A museum model to celebrate places, communities and cultures

Molly Kett

Ecomuseums are unique pieces of history and culture that can be found not only across Canada, but across the globe. An ecomuseum, in its most basic definition, expresses a sense of place.To be more specific, these types of museums are each created specifically to share the sense of a distinct place with others; highlighting their community, the people within it and both their natural and cultural heritage.

An ecomuseum does not always take the same form as most museums, though. As Kalyna Country’s ecomuseum in Alberta’s website puts it, “instead of going to one building or site to see exhibits and artifacts, visitors are instead encouraged to travel around a designated territory to learn about the past, the geography, and the living cultures of the communities that are organized under the umbrella concept of ecomuseum.”1 These types of museums are often based on local participation as they aim to enhance the development of said notable community. According to the European Network of Ecomuseums, they are “a dynamic way in which communities preserve, interpret, and manage their heritage for sustainable development.”2

In Canada, the ecomuseum was not established until the late 1970s in Quebec. In Peter Davis’ book Ecomuseums 2nd Edition: A Sense of Place, he highlights the coming of the ecomuseum to Quebec, as “the conservation of historic sites proceeded rapidly from the 1970s, with some thirty sites being designated by Parks Canada over twenty years.” Visitors experienced these historic sites in a new and interesting fashion; Davis writes “a variety of media (footpaths, guided walks, interpretive panels, living history events), and the talents of a range of individuals (sculptors, storytellers, musicians, craftsmen) were used to explain their significance to visitors.”3 This method of exploring the history of an entire place was new, taking a historic site and connecting it with people and heritage. The ecomuseum at this time was anything but traditional, working to go beyond the walls of the typical museum.

The role an ecomuseum plays in the community that it thrives in is multi-faceted. First, an ecomuseum plays into the ecology of its community, meaning it works to preserve the natural environment that surrounds it. This can include things such as combating pollution, protecting local wildlife or fostering a better life for the local citizens. Ecomuseums also bring an economical value to their respective community, connecting historic and natural conservation with stronger local ­economic development. Ecomuseums enhance tourism, which in turn contributes to the economic well being of the community. This system then allows citizens to pursue and address ­economic, environmental and social issues ­ultimately improving life for the members of the community. In order for this model to be a success, the community must usually come together as a team and some community members must have a more hands on involvement within the ecomuseum.

The fascinating thing about ecomuseums is that while they have a mostly unified definition, they take on many different shapes and sizes. Some ecomuseums encompass entire regions, while some still take the form of a more traditional museum. Funding for these types of museums also differ. Some are entirely government funded, some are entirely operated and funded by the community while others work with a combination of both public and private resources.
One example would be the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum in Vegreville, Alberta. This ecomuseum is Canada’s largest, as it encompasses an entire region spanning 20,000 square kilometers. As the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum is so large, it actually includes traditional museums within its boarders.

Visitors of the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum are encouraged to travel around the area to learn about its history, cultures and the natural recreation areas. The Kalyna Country Ecomuseum focuses on Metis, First Nations and Ukrainian Cultures. Due to its large size, Kalyna Country’s ecomuseum model relies on public, volunteer and private sector resources.4

The Écomusée du fier monde, in Montreal, Quebec, takes on a much different model then the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum. Écomusée du fier monde is one building, similar to the more traditional museum model. The museum is defined as a Montreal working class and industrial history museum as well as a community museum. It explores the history and heritage of the Centre-Sud, located in Montreal, a place that its history is engrained in Quebec’s part in the Industrial Revolution during the second part of the 19th century. Like most ecomuseums, the Écomusée du fier monde establishes projects in collaboration with local citizens and institutions, encourages historic education and is in tune with the development and natural surroundings of its community.5

René Binette, the director of the Écomusée du fier monde in Montreal, when discussing the importance of the ecomuseum, focused on the strong connection the museum has with the surrounding community.
“The interaction between the museum and the community works in two ways: how the community is present in the ecomuseum and how the ecomuseum is present in the community,” says Binette. “It’s a two-way communication. So the community is present in the activities we do and in our exhibitions. The community is also present in our infrastructure and committees to work on various projects.”

Binette says the museum works to remain involved with the community, by taking part in different committees and attending local events in order to interact with the community.

Aside from the community involvement, celebrating a specific culture is another important aspect of what the Écomusée du fier monde does.

“What is important is what we do in the field. Very often ecomuseums are in territories or in a place where culture is marginalized,” says Binette. “So very often the culture of regional minorities in small places is not very present in traditional museums, wherein lies the importance of the ecomuseum for these communities.”
Binette says the ecomuseum works to be a part of the development of the area.

“The collection is not only the artefacts that we own and preserve here but all of the area in the neighborhood,” says Binette.

Another example of the ecomuseum is the Écomusée de Hearst, Ontario’s only ecomuseum, according to Laurent Vaillancourt, one of the ecomuseum’s volunteers.

The Hearst Ecomuseum takes a slightly different form than the last two. It is run mostly on a volunteer basis, with the help of some grants from the municipality as well as employment subsidies for summer students they employ on a seasonal basis.

The Hearst Ecomuseum is located in one of the oldest homes in the community, donated by the town of Hearst. This ecomuseum is defined as a “non‑profit organization that promotes the regional identity, namely French‑Northern Ontario.” The museum works to explore the origins, history and religion of the region’s Francophone beginnings.
Vaillancourt says the ecomuseum is about looking “at the past in the present to foresee tomorrow.”

“I believe ecomuseums are important because they are closer to the community than the standard museum that usually sets a limit in time,” says Vaillacourt. “We do have a permanent exhibit titled “The Daily Chores” that shows life in the early days of Hearst, from the early 20s to late 40s; we are building a collection of advertising material, calendars, pens, ashtrays, mugs, etc. including USB sticks, all showing the name of a local business or organization; this will be to express the economic activity in town, our second quarter of the town’s history, 1948 to 1972. The third quarter will emphasize the cultural aspect, 1973 to 1997 where local artists started to make their mark in the province. The theme for the forth quarter is not set, Hearst will celebrate its 100th in 2022. We aim to be an “exploded” museum in the sense that it is not a specific place but it is all over town, we try to encourage people to show their history, to be aware of where we came from... and that we are all guardians of our heritage.”

Similarly to the Écomusée du fier monde, the Hearst Ecomuseum has a strong connection to its community through volunteers, being part of local committees such as the Heritage Sawmill Committee and working to better the surrounding community. Vaillancourt says Facebook is one of the ecomuseum’s most effective tools in terms of staying connected to the community.

While the themes and models of each of these ecomuseums differ in many ways, the core concept remains the same. They all work to share a sense of place, both historically and culturally while simultaneously preserving and bettering the community’s quality of life.

Some Canadian provinces have recognized the value of the ecomuseum, like Saskatchewan with their Saskatchewan Ecomuseums Initiative (SEI).6 When ecomuseums began to flourish in Europe, the museum community in Saskatchewan discussed the idea, however as ecomuseums began to develop in other parts of Canada, none cropped up in Saskatchewan. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum called province wide for potential interests in creating an ecomuseum, with over 15 locations responding positively to the idea. In turn, the SEI was formed in 2012. Heritage Canada has also contributed to the push for ecomuseums, initiating research, including three ecomuseum site case studies. In 2013, stakeholders and community leaders attended a workshop in Regina, resulting in an “Ecomuseum Planning Framework” being created. Since these efforts, a number of Saskatchewan ecomuseum projects have moved forward.

One of the most impressive projects to come from this initiative is Val Marie, Saskatchewan’s Prarie Wind & Silver Sage Ecomuseum (PWSS). PWSS Ecomuseum started as a small museum, which was revised in 2012 as an ecomuseum after receiving funding from SaskCulture. PWSS Ecomuseum is very much still a work in progress, but it is working to conserve the native Prairie landscape and appreciate Prairie culture and its natural history as it works with the themes of landscape, wildlife, ranching and night skies.

The concept of the ecomuseum, while strong in some Canadian provinces, is still constantly growing and evolving. While the concept of the ecomuseum is a relatively young one, there is no doubt this celebration and preservation of the sense of place will continue to grow and expand in North America.

Molly Kett is a freelance reporter, with particular interest in print and television journalism. She is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism, with a minor in history and English. She’s an avid reader, tea drinker and globetrotter.

1. “Kalyna Country (Ecomuseum Defined).” Kalyna Country. N.p., n.d. Web.
Davis, Peter. Ecomuseums 2nd Edition: A Sense of Place. London: Continuum, 2010. Print
Davis, Peter. Ecomuseums 2nd Edition: A Sense of Place. London: Continuum, 2010. Print.
“Kalyna Country (Ecomuseum Defined).” Kalyna Country. N.p., n.d. Web.
 “About the Écomusée.” Écomusée du fier monde. N.p., n.d. Web.

6. “Ecomuseums.” Heritage Saskatchewan. N.p., n.d. Web.


  This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, September/October issue, 2016