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Exploration Place: Evolving to meet our community’s needs

BY TRACY CALOGHEROS

CEO, The Exploration Place

“Why is the Museum still closed?” is a refrain I am starting to hear more as the world starts to carefully reopen. It’s gratifying to know that we are missed in people’s lives, and I want to share with all of you what has been going on in our galleries while you have been connecting with us online.

Propagating succulents.

First, allow me to start by sharing our thinking. Your museum last underwent a significant overhaul in 2000; some 21 years ago. Since we opened as The Exploration Place at March Break in 2001, we have welcomed in excess of two million visitors, hosted countless events and exhibits and have won awards at all levels for our programming. We have built deep and meaningful relationships with the Lheidli T’enneh Nation, the Regional District of Fraser-FortGeorge, the City of Prince George and most importantly, with all of you. As I hear young staff reminiscing with each other about the Science Alliance Camp they attended as children, or the impact a particular exhibit from the past had on them, or how Cream, our former Animal Ambassador, helped them to overcome their fear of snakes, I am so proud of the investment this community made in an unknown future with a “stodgy old museum,” and the vision that represented.

If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that change is in the wind and that museums and science centres are a treasured piece of Canadian’s lives; a piece that is itself flawed, with room for growth and development. The Exploration Place is rising to that challenge with an entire re-think of the museum we all know and love.
Further applying the lens of reconciliation to our planning and decision making, broadening our storytelling to better include the role of underrepresented ethnicities in the post-contact development of the area, tackling climate change in our work, and our program and ensuring that we are able to continue to supplement the core funding we receive from the regional district, and the Province of British Columbia, with earned revenues has resulted in an ambitious renovation project we are calling
the Living Evolution.

We are creating a new Ethnography Gallery just outside of Hodul’eh-a – A Place of Learning, that will allow us to showcase neighbouring Nations and highlight repatriation work we are doing in partnership with many indigenous communities in the Central Interior.

In our Ted Williams History Centre, we are preserving the billiards table, while removing the mini theatre and jail cell to allow for an expansion to the permanent exhibits on post-contact, settlement history, to include those underrepresented contributors.

We are moving our George Phillips Exhibit Gallery to the main floor, creating a larger space and better access for traveling, and in-house, temporary exhibits. You will see many more locally curated exhibits inthis gallery in the future – cutting down on the impacts of shipping exhibits while increasing local content.

We are carving a geology gallery out of the lower gallery, adding exhibits on mining as well the geology of our region and a “signage” gallery that will feature the historic signage of the Three Georges.

The new Palaeo-Botany Hall (in what was formerly our Atrium) will become an incredible indoor green space, complete with 90 foot long, living, aquaponics wall, offering family seating, live exhibits and an exploration of climate change through a palaeo lens. We are expanding our Biome Gallery to encompass part of the second storey above it, and will feature new Animal Ambassadors (like a three-banded armadillo, a porcupine and flying squirrels to name a few). We are also working through the process to become an accredited zoo and are presently designing the medical room, isolation space and new habitats.

Good ventilation has increasingly been identified as key to human health, and as such we had to move our Curatorial Team out of the Vault with its carefully controlled air and humidity, while creating a quarantine space for incoming collections and those that have been recently handled.

New entry and exit spaces are being developed to allow for seamless and safe access points, as are touchless doors within the facility. As more of our team works remotely for at least part of the time, greater control of our building systems and our security cameras meant that these systems needed to be replaced as well.

This does mean that the Children’s Gallery and the “boat” are relegated to history. That gallery, a soft introduction to heritage while well-loved, didn’t accomplish what its designers intended and was completely inappropriate in this world where sanitization of spaces and surfaces has become essential.

We are seeking to replace this activity space with our new galleries and expanded Biome. From an earned revenue perspective, we knew that our future attendance was likely to be limited by health orders and/or by people’s reluctance to be in close proximity with each other, at least in the short-term. We are adding Origin’s Kitchen to our operation, offering wholesome food both into the museum and out, directly into Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park, through an outside service window.

Ourgift shop, often the go to spot for creative gifting, will have an expanded footprint within the operationand will reopen as Elements Retail. Watch for our launch of e-commerce this fall.

We have also begun work to establish an Exhibit Shop that will allow us to both create our own exhibits for our galleries, and to travel those exhibits to partner organizations in the region and more broadly, up and down the West Coast, realizing both a cost savings and a new revenue stream for your museum.

Our Fort George Explorers Child Care Program will stay on hiatus permanently as we work with our partners, the Lheidli T’enneh Nation, on their own, ambitious childcare facility and program. Our Early Explorers Preschool is already gearing up to pilot our new, outdoor, nature-based preschooler program this fall.

We have replaced our out-of-date curatorial database with an intuitive, easy to use new system that is already available online at our website and are currently working to find the right membership system that will also do away with physical membership cards.

And so, with all of that said, what does that mean for an opening date for the galleries? As of this writing we are working towards a winter opening. We have gutted the galleries during our closure and are currently awaiting additional funding news.

The Northern Development Initiative Trust stepped up early and allowed us to begin work on many areas of the project, but we are still awaiting further money from the provincial and federal governments. We are hoping to launch Origins and Elements later this summer or early fall. If the weather cooperates and fires are allowed, we are hoping to run The Little Prince Steam Engine for at least a couple of weeks this fall too.  The fact is, we never really closed, we just shifted our work on-line and began the internal process of imagining this new museum while simultaneously seeking funding for both capital and operating costs, all while navigating this pandemic and other, emerging social issues, as both an organization and as individuals. We went from 40 staff to 11 and yet continued to provide local programming, leadership and advocacy for our sector all while maintaining our living collections and embarking on the Living Evolution renovations.

Our staff are doing their best to squeeze in a break this summer because they know that we will hit the ground running this fall, in order to be able to welcome all of you back this winter. I would like to thank our members, for their faith in our work, and for their support during this time (and always). We will extend all existing museum memberships for their intended duration, when we are able to reopen and
we have some sneak peeks planned for you specifically as we work towards reopening.

If you’re a planning on visiting one of our CASC or ASTC partner institutions this summer or fall, you can email us at  info@theexplorationplace.com  for member perk information, travel letters, and membership information.  For more detailed information, you can visit  http://www.theexplorationplace.com/about-us/members   
In short, I am excited about the opportunities this lengthy closure has provided for us to improve our professional practice and to reimagine a community forum that remains relevant, engaging and fun!

Canadians trust their museums and we aim to continue to earn that trust. Your Exploration Place will be back soon; with more to offer of the award-winning experiences you’ve come to expect from us.

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