New museum highlights Alta.’s diverse past

The new Royal Alberta Museum features numerous exhibits in its galleries of human and natural history, as well as in its bug galley.  |  Jeremy Simes photo

Royal Alberta Museum tells the story of the province, including how pioneers beat the odds when times were tough

In Alberta’s new centrepiece museum, unique stories of the province’s pioneers are told through remnants of the past, documenting their hardships, as well as their resilient spirits, in hopes of a brighter future.

The artifacts and exhibits at the new Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton, which opened earlier this month, are a reminder of the endurance of the province’s pioneers and builders.

On display, the story of Mick Watson and his family offers one example of the tenacity possessed by early settlers. They moved to the High Level area in north Peace country in the 1950s when farming was thought impossible up there.

“I remember saying, ‘there’s no way you can farm this far north. It’s too cold. Too wet. Too hard,” Watson was quoted as saying on one of the exhibit plaques.

“But then I got to thinking, the land was wide open, you know. I could start from scratch. The fellow before me tried it. Lost a crop to frost. Then got drowned out. Didn’t put me off.”

Mick Watson used a 1923 John Deere tractor that had 45 horsepower. | Jeremy Simes photo

During notoriously cold winters, the family slept in a trailer that had only one-inch insulation. The roof leaked and boiling water froze instantly when it hit the floor for cleaning.

His tractor, a 1927 John Deere with 45 horsepower, was also on display. Watson depended on it heavily. Even when it was -20 C, he could start it by using a mixture of gas and diesel.

“I think for some people, particularly those who grew up in cities, they will be surprised to see how difficult life was,” said Julia Petrov, the museum’s curator of western Canadian history.

She pointed to another exhibit, titled “It takes a year to make a meal.” It tells the story of a woman in 1928 preparing a meal for her family. All the work that went into it took months of preparation. It included growing a garden, raising livestock, canning and pickling, milking cows and churning butter, among other tasks.

“Some people might be surprised by how early you had to start planning for meals in the winter,” Petrov said. “It wasn’t as easy as going to the grocery store.”

Every bit of the museum is Albertan.

Not only does it tell the stories of pioneers and other noteworthy people, it also highlights the various animals and creatures that inhabit the province, including those that lived long ago, like mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths.

There is even an exhibit dedicated to the province’s love affair with pick-up trucks.

Whether they are fancy city vehicles or rugged from farm activities, the trucks are rooted in our culture, said Mathew Levitt, a digital media assistant with the museum’s visitor experience department.

“You have both of these perspectives, one being the trophy truck, symbolizing success and achievement,” he said. “Then you have this connection to agriculture, with the idea of it belonging to the land and doing work.”

As well, the museum intertwines the history and belief systems of Indigenous peoples throughout the exhibits.

The horrors of residential schools and the eradication of the bison herds are explained. Cultures of the Blackfoot, Nakoda, Dene, Cree and Métis peoples are celebrated.

There are also success stories on display, one being of rodeo champion and rancher Tom Three Persons.

“It’s not an us versus them,” Petrov said. “It’s all of us together participating in similar activities.”

In a separate area, the museum features the Manitou Stone, a meteorite that holds spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples.

As well, it has a bug gallery, where spectators can see the live creatures in action, a gems and minerals section and a children’s play area. It will also feature galleries on tour from outside the province.

As for the old museum, located in Edmonton’s Glenora neighbourhood, government officials aren’t yet sure what will happen to it. It could be demolished or used for something different.

The new museum cost $375.5 million. Of that total, $253 million was from the province and $122.5 million from the federal government.

Tickets for the museum are $19 for adults, $14 for seniors, $10 for youth and $48 per family. Children six and under can visit for free.

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