|May 7, 1999||Volume 6, Number 16|
DCC head shares struggles of museums across the country
As the current director of the Diefenbaker Canada Centre walked through Boomtown and out into the machinery storage area, it struck him that there was something wrong with the usual emphasis historians place on the east-west nature of Canada.
"Three-quarters of the machinery I saw was American - Case, John Deere, International Harvester, etc. The decision of western farmers to buy American equipment indicated that there had been a major American influence on settlement patterns, too, and one that most historians underestimate."
His realization formed the nexus for a number of articles he published in such journals as Saskatchewan History, American Review of Canadian Studies, and Agricultural History and was the basis of his doctoral dissertation, currently being revised for publication, on the American influence on the settlement and development of the Canadian plains.
He's also written a book, Deemed Unsuitable (1997), on the migration of 1,500 African Americans to western Canada between 1905 and 1912, which he says now looks as if it will proceed to a second printing.
His contention that "Uncle Sam pops up every time you kick over a stone on the prairies," has implications for the very development of the University.
"President Walter Murray, who didn't want this to be an élitist institution, modeled it after such state universities as the one in Wisconsin, which had been founded to be of service to its citizens. Thus, we were the first university in Canada with an extension division and one that incorporated a college of agriculture."
A piece of advice from some of these state universities which wasn't heeded, and which Murray almost resigned over, says Shepard, was that the University be located in the capital city.
"Their idea was that the University should assume an advisory role to government. When the University wasn't located in Regina, Murray was careful to make the Methodist College there a part of the U of S. He feared that if Regina became an independent University, it would enjoy a more favored status with the provincial government - an issue we're still concerned with today."
While history and politics are clearly major interests in his life, Shepard says they didn't influence his decision to become a museum director.
"That happened quite by accident. I was exhausted from studying when I completed my MA here in 1976 and decided to continue my family's business tradition by selling Xerox machines. After two years of being neither their best nor their worst salesman, I saw an advertisement for a job as manager of the Western Development Museum, which called for a blend of academic and business training."
So began a trial by fire managing a museum which, he says, provided a learning situation no management school could have offered.
"Deficits, lack of both storage and display space - every conceivable problem a museum could have, it had."
He was later recruited by the provincial government to manage Government House historic property in Regina, another case study in the art of museum management.
"Most of the money allocated to the project was spent restoring the building, with almost nothing left for operational funding."
Before becoming director of the Diefenbaker Centre in 1994, Shepard was part of a team that developed SCN, the Saskatchewan educational television network, had been the superintendent of the Fort Calgary Historic Park, and had obtained his PhD in Canadian Plains Studies from the University of Regina.
"Because I've always been challenge-oriented, the difficulties faced by the Centre appealed to me - not that it has problems every museum in Canada isn't facing today. We're all out there scratching and clawing for funding, hanging on by our finger tips."
Currently, the Diefenbaker Canada Centre (as the staff renamed it in 1995) isn't receiving any sustaining government funding - a fact he's been obliged to explain to a number of irate patrons, now that the Centre has begun charging admission.
"Why should I pay admission? I'm already funding the Centre through my tax dollars is a fairly typical complaint. The public expects governments to fund museums. Yet for far too many politicians, culture is a frill. Museums contribute to the well-being of a society and are every bit as important as health funding. After all, a society that loses knowledge of its past is like an individual who loses his or her memory."
In his years here, Shepard has become something of an expert on the intricacies of funding and programming. Last year, the Centre lost about a third of its funding, when the Diefenbaker Society, which had supported the Centre since 1990, turned over the money it had been administering to the University to create an endowment for it.
This endowment, with others from the Mabel Child Estate and the Diefenbaker Estate, now generates its base-line funding. But, with interest rates remaining low, it has had to find ways of seeking new resources.
"Taking over our own fund raising hasn't been easy; but a year into it, there are grounds for optimism. K-to-12 attendance continues to soar, particularly after local media began to sponsor youth admission and the decker bus that brings students here began operating.
"Since January 7, when we began running one tour each day, we've been booked solid."
As well, Shepard believes that the Centre is beginning to evolve into its mandate.
"It there's one thing even political opponents said about Mr. Diefenbaker, it's that he loved this country. By becoming a centre for Canadian studies, we can build upon that aspect of his legacy that focused on leadership, citizenship, and Canada's role in the world."
And, he adds, the fact that Diefenbaker's papers are located here brings hundreds of requests each year from scholars in Canada and abroad. As well, Diefenbaker's donation of John A. Macdonald memorabilia, including his desk, have given the Centre a valuable collection.
If the present funding crunch doesn't allow for such spectacular exhibits as the Magna Carta, which drew about 10,000 viewers in the dead of winter in 1990, many recent shows have been well received.
"We've gone to more community-based shows, including the sixth annual high school art show now on display. One of the more successful shows I've been involved with in my five years here was the one on crafts in Kenya, sponsored by the local Mennonite Central Committee. We hope that our facility, with its great potential - a talented staff, environmental controls, and excellent lighting - can continue to make our past a living entity."
- Sigrid Klaus
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