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Monique Keiran: Heritage, cultural sites need loving attention

Picture a community hall on a weekday evening. About 40 people sit in rows. Official-looking sorts look back over the audience.

Picture a community hall on a weekday evening. About 40 people sit in rows. Official-looking sorts look back over the audience. The people have gathered at this fictitious meeting to discuss the fate of a nearby fictitious historic site/nature centre/community museum/natural or cultural heritage site.

Like so many real sites in the region — Craigflower Manor, the Centre of the Universe, Undersea Gardens, Crystal Gardens conservatory, B.C. Experience, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, to name a few — it is no longer open to the public.

For two hours, those gathered have spoken in support of the site. Government Gus has presented how the government, which owns the site, is looking for a new operator, even if it means repurposing the site.

Education Eli has spoken of the site’s value to the community, especially to its youngsters: “It’s the kind of vital enrichment that connects classroom learning to the community.”

Others have spoken, too, suggesting new activities, new uses, new revenue sources. Everyone agrees the site is an important resource. It helps define and focus the community. It creates common identity and builds community spirit.

Heritage Harry sits quietly. He operated the site, but has ended his arrangement with the government. For five years, he recruited, trained and managed staff, volunteers and board members. He wrangled marketing and promotions to attract locals and tourists. He oversaw day-to-day maintenance, administration and programming; he sourced donations and other funding, organized and ran bake sales, plant sales and gift-shop sales, did the books, dealt with visitors and board members of all ages and levels of emotional maturity, and drove to the site in the dead of night at least three times a week when the site’s security system rang his cellphone to announce the building’s alarm had gone off yet again.

He’s moving on. He has accepted a job that pays more than subsistence wages and allows him to spend most weekends with his kids. He will no longer be roused out of bed every time some midnight-wandering kid or raccoon rattles the site’s door. And for the first time in five years, he’ll be joining his family for their annual summer holiday.

The meeting inexorably builds up to the Question. The Question arises in every similar discussion of every similar site in every similar community across the country. Who is going to pay to keep the site running, fix the roof, deal with the parking problems?

Awkward silence ensues.

Patty Public stares at her hands. She has donated money and volunteered repeatedly at the site ever since she was on parental leave for her first child. “Here we go again,” she thinks, then silently pledges donations for bake sales and raffles if she just gets a part-time job at the site to help pay her kids’ orthodontics bills.

Government Gus shuffles papers.

Fed Fred mutters about possible, small matching grants for special, limited-time capital projects. “Check our website.”

City Councillor Sid speaks up: “We don’t own this property, and with our tax base, we can’t afford to run it. We will continue contributing small operating grants, but this site competes with other sites for those same funds.” He looks at Government Gus. “Others will have to do their part.”

Cathy Corporate mentally tallies up what’s left in her company’s annual philanthropy fund — not nearly enough to replace a roof — and thinks of the two dozen requests from other groups in the community for financial support that landed on her office desk that afternoon.

Nobody looks Harry Heritage in the eye.

Although this is an account of a meeting that never happened, variations on these kinds of meetings about these issues and these questions take place frequently in Canada.

This weekend, in celebration of International Museum Day on Sunday, show the various cultural and heritage sites in your community some love, attention and money. The Maritime Museum of B.C., the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, the Royal B.C. Museum, Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary, Abkhazi Gardens and all the others will thank you.

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