Louise Avery has been interested in arts and culture for a very long time.
“In high school, I had great interest in arts and heritage and culture,” Avery said. “Those were areas that I always enjoyed and found more passion for than the sciences.”
Avery decided to do a degree at the University of Victoria for History and Art, but found that the degree was leading her down the path of further academia and likely becoming an art gallery director, which wasn’t what she wanted to do.
“I didn’t really want to be a gallery director in visual arts. I wanted something more,” Avery said. “The study of culture was more fascinating to me.”
So, she dropped out and decided to move to Vancouver from her hometown of Victoria. She worked for a bit while there, until coming to the conclusion that she wanted to do more schooling, just in something that suited her a little bit better.
Avery enrolled in the University of British Columbia for Anthropology with a focus in Museum Studies, which she immediately knew was the right choice for her. She worked at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver for a placement during school, then worked at several smaller, community museums around the Lower Mainland after graduating.
“Then, for some reason, I found my way to Kitimat!” Avery said.
Avery said she hadn’t previously thought of going up to the North, but had actually done some work with a collection of Haisla pieces at the Museum of Anthropology and had written a piece on Haisla and Henaksiala culture while she was in school.
She applied for the Director and Curator position at Kitimat Museum and Archives, got the job, and moved up here with her husband in 1996. As of July 1, 2020, she’d been in the position for 24 years and is currently the longest serving Curator and Director of the Kitimat Museum.
“Community museums always struck me as something that would be very interesting because it’s part of the community history of the — how do I put it — I just find community histories really packed full of diversity,” Avery said. “So it’s really interesting to learn the history of a community from, you know, the beginnings.”
Once here, Avery decided to do some online courses at the University of Victoria to get a Professional Specialization Certificate in Cultural Heritage Sector Leadership. This helped expand her museum knowledge and working with cultural traditions and heritage.
This was especially helpful in Kitimat, where Avery said she works hard at the museum to try to document both Kitimat and Haisla history and culture.
“Kitimat is very new in comparison to the eons that the Haisla have lived in the area. And so there are really two communities that we’re featuring here.”
In her job now, Avery said the work is similar, yet different to her work at past museums. At the Museum of Anthropology, she was doing a lot of cataloguing, whereas when she worked at the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, she did a lot of exhibition work, writing, and collections.
“That’s really what I do here, but now I’ve added lots of budgeting and grant writing and my job is really quite full. Staffing and direction, working with the Board, so there’s governance involved. So very seldom do I get to do any cataloguing anymore.”
Avery said she does miss the cataloguing sometimes though, as it brings her back to doing the work she loves, what got her into museum studies and heritage in the first place.
“I do like to catalogue every once and a while. I like to go in, and it [gives me] memories of my first really, those jobs, those first jobs that I held where I was a cataloguer, collections assistant, or someone who created the record for the piece.”
Avery worked on a lot of different types of records, especially while she was working at the Museum of Anthropology.
“I can remember one whole summer at the Museum of Anthropology, I catalogued Japanese paper,” Avery said, laughing. “I learned quite a bit about Japanese paper! It’s, like, amazing, just so ancient in its tradition.”
She also remembered cataloguing a collection of contemporary calendars from India, as well as thumb pianos from Africa.
“My name is somewhere in the Museum of Anthropology for all the cataloguing that I did there!”
And while she misses the cataloguing, Avery truly enjoys her work at the Kitimat Museum and is proud of the work she’s put into it over the years.
“This museum’s been really quite a passion of mine and I’ve really worked hard to make it a really amazing community museum.”
Her hope for the museum’s future is moving to a bigger facility to allow more space for staff, exhibits, and guests. Avery said they are finalizing their ‘Strategic Plan 2020-2030,’ which she said is “a gift to take the museum into a new part of its history.” Part of that strategy includes moving to a larger space.
Avery said she’ll likely be retiring within the decade and that plan, along with everything it puts out for the museum’s hopes and dreams, will be part of a legacy that she hopes to leave behind after she retires.
“It’s a little tiny museum. Really, it’s very small compared to the things we would like to do with it,” she said. “I’m kind of coming to the end of my career and I’d like to leave some, like, a little legacy, or an important legacy for the museum.”
Avery said the most satisfying part of her work at the museum has been the new Haisla Heritage section, which she’s been planning for over four years and working on for one.
“The Haisla area was the most satisfying to have those pieces on display in the way they’re displayed now,” she said. “Certain things that have occurred with working with the collection has opened some doors for us to work with others.”
Avery said the creation of the section allowed them to work with the Haisla Education Centre, to learn more about Haisla culture and ensure they were using the correct language and set-up for the displays. As well, they’ve also brought some Haisla members onto the Museum Board, to help integrate more of the culture and traditions into their exhibitions and work.
“I felt the most satisfaction working on that area because it opened up a lot of opportunities for me to meet people and to learn about the culture, and it just was very satisfying to have those opportunities with different people.”
The hardest part of the job for Avery?
“Planning in a small space, that’s got to be the hardest, it’s set up a huge amount of challenges for us. We have to be extremely strategic in how we plan staffing…we have to make sure we’re meeting the needs for our collections, things like that.”
Accessibility of collections and artifacts is another big part of Avery’s job, as she needs to ensure collections, exhibits, artifacts, and research are available to those who need it.
“Access is such a big part of my world, like access to history, access to any of the pieces that we have that researchers want to look for,” Avery said. “So, we have findings aids, you know, things are given numbers, and they’re given a location, and they’re in a certain searchable database, and they have to be able to be found easily.”
The general public also wants to be able to visit and have access to things, she added, as “they want to be able to look at things and they want to be able to relate to their town’s culture, their community’s culture.”
However, accessibility can be a challenge to create, especially for a community museum.
“It’s actually a life’s work, creating an accessible community museum,” Avery said,
“You’re given an artifact and, I mean, an artifact it’s, it’s just something. But it could have quite a bit of a story behind it that you will never know unless you ask. If you ask the people, ‘What’s the story about this…this…pencil sharpener?’ Because it could just be a pencil sharpener and end up in a collectable store. So, those things have lost their story. A lot of them had stories but nobody knows them anymore.”
Avery said her goal with the rest of her time at the museum is to ensure all the collections and artifacts are accessible to all, so that their stories can be told for years to come.
“Artifacts really are not artifacts until they have the story with them. So, there’s lots of things that definitely an artifact can’t tell you, but the people that own the artifact can. So, it’s a matter of finding that information and making it accessible.”