By Lorne Eckersley
For 22 years, Tammy Bradford has been doing “the best job I could dream of,” managing the Creston Museum and Archives.
Under her guidance, and with the support of a series of boards of directors, Bradford has transformed a collection of artifacts into a vibrant, interactive and forward-thinking institution that has admirers around the country.
Managing a museum, though, isn’t quite what she had in mind when she pursued her degree in history.
“I didn’t have a particular job goal in mind, but I really didn’t like museums when I was young,” she said last week. “Lots of dusty display cases crammed with old items.”
A family trek across the country when she was 16 opened her mind as to how history can come alive when it is presented in a thoughtful manner.
In Eastern Ontario the family stopped at Upper Canada Village, which has people in period costume.
“I loved that experience, but it felt like the characters were just acting,” Bradford recalled.
“Later on that trip we visited the Fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island and I became fascinated how history is little things that lead to big things. With all those people in period costume you are there, right in the middle of history. It felt like they were actually living in another era. You could feel the tension and activity of the time,” she said, “And I thought, ‘This is what I want to do!’”
With a fascination with history firmly in place, she pursued summer jobs that suited her post-secondary studies, and worked as a tour guide in Ottawa’s Rideau Hall and the S.S. Moyie in Kaslo.
“I learned from those experiences that history is fun and interesting if you present it in a way people can relate to.”
At Laval University she also loved political science—“I like the historical aspect of it”—and was fascinated with how people make change, and how pushback against change “always happens.”
Born and raised in the West Kootenay, Bradford developed a special interest in regional history, and she enhanced her résumé by adding a certificate of museum studies to her history degree, then went to work at the Grand Forks museum, where she felt like the curator was preparing her for the Creston job.
The Creston Museum came to be in the early 1980s, when a museum in Yahk went broke. It held a large collection of Creston Valley artifacts, all donated by local residents, and a huge community effort rallied to purchase the collection, then to buy the present property that included a stone house. The location proved to be a godsend because its several acres have allowed for the construction of more buildings and the addition of numerous outdoor displays, as well as lawns and gardens for visitors to enjoy.
Bradford says that she has experienced countless changes over the years.
“The whole museum field has changed dramatically. Twenty-two years ago visitors would walk in quietly and look at dusty display cases, but now there is so much more interaction. We have lots of pieces that can be picked up and handled, and of course there is our web site and Facebook pages that allow us to connect with the entire world.”
While she describes herself as something of a luddite, Bradford undersells her abilities. She is now taking an on-line certificate course in how museums are relevant in today’s society. And the museum’s Facebook page and web site draw a lot of attention.
“Museums now need to fill social needs if they are going to get the necessary funding,” she said.
A social media presence has helped keep up the Creston Museum and Archives’ presence, and plans are now in place to reopen the facility.
“Luckily, we have the space to do things like social distancing. Our main concern is whether we will be slammed with visitors when we reopen. We pride ourselves on having artifacts open and letting people handle them—but we have to adapt to keep people safe now.
“We are working hard to manage and minimize the risks.”
Change is inevitable, of course.
“Museums and the people who work in them were knowledge holders, and we doled out that knowledge. Not so much now, though. We are facilitators who help people find what interests them.”
Bradford and her small team are now working on adding culture collections and stories to collections that were once mostly exclusive to white European descendants.
“There hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to new Canadians and even working class people—we are changing that now.”
Whether or not she admits it, Bradford is at the forefront of change in how museums connect with their communities. For evidence one need look no further than the amazing collection amassed to acknowledge the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
“We were already doing a lot on the subject in anticipation of Blossom Festival, but we really increased it when the pandemic forced our closure and Blossom Festival was cancelled.”
A key to her continued enthusiasm is that Bradford rarely does the same thing for days, or even hours, at a time.
“I might be doing research, writing books, putting together displays, writing grant applications, interviewing and supervising summer students, taking telephone requests for information or conducting tours—both in the museum and around town—so I never really have a chance to get bored. But there are occasions when I jump into something new and ask, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’
“But the truth is that I love it!”
Asked about unusual requests she has had over the years, she said that not long after she started the job she got a call from a movie set designer who needed information about specific objects for a film set in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
“Would a blue speckled coffee pot be out of place?”
She confirmed the appropriateness by checking Eaton’s catalogues from the era.
“And we get lots of little trivia requests. Like what time did the siren blow for the curfew in the 1960s?”
In her research Bradford learned that the use of a siren eventually became restricted to announcing that a fire was in progress so there would be no confusion for volunteer firefighters.
“We got a call asking if we have old newspapers,” Bradford said. “I said yes and then the caller said, ‘I mean really old, like 1996!’”
The museum’s collection dates back to 1908, when the Creston Review first published. Each paper from then to 1935 has been digitized and the files are searchable, a joy for researchers.
One of her favourite memories involves a search for information about someone’s grandfather, who had lived less than two years in Creston. She happened upon a newspaper listing of properties with unpaid taxes being put up for sale by the Town. The grandfather owned several of the properties.
“How do I tell her that her grandfather had been a bit of a con artist?” Bradford wondered.
But the granddaughter was thrilled, the information confirming family lore about granddad being a bit of a scammer when he was young. He later turned into an honest, responsible citizen.
“The learning curve was a little steep when I got here—I was a staff of one in a small community. But I have learned to do a bit of everything and now I couldn’t imagine just doing one thing. There’s never a chance to get bored. I love what I do—it’s the best thing ever!”