Maple Ridge museum still bursting at the seams

Local history being stored in shipping containers, storage units

Summer students Elena VanBuschbach

Summer students Elena VanBuschbach

There’s thousands of stories held within the brick walls of the Maple Ridge Museum and Community Archives. The problem is, no one can get at them.

The local museum is jam-packed with artifacts, photos, and documents chronicling the long history of the District of Maple Ridge. But with every spare square inch being used to warehouse items, there is little room left for displays or community access, says director Val Patenaude.

“It would be wonderful if we could provide the  community with access,” she said. “As it is, we can’t provide anything. We have the archives, but no one can see them.”

The museum has even had to resort to storing many of its artifacts away in shipping containers, and a pair of storage lockers.

On Wednesday, volunteers helped to pack away items into a garage-sized storage locker, newly acquired by the museum, where they will sit under lock and key hidden away from public eyes.

Items like crosscut saws from Maple Ridge’s early logging days, the neon sign that used to hang in front of Wanstall’s gun shop on Lougheed Highway, and the sign for the old Albion Hall.

As it is, the museum’s attic is stuffed full of filing cabinets crammed with historical documents and photographs, as is Patenaude’s own office.

“We live in constant fear one of those filing cabinets is going to fall right through the floor on top of us,” says Patenaude with a chuckle.

But no more than five people are allowed upstairs at a time.

“This building was designed to be a home, not a museum,” said Patenaude of the historic Port Haney Brick Company house, built in 1910 for the company’s manager, Harold Burnet.

“I don’t even want to think about what would happen if there was an earthquake.”

Thanks to the new storage space, and a $3,500 grant from the Meadow Ridge Rotary Club for new shelving, there’s at least room to move around in the adjoining brickyard office.

The Maple Ridge Historical Society began collecting artifacts close to 60 years ago, and just because they are running out of space, doesn’t mean they can stop chronicling Maple Ridge’s history.

“Basically anything that’s too big to put on a shelf we’ve had to put into storage,” said museum curator Allison White. “But the public can’t see them there. We need a bigger facility to showcase them.”

However, sometimes the museum does have to turn away donations of artifacts due to lack of space.

“We are the community’s memory bank,” said Patenaude. “That doesn’t stop just because we run out of room.”

While a plan for a new museum was first floated nearly a decade ago, the project has stalled.

“We did a Phase 1 concept plan 10 years ago, and since then, nothing,” said Patenaude.

The proposed new museum would be situated alongside the historic Haney House overlooking the Fraser River.

A preliminary design was created in 2005 and was projected to cost $7 million at the time, with the price tag expected to rise by 15 per cent every year.

Heritage commission chair and former Maple Ridge Coun. Craig Speirs believes the project should be a top priority for the District of Maple Ridge.

“It’s getting ridiculous,” he said. “I personally know of three or four families that are holding on to things they’d like to give to the museum, but there’s no place to put them.”

The museum would not only allow the historical society to properly celebrate Maple Ridge’s long history, but it could be an economic driver in the ongoing revitalization of Maple Ridge’s downtown.

“It’s a key piece for the Port Haney area,” said Speirs. “There would be a real benefit for residential and commercial development that happening [in the area] to have the museum there.”

The next step, he says, is for the District of Maple Ridge to spend the money to update the nearly decade-old plan, and start looking at ways to fund it. With no major capital projects on the horizon, the museum should be the district’s next project.

Putting money aside for the project now will also allow the district to take advantage of matching-fund grant opportunities, should they present themselves.

“We need to be prepared for … when senior levels of government want to get involved,” he said.

Parks and leisure services general manager Kelly Swfit said she is not aware of any current plans to update the museum plan. She estimated the cost now for a new museum would likely be in excess of $10 million.

“For any project there’s always competing priorities,” she said. “It may not be an arts centre, or recreation facility, it may be an infrastructure project that is needed.”

Even if the District of Maple Ridge were able to find the funds to build the new museum, the real concern would be operating costs.

“Over the life of the museum, operating costs would be more than cost to build it,” said Swift.

White said that a museum the size of the one being proposed would likely require eight staff staff members. Currently, the Maple Ridge Historical Society, which is funded by the District, has just two full-time employees.

Both Spiers and Patenaude agree that if the people of Maple Ridge want their new museum, they’ll have to let their local politicians know.

“Without the support from the public, it’s not going to happen,” said Patenaude.

• The Maple Ridge Museum is offering 50 per cent off memberships for the rest of the year. Info: www.mapleridgemuseum.org.