The Closure of the Bateman Gallery and the Future of the Cranbrook History Centre

The Closure of the Bateman Gallery and the Future of the Cranbrook History Centre

On February 18 of this year, the award-winning Bateman Gallery in Victoria closed forever. The Bateman Gallery was a professionally run museum and had every advantage going for it: located in the tourism heart of B.C.’s capital city, with an iconic historic building as its home, an important cross-disciplinary national mandate, and a famous benefactor. None of these things could save it from closure.

The Cranbrook History Centre would like to acknowledge the grave loss of this museum and other recent museum losses in BC (particularly the destruction of the Lytton Chinese History Museum and the Lytton Museum and Archives in the devastating wildfires that demolished that community). Just as individuals and businesses have suffered from the pressures of the pandemic, climate change and inflationary pressures, so have Canada’s museums. But museums are unique entities. They are not businesses with the sole function of turning a profit. Rather, museums are public gathering spaces charged with the critical task of housing irreplaceable stories, artefacts, and archives which record our collective histories. Museums interpret the past, reassess perspectives in the present and secure one-of-a-kind collections to provide context for the future.

The British Columbia Museums Association recently responded to the Bateman Gallery closure, highlighting the catastrophic issues facing every museum institution in BC today, including the Cranbrook History Centre. Many of the issues facing museums existed before the pandemic but the last three years have made the fragility of the museum sector even more urgent. Extreme weather events threaten museum structures and collections. Cost of living increases, including insurance demands, stress delicately balanced museum budgets. Post-COVID changes to visitation mean that museums must expend resources to connect with users in new ways. The challenges of finding qualified staff are greater for museums, which require specialized knowledge. The museum sector has been critically underfunded for decades, despite wide public acknowledgement of how crucial museums are in connecting citizens to our collective history. As an example of this underfunding, the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Museums Assistance Program has not had a permanent funding increase since the 1970s.

The Cranbrook History Centre faces all these same challenges. We are deeply grateful for the ongoing support provided by our donors, members, visitors, and partners, particularly the City of Cranbrook, which understands the critical importance of the Centre’s role in maintaining our historic collections in the public trust.

Over nearly half a century and different incarnations, the Cranbrook History Centre has housed our city’s written records (including newspapers, photographs, letters and journals), has provided historians, scholars and authors with thousands of hours of free archival research, has provided a venue for artists and musicians to connect with the public, has hosted hundreds of lectures, conferences, events, gatherings, and family functions, and has provided thousands of guests from around the world with a glimpse into Cranbrook’s history. We maintain and curate a collection of fossils representing the region’s ancient past. And, of course, we are the home of our unique and extraordinary rail cars and the Royal Alexandra Hall, all of which have national historical significance.

As Cranbrook makes plans to face its future, The Cranbrook History Centre looks forward to collaborating with the City, Cranbrook Tourism and others on a new tourism vision for our community. We are committed to supporting an evolving and inclusive interpretive approach. We will champion all efforts to showcase Ktunaxa perspectives, history and arts. We are working hard to protect the precious collections in our care. And even as we face the current challenges faced by all museums, we invite everyone to demonstrate their support for all that the Cranbrook History Centre does for the community and to ensure its success for generations to come. Come for a visit, make a donation, volunteer, or attend an event. Or write to your City Council, your MP and MLA, your BC Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport (Lana Popham) or your Federal Minister of Canadian Heritage (Pablo Rodriguez). Tell them how important Canadian museums are to you. Our futures — and your history — depend upon you.

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Read the full article Why the closure of the Bateman Gallery should worry anyone who cares about museums. Published in the Times Colonist on February 24, 2023:

The Bateman Museum in Victoria BC

“On Feb. 18, after 10 years of supporting arts and environmental education for hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists, the Bateman Gallery closed its doors and suspended operations.

Soon, its gallery will be decamped, its artisan gift shop will be closed, its nine staff will no longer have jobs, and Victoria will lose a space that celebrated art, nature and community wellness.

On behalf of the B.C. Museums Association, our hearts go out to the amazing, award-winning team at the Bateman Gallery.

Rising operational costs, a slowdown in government funding for COVID recovery, and a slower-than-anticipated rebound in visitation rates meant that the Bateman Gallery could no longer sustain its current operations.

The closure of the Bateman Gallery is a symptom of a much larger problem and is something that anyone who cares about arts, culture, or heritage should find alarming: Museums, galleries, and heritage sites are running on fumes and this could be the first of many closures.

In Victoria, Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens made the news last summer saying that without additional funding it would need to close.

In 2020, Old Hastings Mill Store Museum avoided closure when a community crowdfunding campaign raised more than $40,000 in emergency funding.

And nearly two years after their destruction, the Lytton Chinese History Museum and the Lytton Museum and Archives have not yet started to rebuild.

These are only a handful of examples of museums facing closure; many more museums, galleries, and heritage sites are faced with rising costs and stagnant funding and fear that speaking publicly about their precarity might dissuade critically needed donations, sponsorship, and grants.

So how dire is the current outlook for museums? In a word, catastrophic.

Canada’s museum sector is facing a polycrisis of slow post-COVID visitation recovery, severe cost of living increases, stagnant government funding and the ever-worsening reality of climate disasters.

Just one of these crises would risk the health of the sector, but when combined, they are an existential threat.

Since 1997, the number of hours worked by arts, culture, and heritage workers has increased by 45 per cent, however, studies show that salaries in this sector have not kept pace with inflation, meaning that culture sector workers are working more for less.

It is little wonder that a 2017 study found that the turnover rate in the sector was 13.3 per cent, nearly double Canada’s all-industry average of 7.1 per cent, even before the unprecedented inflation of the past year exacerbated an already bad situation.

Speaking of making bad situations worse, the increasing unpredictability of the weather due to climate change threatens the aging infrastructure of museums and heritage sites across the country.

According to a 2020 national survey, 37 per cent of museums are in a building identified as in “fair” to “very poor” condition.

This means that stronger-than-average winds, heavier-than-average rain, or colder-than-average winters will increasingly compromise museums and threaten to destroy irreplaceable pieces of our collective histories — more than 70 million of which are housed in Canadian museums.

And while governments at all levels have supported cultural organizations with various COVID resilience and recovery funding, as we enter a new post-pandemic “normal,” governments are quickly returning to an untenable status quo.

At the federal level, the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Museums Assistance Program has not had a permanent funding increase since the 1970s.

At the provincial level, despite the near doubling of the B.C. Arts Council’s budget, roughly only 10 per cent of museums receive operating assistance funding and heritage sites remain ineligible for B.C. Arts Council funding.

In addition, jurisdictions like the Capital Regional District offer arts and culture funding but exclude museums and heritage organizations from applying.

If we as a society continue to underinvest in arts, culture, and heritage we will witness its death by a thousand cuts. The passionate individuals who work and volunteer in this sector are running on fumes.

Our buildings crumble. Our ceilings leak. Our collections degrade. Our current path leads in one direction, to catastrophe.

To those who decry the closing of the third floor of the Royal B.C. Museum or the removal of statues from public spaces as the destruction of history, I urge you to raise a similar alarm now.

Museums are at risk — don’t let the closing of the Bateman Gallery be a sign of things to come”.

See the full Media Release from the Bateman Foundation Here