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Passion for past keeps work fresh

Employees have 20 years experience with communitys history
Kyle Wells

For 20 years now Debbie Dan and Teedie Kagume have held the history of Powell River in their capable hands, a responsibility they have found enriching, insightful, exciting and a whole lot of fun.

Both employees of the Powell River Historical Museum and Archives started working in 1991 and both remain today, Dan as curator and Kagume as coordinator.

Dan started with the museum as a volunteer before a part-time job as curator became open and Kagume was involved in the museum while working on a grant that had to do with identifying photographic negatives. After working closely with the museum, Kagume decided to apply for the job when it became open.

Kagume said she “didn’t have a clue” about the particulars of her job when she came into the position and didn’t even know what an archive was.

“I didn’t even know the word, never heard of it before,” said Kagume. “And it was love at first sight, it was instant passionate love, that’s all I can say...I think it was just the ramifications of touching that immediate link with the past. You were touching things that other people did a little while ago and it was just endlessly fascinating, I loved it.”

After 20 years both Dan and Kagume remember many exciting discoveries and interesting projects.

Kagume particularly enjoyed being involved with amalgamating records of employment for the Powell River Company, original owners of the pulp and paper mill. The museum had three sets of records: one donated to the museum before Kagume’s time, one that Catalyst Paper Corporation donated more recently and records collected from individuals. Over the course of six weeks Kagume and a hired archivist amalgamated the information to create a complete record, which she described as like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle.

One of the most satisfying parts of their jobs is helping people find pieces of their own family’s history. Often people come to find information on family members who lived in Powell River and both said when they do the appreciation from the family members lets them know how much their jobs are valued.

“It’s times like that where people really understand the importance of a museum,” said Dan. “A lot of people probably don’t think much about museums until they need one and then to be able to realize that the museum has preserved that history of their family...It just comes home as to how important they really are.”

Intriguing findings also add an element of surprise and curiosity to their work. Dan remembered a small red, suede purse that the Powell River Health Care Auxiliary members came across that they felt the museum should have a look at. The purse itself was unique enough to catch their interest but when they opened it they found a pair of matching gloves, a handkerchief and a ticket from the 1940s for the Princess Mary, a passenger vessel owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Strait of Georgia until 1952.

“All of a sudden you’re holding this little thing and you have these items that belonged to some young women, I assume, travelling on the Princess Mary,” said Dan. “For what reason? Where was she going? Who was she meeting? Who was she with? Had she just got married? We don’t know but that was one of the little treasures that came into our hands.”

Kagume and Dan also enjoy the work that the museum has done in regard to the military history of Powell River. Lee Coulter’s work cataloging service records and other documents relating to Powell River residents in the war has been an exciting project. Kagume came close to tears as she and Dan talked about a time when a group of university students came to the museum to meet with a resident who had served on a minesweeper during World War II and a local woman who had been liberated as a young girl in Holland by Canadian soldiers.

“For the two of them to sit there and meet each other and to hear each other’s stories, that class I’m certain will never forget that,” said Dan. “Everything around us is history. As soon as it has happened it has become history and it’s nice to have a place where things like that, learning experiences to do with history, can be hosted.”

Dan said the favourite part of her job is meeting and giving tours to all the people who visit the museum. She enjoys cataloguing artifacts but it is meeting the visitors and working with volunteers that keeps her job fun. She has also immensely enjoyed working with the Tla’Amin (Sliammon) First Nation community on preserving artifacts and recognizing the history of Tla’Amin in the museum. The museum is the official holder of all Tla’Amin artifacts found in the area until such a time that the Tla’Amin community has its own museum.

The museum would not be anything close to what it is without the hard work and dedication of volunteers, said both Dan and Kagume. Among the many ways that volunteers have helped the museum, assisting them with switching over to new technology and enter the digital age has had the most impact. Without encouragement and help from volunteers Kagume said she is sure she would still be using handwritten card indexes.

“We’re standing on very, very broad shoulders,” said Kagume. “You surround yourself with smart people and they make you look good...We’ve got some amazing people.”

Work at the museum is constantly ongoing. One of the projects that they are working on is interviewing elders in the community about the history of Powell River and as a record of what living in Powell River was like in its early years. More time and help is needed to work on the project, which Dan and Kagume believe is an important and compelling project.

Neither Dan nor Kagume has any plans on leaving anytime soon, saying that they will be at the museum until they become a part of it. They both still enjoy their work, and say jokingly that they still get along, and take it day by day. When they do retire they will be the last museum and archive curators who learned their trade on the job. Replacements will have degrees in museum curation and archival work. Technology will keep changing and museums will keep growing, something that both Dan and Kagume agree is a good thing for the museum and the way forward.