We had the pleasure of talking to Vanessa Gelhaar, Operations Manager at the British Columbia Museums Association in Canada. Read on as she talks about the association, how it empowers its members, how it is contributing to social sustainability, and in what ways it is working to support a variety of communities.
Ki Culture: Can you tell me a little bit more about the British Columbia Museums Association and also your position within it?
Vanessa Gelhaar: I am the Operations Manager at the British Columbia Museums Association. I am based in Lekwungen territory, also known as Victoria in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. The British Columbia Museums Association, BCMA for short, is a professional association for about 450 museums, galleries, and cultural centers and the people that work and volunteer in those institutions. We have been around since 1957 and offer advocacy, innovation, professional development, networking opportunities, and peer support to our members. Occasionally, we also administer funding. The latest example of that was a 500,000 Canadian dollar repatriation grant in 2020, that has helped more than 50 Indigenous communities and First Nation bands to find their stolen cultural belongings and begin to return them home.
We see ourselves as a support network for our members, a space that helps them connect with each other and support each other. We work on tackling the most important issues that are facing cultural institutions at this point in time, the climate crisis being one of those. Just in the last year and a half, British Columbia has been hit by forest fires,droughts, torrential rains, floods, and landslides. This does not only pose a massive risk to buildings and collections, but to entire communities. One day in the summer of 2021, the village of Lytton in British Columbia recorded temperatures of 49.6 Celsius, an all-time record in Canada. Just a few days later, 90% of that same village was erased by a forest fire. The town, including two museums, is no longer there. Climate change is a threat to so many cultural institutions and their communities all over the world.
Ki Culture: Agreed, it is not just about the conservation aspect but all other sorts of sustainability.
Vanessa Gelhaar: Exactly, and that is where Ki Futures came in. So for us, the goal for joining Ki Futures was to find out: what can we do to move forward?
Ki Culture: Can you tell me more about what drew you to join the Ki Futures program?
Vanessa Gelhaar: We are partners of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, and through this network, we heard about Ki Futures and Ki Culture in the first place. Last year, we received a grant from the federal government of Canada to jumpstart a Climate Action Project, a first for our association, at least in a formal sense. With Ki Futures launching its pilot in 2021, it was just perfect timing for us and we jumped on board right from the start. The full program launching in 2022 was ideal. Our first goal was just to identify priorities for our organization, and for our members, for that project, what we would do, where we would start, and how we would bring people along, equip them with confidence, hope, and a couple of tools to tackle the most important issues.
Ki Culture: As a museum association, how do you implement, communicate and integrate these elements of sustainability with your members and your community?
Vanessa Gelhaar: I am not actually a museum person, I have a background in environmental management. And I had never really made the connection between museums and sustainability and how my passion and my background would fit with my current job. But then again, every job is a climate job, and there are so many things that interconnect.
With sustainability, and especially now with the climate crisis becoming more and more stark, it is nothing that we can ignore, it is something that I think affects everybody in their work. That is something that has become very clear to me but also to my colleagues who are museum people, and to anyone who might have, historically or in their education, not thought about these topics too much, which I think is also true for our members. A big discussion point over the past year or so has been answering the question: What can we, as museums and galleries, do?
That is where Ki Futures has come in as an invaluable source of inspiration. I cannot begin to say how amazing that is, to me personally, and to us as an association to beconnected to other Champions around the world, in institutions that are facing some of the very same challenges that our museums in British Columbia are facing. We hear about their ideas, we hear about their setbacks, about successes and renewed motivation. We have listened to MOCA in Los Angeles, which has this great Environmental Council. We have listened to M Leuven in Belgium who have done really awesome upgrades to their building. We have listened to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, which is doing everything a museum should be doing in terms of sustainability. Just within the first year of the program, we have chatted with so many others about the plans they have, how they are trying to get there, and the work they are doing already. To me, that is the value of the Ki Futures program. We then do our best to distill what we learn — from colleagues but also industry experts during the workshops and deep dives — into something digestible for our members that they can take inspiration from and act on. We let all of those topics influence the themes of our professional development offerings, of our conferences, and of all the learning resources we offer to our members. This also has an impact on our own operations: our last conference, for example, has been intentionally planned with a low carbon footprint — local suppliers, reduced printing and material, and fully vegetarian catering.
Ki Culture: As BCMA, do you have a specific sustainability objective? And if you do, how did you realize that?
Vanessa Gelhaar: One of our main objectives is to help our members internalize the interconnectedness of the climate crisis and other societal issues. Museums and galleries play a crucial role in helping their communities grapple with all the overlapping crises we are facing: economic uncertainty, social justice issues , systemic racism, ongoing effects of the pandemic. In our opinion, cultural institutions are uniquely positioned to help reevaluate shared histories and understand difficult truths about, for example the colonization of the lands we now call Canada. Truth-telling is an essential part of our work and the work of our members. Without truth-telling, there is no way forward, there is no reconciliation. If we do not start to include untold histories in permanent exhibits and return stolen cultural belongings that have found their way into our collections through colonization, there is no way forward. Without repairing and rebuilding those relationships, from a place of humility, honesty and reciprocity, we do not stand a chance to form strong, respectful partnerships that we need for healthy and resilient communities. In our opinion, museums and cultural spaces are places with incredible potential to do that, places that help visitors learn from the past, and apply those learnings to the future. If we open our doors, open them wide, and provide welcoming, inclusive spaces for everybody in our community, then we can engage in dialogue and create a brighter future together. For us, it is putting that message into everything we do, the red thread through everything we offer our members: professional development opportunities, resources, and conversations.
Ki Culture: Do you feel like the association also implements further elements of sustainability beyond the environmental, and perhaps beyond the social?
Vanessa Gelhaar: I feel we do. Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion have been some of our strategic priorities and have guided our operations for many years.
The BCMA currently is a team of eight very passionate and inspiring people we do a little bit of everything and have a lot of projects on the go. Something I have previously written a Ki Report on is our Repatriation Call to Action. In 2021, we called on all publicly funded institutions in Canada to return ancestral human remains and burial items that they have in their collections and storage facilities back to the Indigenous communities they belong to. Over the last year and a half, many institutions in BC have signed on to that call. We provide the signees with the tools and resources to implement repatriation policies and start these processes. And as I mentioned in the beginning, we have also provided Indigenous communities with grants to conduct their own research into where their ancestors and cultural items are being held.
Ki Culture: How does communication work with these Indigenous communities?
Vanessa Gelhaar: One of the things we can’t stress enough is the importance of relationship building. Many settler-led institutions have approached us and asked, “How do we do this? We have reached out to the Indigenous community in our area, we have sent them an email, we have called once but they have not responded, what do we do?” So we offer up some, hopefully helpful, pointers on how to build trust and proper relationships grounded in reciprocity.
Ki Culture: What are your ambitions for the future concerning sustainability? Where is the BCMA going?
Vanessa Gelhaar: We are currently revisiting our strategic priorities. We have four different ones because we do a lot in terms of advocacy and professional development, in addition to the more hands-on topics of funding, operations, etc.. Right now, we are very much focused on the big picture questions, those that make us consider, “Where do we want to be in 20 years, and where do we want our members to be in 20 years?” We aim to have a thriving museum sector and cultural institutions and galleries that are inclusive and welcoming spaces to everybody in their community, that are reflective of the communities they represent, and that function as spaces of connection. A museum is not just a building that holds things for people to come in and look at; it is a space where people share and connect about stories, where the community is reflected. We try to be a catalyst for stories connecting people on a human level, not just on a professional one. Unless we have honest, truthful relationships with each other, we will not be able to work together. As museums, we cannot hide behind our institutional rules and regulations. We need to step beyond that and connect from the heart. That is our hope. Another hope is, of course, that our museums, galleries, and cultural institutions aare well-equipped to deal with the effects of climate change: forest fires, floods, droughts, and sea level rise. Since 2019, we have been working with a consortium called the British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network. They providehands-on training on collections salvage and emergency preparedness — equipping museum professionals with everything they need for their institution’s emergency response plans. One example of their work was a trip to the village of Lytton after it burned down and an assessment of the damage and possible salvage of some of the museum artifacts. If you’re interested, we have recorded an interview with them as a podcast, where they talk about their impressions and what it was like to stand in the ruins of a museum. That was very, very impactful to hear first-hand and a stark reminder that we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Other useful links:
The Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, https://cmcj.ca/about/
British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network, https://museum.bc.ca/brain/bc-heritage-emergency-response-network/
BCMA’s Repatriation Call to Action, https://museum.bc.ca/repatriation-call-to-action/
Interview by Tecla Trupia.
Tecla Trupia (she/they) is a Berlin-based writer and editor, passionate about arts and culture.
She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Heritage in Milan. Their curiosity makes them eager to learn and explore the world through their writing. She is pleased to contribute to KiCulture with her creativity as part of the Communications Team.