Edmonton City as Museum Project

The development of a city museum for Edmonton has been proposed many times. The city has long lacked a focused approach to heritage preservation and, accordingly, found difficulty in creating a single location for local heritage.

At the 2012 International Council of Museums Conference, retired Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, Larry Beasley proposed a change in philosophy towards a more outward-facing perspective. “How can a museum reorient outwards to join a civic life?” Beasley asked in his keynote The City as Museum and the Museum as City. “Perhaps the walls and spaces within which you now collect and curate and educate can be exploded, blown away, and redefined. Perhaps the city itself—its streetscapes, its parks, its theatres, its neighborhoods, its palaces and its slums—could become the actual museum; or at least a significant part of the museum.”

With 2008’s The Art of Living, the City of Edmonton set a ten-year path for strengthening the profile of heritage in the city. Two key recommendations to develop an overall museums strategy and to set the foundations for a future city museum gave an opportunity to “blow away” those walls. While the work to research facilities options continues in the background, two other streams have taken precedence: the development of a Museums Network to encourage sector growth, and the launch of what would become the Edmonton City as Museum Project to engage the public in local heritage.

Initially, these streams were developed separately and with different strategies, messaging, and goals. However, it quickly became apparent that the Museums Network needed a broader mandate—after all, Edmonton’s heritage doesn’t lie solely within the walls of museums and in the hands of heritage professionals. Over the past year, the renamed Edmonton Heritage Network has expanded to find heritage in archives, small volunteer-driven societies, neighbourhoods, and in passion-projects by enthusiasts who don’t professionally identify as heritage workers.

Meanwhile, ECAMP has developed as a place to connect all of these points of interest—large and small—to the public. ECAMP’s trial run came in the form of Curiosities Bus Tours, during which dozens of Edmontonians visited unexpected heritage locations and connected with these unearthed city stories.

“With the city as the actual museum, you could not just interpret your city; you could join the energies that transform it,” Beasley argues. “The artifacts that you could work with would not just be the artifacts that you collect or borrow – they would be the actual walls and spaces and landscape and water and monuments and even the people of the city.”