30 years of history with Cathy English

Chances are that when you think of our local history the first person to spring to mind is Cathy English, the curator of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives. David F. Rooney photo
Chances are that when you think of our local history the first person to spring to mind is Cathy English, the curator of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives. David F. Rooney photo

By David F. Rooney

Chances are that when you think of our local history the first person to spring to mind is Cathy English.

On the one hand that’s not surprising since she is  the curator of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives. However, she’s not a local girl — she’s originally from Castlegar. Everything she knows about Revelstoke — and when it comes to history that’s just about everything — she’s learned in the 30 years she has been with the museum.

A lot has changed in those three decades both for Cathy and the Museum itself.

“I’d had a few other other jobs but nothing permanent,” she recalled about her decision to accept a posting at the museum in 1983. “I got the job and started putting up displays.”

The museum was a different place when Cathy first joined it back in 1983. The now-defunct Revelstoke Art Group ran a small gallery on the second floor of the Post Office building and the museum occupied the ground floor. It was run by the late Margaret McMahon and Ruby Nobbs along with a number of other volunteers and was only open in the summer. In most respects it was like a lot of small rural museums: it had a shoestring budget, a volunteer staff (usually older women) and had pretty simple displays and collections.Run by people who recognize the value of local history and the power of a community’s collective memory, places like that still exist. ”

We wouldn’t even have a museum today without the people who volunteered to run it over the years,” Cathy said in an interview on Monday.

Cathy had a knack for it and she was also quite organized, qualities that her superiors recognized when they offered her a position coordinating the summer staff for the munificent amount of $4.50/hour.

The more she learned about her adopted home, the more enchanted she became.

“For me it’s all about stories; it’s about connections,” Cathy said. “I have lots of stories about Revelstoke. My favourite is the Farwell Police War. That’s when the Northwest Mounted Police and the Provincial Police began arresting each other (in 1885) over differences in liquor regulations.”

History also tells us that local concerns really haven’t changed much over the years. Take something like the perennial anxiety about people riding their bikes and skateboards on city sidewalks. That was an issue back in 1913. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change the more they stay the same).

But some things do change and the Museum & Archives is one local institution that has grown and changed over the years. It’s budget has grown from a few tens of thousands of dollars to about $176,000. It was visited by 12,370 people in 2012. This included 6,490 Gift Shop visits, 3,056 people attending programs or meetings, and 2,824 people visiting the archives or touring the museum. There were 19 Brown Bag History sessions — Cathy’s opportunity to tell stories about local life and history — that attracted an average audience of 15. And then there were dozens of school visits, tours, displays and special museum-based events. Click here to view the Museum & Archives annual report.

“We had approximately 2,050 artifacts in 1983,” she said, adding that its collection started in 1960. “We now have over 6,000 artifacts. We have over 7,500 photographs now and in 1983 we had about 1,200.  We have also added well over 350 archival collections comprising several meters of material.”

The Museum & Archives has also embraced the Digital Age. It has a website and a blog.  It uses social media to help it reach a wider audience and it has also contributed two virtual exhibitions — Getting Here from There  and Gliding, Sliding, Soaring to the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Country Memories section. And last year it won a $238,000 contract to deliver an elaborate interactive website and exhibition about avalanches, to be called The Land of Thundering Snow, to the Virtual Museum of Canada. That won’t be completed until 2014.

Cathy credits the Museum board and its many volunteers for much of the credit for this. That’s pretty typical. Cathy is a modest woman and rarely blows her own horn. But credit should go where credit is due. Cathy’s vision of the Museum as a public institution and her own innate love of her adopted community play a role here, too. Mayor David Raven recognized that when he commented on her 30 years with this important local institution: “I have respected and admired Cathy for many years   Her  dedication to the history of Revelstoke and our culture is recognized locally, provincially and federally.  Cathy has contributed much to the fabric of our community as she has willingly shared her knowledge and passion for our heritage.”

That’s pretty high praise for a woman who is not a local. On that subject, as with so many others, Cathy has a story.

“I once interviewed this old retired railroad engineer names Eugene Lessard,” she said. “He was in his 90s and when I asked Ruby Nobbs about him she said, “Oh, h’e not a local — he’s only been here since the ’30s.”

Local or not, few can fault her dedication and love of our community.

Cathy: Thank you for your 30 years as one of the keepers of our collective memory. You have done a remarkable job.