Born in North Carolina when her father was there as a student, Kathleen Christensen is the senior curator of The RCA (Royal Canadian Artillery) Museum at Canadian Forces Base Shilo. Christensen, who was always interested in history but was further inspired by time spent in England, is also President of the Association of Manitoba Museums, an organization that boasts just slightly less than 200 member museums, ranging from small, one-room collections to the Manitoba Museum and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Christensen is also a breast cancer survivor, who is team manager of Westman’s Waves of Hope dragon boat team, a downhill skier, recreational canoer, and camping and hiking enthusiast. She and her husband Alan have three grown children — Ian and Neil, who live in Winnipeg, and Anna Marie, who is in Ottawa. (COLIN CORNEAU)
When did you know you wanted to work in museums?
Well, my father was a university professor and he went on a sabbatical in 1976 to London, England. And naturally, I went with him — I was 14 at the time — and that was when I decided I wanted to work in museums.
It was the experience of the history that I encountered going to museums and historical sites around Britain. And then we had the opportunity of going over to the continent to France and Germany.
Where the history is so much lengthier.
That’s right. It goes back much further, obviously, than Canadian history. But Canadian history has its roots back in Europe and in old, original countries, so there was that connection to that. And I had always been interested in history. My grandmother was always very interested in antiques — she used to take me, when you were allowed to, to country dumps and pillage things from them and take them home and restore them and decorate your house with them. So I was always interested in old things.
And also, she would tell family stories about when her family emigrated to Canada — to Ontario and then later Manitoba. Her husband, my grandfather, had family that go back as far as the 1880s in Manitoba. My grandfather’s family actually had worked for The Hudson’s Bay Company. So our family history goes back a long way in Manitoba — I’ve always been interested in that. Being in England showed me a way to turn that interest in history into a career.
So when I returned, I decided that I wanted to work in museums, so I focused a lot of my studies on the arts and history and received my Bachelor’s in Canadian History from the University of Winnipeg with Museology as a minor. And then I applied to the University of Leicester in England, which was one of the few universities in the world that offered a Museum Studies program. So I was accepted and I went there in 1983 and took the coursework and then came back to Manitoba and completed my thesis.
I worked, then, for 12 years in Alberta, first in term positions, one of them with Markerville Creamery, which was being restored and opened up as a museum in a small community. And later on, I was hired with a Main Street restoration project in Lacombe, Alberta, where we were restoring eventually over 30 brick Edwardian buildings. And one of the restorations was a blacksmith’s shop that we opened up as a museum.
I worked for the Maski-Pitoon Historical Society, and they ended up finishing the project and I worked as the final project manager in the last year. And that’s when we did the restoration. I continued on with the historical society as their director in charge of two museums and then the interpretation of the historic Main Street.
And then you went to Ontario for …?
I worked in Ontario for nine years. My husband got a new position out in Ontario, and after a year I was able to find a job with the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society. It primarily operated a 120-year-old steamship called the Segwun — however, I was hired to run the small shore museum that the Historical Society owned and operated. After about eight years, the Historical Society entered into an agreement with the town and a developer for a development along the waterfront where the steamships had their pier. And part of that was a brand new museum for the Steamship Society. I was part of the development for that museum — planning, construction and outfitting of the museum. However, just before that museum opened, I saw the position for the senior curator in Shilo, and I applied for it because there was always this idea of wanting to come back to Manitoba, but there was no prior opportunity to do that.
So did you have any association with or connection to or knowledge of the military before coming back here?
I had worked in a lot of different types of museums, so the principles are always the same for curatorial skills. And so you apply them no matter what type of artifact you’re dealing with. It just does make it a little bit more complicated when the artifacts are so large. But I went from a steamship to heavy artillery, so there were always very large objects that I was used to dealing with. So it was not too much of a stretch. As part of my history background, I was always interested in military history or those moments in history where things change very quickly. And during wartime, those are often those moments. So you can’t study history and not study about the history of conflict — and change.
So the military history of Canada is often the study of the catalysts for change. And often it’s reflected in the artifacts that any museum has, but particularly a military museum, because they have to make their equipment adapt to those moments in history like any other activity. But they’re adapting it at the time the history is happening. So that’s reflected in the collection itself.
You mentioned the large stuff — the artillery — but The RCA Museum has a collection of smaller things as well, right?
That’s right — the collection ranges from these very, very large guns to the very smallest of objects. And the ones that are most fascinating are often the most personal ones that are from the soldiers themselves — the small things that made their lives more comfortable when they were experiencing warfare, which is so impersonal. So it’s their letters from home, their own mementos, their own mess kits and grooming aids, and just those things that made their lives a little bit more normal in what would be, I would consider, very abnormal circumstances. And that is when you do get in touch with the real person behind those moments in history.
So those artifacts, when you’re dealing with them in the collection, you’re able to reach back to those moments and back to that person who would have used it under those circumstances.
And in a sense, that it makes it so much more personal than mechanical, then, because we’re putting a human face on the event or the history?
That’s right. Because the guns and military equipment are very impersonal and very technological. And it’s very intimidating, not just based on the circumstances under which they were used, but even from a curatorial perspective, to try and see beyond the overwhelming issues, sometimes, of dealing with and preserving such large objects, that you have to get back and focus on the fact that it was real people who had to use these on a day-to-day basis, either for training or in combat. And with all their own past experiences that they would bring to those moments and their own personal skills and limitations they would bring to that activity. So it’s the smaller things that allow you to put all that into perspective.
I’m sure you get the odd comment about how the artifacts you curate ‘glorify war.’ How do you respond to people who have that attitude?
The artifacts are documents of a moment in history, as much as a letter that talks about the experience of farming in the early 19th century. They are all human activities, whether it’s agriculture, whether it’s industry, whether it’s domestic and social history. Military history is a human activity that has taken place since humans developed the ability to compete for resources. And in order to understand our human course through time, you have to understand each and every one of those activities. And that includes the background and the activities around conflict, warfare and a formalized military that has grown up in society — or grown out of society, particularly the European society — since the 17th or 18th century when you start developing more professional armies and a more formalized way of humans dealing with conflict. And you can’t really understand that just from reading books. Reaching back into history through the object is the most graphic and tangible way of understanding those human moments and making that connection. The only way you can do that is by continuing to preserve the objects that those people used at that time in the circumstances they found themselves in, without passing judgement on them from our own personal experience at THIS moment and our own personal experience from conflict we are experiencing now.
We all have our own personal opinions about current conflict, but when it comes to conflict that has taken place in the past, the only way we can understand it is by studying what has taken place. And naturally, we bring that to bear when we think of our own conflicts nowadays — that experience of what has happened in the past and the way conflict has arisen and been perpetuated and has been resolved. Those are all learning experiences that, when we study it, we can bring to any current situation that human beings are faced with when it comes to conflict.
What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
My favourite thing is telling the stories that are there within the collection and bringing them to people. So combining the use of words — we all understand history is presented through books in words. But books are so limiting. And you have the opportunity in a museum to combine words with images and actual objects from the time period. You engage the visitor through the combination of all that, as well as the design of your exhibit, which encourages them to interact with it, to study it, and to formulate their OWN opinions, not just the ones you’re trying to present within the exhibit. They can come to their own conclusions, which can be totally different from what your intentions were when you were developing the exhibit in the first place. And actually, that’s very exciting — when they take away something from the experience that you were not really expecting, either because of their own personal background and experiences, or from something that they never experienced before and didn’t really understand until they had the opportunity to go into a museum and examine what you’re presenting to them.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 4, 2014