MY HERITAGE FOUNDATION YEARS 1982-88 – A PAINFUL TRANSITION

PROLEGOMENON

I met the Executive Director of the Heritage Foundation in the mid-1950s when, as a very young dental technician, she gave me fluoride treatment as part of the Government’s program to save the teeth of Island youth. She was very kind and I couldn’t wait for my next treatment just so I could bask in that kindness.

The next meeting was perhaps a dozen years later when I visited her antique shop in Charlottetown. A year or so later she visited Elizabeth Cran and me in Tignish as we tried to make a go of the Tignish Arts Foundation. She was very interested in community heritage and was already planning, along with friends of like mind, something that would serve the whole province.

By 1973 she, and others, had established the Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation and, by inheriting various sites Island Tourism had begun to develop, had gained an extensive and complicated decentralised museum system.

I met Catherine Hennessey again in 1978 and 1980 at week-long courses in architecture and folklore I gave for the Atlantic Canada Institute at UPEI.

In 1981 I was offered the job of Executive Director of the Heritage Foundation as Mrs. Hennessey was intending to retire in the coming year. I would begin my employment as the Program Director, a job involving the production of exhibits and public programmes.

 

UNEASY PROLOGUE

In the fall of 1981, the HF had a weekend meeting at Beaconsfield involving all its employees. The organisation had evolved at a tremendous pace during the previous nine years and was going through an intense period of self-study. For the first time there was an operating deficit which greatly worried the Board of Directors. There were also problems with staff relations resulting in frequent blow-ups and nasty conflicts with local boards, such as the one at Basin Head. Salaries and site autonomy were the major issues.

What I witnessed that weekend made me realise that I was stepping into a severely troubled organisation. The tension and hostility were palpable and a number of times during the day there were angry shouting matches involving both the administration and employees. The day ended horribly with people storming out in anger and frustration. Nothing had been accomplished except to expose me to what, I assumed, would be the norm at the Heritage Foundation in the days ahead. Thus began the worst years of my life.

 

I GO TO WORK

On January 4, 1982 I started work at the Heritage Foundation. Almost from the start tensions and disagreements multiplied until, within a month, life had become unbearable. That was very sad as, my own feelings aside, the Executive Director, who was already extremely stressed by her relationship with her Board that had made it clear that her time was up, had that stress intensified by our angry and tense relationship. The essence of the strife was that we came from different directions that could never meet. I so regret those times.

There were lots of things to do, the most important being getting to know my colleagues all over the Island, and I worked very hard at that. Everywhere I was besieged with complaints about how things were run. For the most part, as an outsider, I was not trusted. In time I also got to know a lot of other people in the arts and heritage community and, without exception, found out that they too had serious gripes about how heritage (pronounced by a lot of people as “hairy-taige”) was administered.

In the end the time came for the Director to leave. In the December 1982 issue of the Newsletter, the Chairman of the Board, Betty Howatt, announced that Catherine Hennessey had resigned.

 

CARRYING ON

The helpless Board asked Lynton Martin, Director of all museum work in Nova Scotia, which involved 22 sites, to be interim director of the Heritage Foundation. He would come at intervals and stay for varying lengths of time. I got to know him well and spent many hours with him talking about our particular problems, and museums in general. In the meantime, a Search Committee of the Board was set up to write a job description and find a new Executive Director for the Foundation.

Wolves were now baying at the gates (albeit well-meaning wolves) and they rushed in with alacrity after Mrs. Hennessey resigned. Alan Rankin, of the Provincial Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, took a deep interest in what was happening “across the road’ at Beaconsfield. The late Harry Baglole, a great promoter of Island heritage in all its forms, working through the Institute of Island Studies at UPEI, oversaw the hiring of the noted museum consultant Barry Lord to write a report on the state of Island heritage that would examine its history, present status and recommend a detailed path for the future of the complete organisation.

The Lord Report (1982) was the best study ever done on the Heritage Foundation. It was the seventeenth study relating to the Foundation and Island heritage done since 1972, and if you count in several ancillary studies done during that time span, that averages out to two studies per year! Go figure.

The Lord Report was so good, so clear in its analysis of short and long-term issues that nothing subsequent to it would ever compare favourably. It is as relevant today, 37 years later, as it was then.

A Management Committee set up by the Board to work with Mr. Martin consisted of the Secretary (!!!), the Accountant, the Curator of Collections and the Program Director. Chairmanship of this committee rotated, and we all took turns at doing nothing. Such a provocative gesture was typical of the heavy-handed, patronising, rural aristocrat Chairman of the Board.

A competition for the post of Executive Director was held and the interviews were supervised by Mr. Martin. He submitted a list of the twelve applicants to the Board in order of suitability for the job. I became familiar with that list, so familiar that I knew I was at the top of it.

EVERYBODY complained that the Lord Report was just too long and too dense and too difficult to understand. Nobody could find the time to give it a close reading. To calm everybody’s nerves, Mr. Martin wrote a 19-page (with appendices) version of the Lord recommendations he felt were particularly relevant. It was called Recommendations of the Structure, Function and Development of a Prince Edward Island Provincial Museum. But even that was too much and almost nothing came of it.

In my Program Director’s report, published in the Annual Meeting June 16, 1983 Newsletter, I made a plea that employees should receive better salaries in view of their dedication and hard work. Embarrassingly low salaries was one of the chief bones of contention among the staff.

Things suddenly began to move quickly because by that time the Heritage Foundation staff were in full revolt about their conditions of employment. There was one recommendation in the Lord Report that had struck a powerful chord and spurred them on to action against the insouciance of the Board:

As a last resort in the face of Board hostility, I now spent all my energy encouraging the employees to join the Provincial Civil Service Union. The Union accepted us with open arms. EVERYBODY was rehired in the necessary competition, EVERYBODY received a raise, sometimes a spectacular one, as positions and responsibilities were classified. The stranglehold of the Board of Directors was loosed forever, and the Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation became frozen in time. Community and Cultural Affairs now controlled everything. The air was thick with both hatred and rejoicing.

It was time for the Province’s first Museum Act and that was produced in 1983. There was a great deal of fair consultation in which the curatorial staff was allowed to participate. The Board of Directors were completely unable to face this new reality and insisted that the new organisation be called The Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation. They simply could not let go of the past and let go of the dysfunctional Heritage Foundation. I firmly believed then, and still believe today, that there will be no provincial museum until the Heritage Foundation is ritually killed and the name “Artifactory” replaced by something more grown up, less cute, and more literate.

 

On October 1, 1983, the following notice was printed in the Heritage Foundation Newsletter.

It was all over for me. Ian Scott and I had been contemporaries at Mount A and graduated the same year. He was a biology student who lived out in Sackville’s first commune and did leather work. We met for the first time after the Board meeting that confirmed his position as the new Executive Director. He was introduced to me by Board Chairman Betty Howatt, in the presence of his sister-in-law, Cathy Large, who was also Vice-Chairman of the Board.  I was utterly humiliated.

Having nowhere to go, I lingered on, in an armed camp, for several more years, and life went on as usual. The Island Magazine continued to be published and Irene Rogers’ Charlottetown: The Life in its Buildings was published amidst great rejoicing. In collaboration with the wonderful David Webber at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, the Heritage Foundation put on several fine exhibitions, one, Four Victorian Rooms in 1985, really quite remarkable as I shall show in my next post.

Finally, I was forbidden by the Director, who expressed the wish of the Board Chairman, to have anything more to do with the Confederation Centre. Another very prominent member of the Board had declared that “Confederation Centre is an exotic implant that will never take root.” – this, 19 years after the Centre had been opened! Collaborative exhibitions ceased and I had to retire from the board of the Friends of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery.

Still unsure where to go and how to do it, the Board of Directors hired another consulting firm to produce another study – the nineteenth!!! In January 1986 Diomedia Consultants presented A Planning and Development Study for the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation. As opposed to Martin’s 19-page report this was 121 pages long! The Diomedia people were friendly and easy-going, and  many employees trusted them and opened up to them. Of course it was all a futile exercise. By now the Board had become a symbolic appendage with almost no power, except to make recommendations to the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs.

And what about more studies, the lifeblood of the Heritage Foundation? They continued. In April 1990 a very focussed, carefully considered study called A Five Year Plan for the Prince Edward Island Museum & Heritage Foundation was submitted by the new director, the late David Webber. That plan went nowhere as well.

Studies, now exceeding twenty, have continued to appear. The last one I added to my collection in August 2008 was Charting a Course: A study of Heritage in Prince Edward Island which was prepared for the PEI Department of Communities, Cultural Affairs and Labour by The Iris Group in association with A. L. Arbic Consulting. I glanced through it and put it down. I just couldn’t face any more futile speculations and recommendations.

In the darkness of winter I resigned from my job in early 1988, and faced a very uncertain future.

 

 

 

REFERENCE MATERIAL

I am tempted to list every Heritage Foundation study I have in my collection (over 20) but feel too nauseated to do so at this time. When I recover from writing this post, I will no doubt add them to the list. Someone is bound to be interested. They are the essence of the story. For now, however, I list these vital reports.

Hennessey, Catherine G., Information Manual of the the [sic] Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation, manuscript, Summer 1979, revised Summer 1982.

Iris Group in association with A. L. Arbic Consulting, Charting a Course: A study of heritage in Prince Edward Island, prepared for the PEI Department of Communities, Cultural Affairs and Labour, August 7, 2008.

Lord, Barry; edited by Lord, Gail Dexter, The Museums of Prince Edward Island: A Programme for Development, A Report to the Island Studies Committee, University of Prince Edward Island, 1982.

Martin, Lynton, A Planning and Development Study for the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation, manuscript, n.d. [1982].

Webber, David, A Five-Year Plan for the Prince Edward Island Museum & Heritage Foundation, prepared for the Planning & Development Committee of the Board of Directors, April 1990.

______________ Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation Newsletter, Vol. VI (1977) to Vol. XIII (1983). [These Newsletters are vital to building a chronology of what actually happened during these critical years of the Heritage Foundation.]