kind of museum will be determined through fall community workshops that will ask for feedback and comments from residents, businesses, hoteliers and tour operators.

Whistler Museum and Archives president Alex Kleinman said the museum needs a master plan to determine how best to tell Whistler’s stories.

"When you look at how this community came into being a resort municipality, there’s intrigue, mystery and absolute chance," he said.

Whether it’s taking a walking tour or listening to a historian while riding the Whistler Mountaineer, Chalmers said there are many ways to take Whistler Museum beyond the box.

She’d like visitors to have the kind of museum experience where "you can go up Whistler Mountain and say ‘I just learned that this is where (Whistler Mountain developer) Franz Wilhelmsen first landed his helicopter."

A central village location, close to the pedestrian walkway is imperative. As is connecting with other Sea to Sky groups, like the arts council, municipality, Squamish’s railway heritage museum and tour operators. But the most important element will be uniqueness.

"There are traditional museum models where there is a building that has exhibits and collections that you come to look at – that operating model you can see whether in Vancouver or the Maritimes," Chalmers said. "But whether it’s for people who come here for just a few weeks or for people who come as visitors and turn into residents, we need a museum that takes stock of the community in which it’s situated and is relevant to the community."