Over the last 18 months, there has been a lot of activity aimed at the development of ecomuseums in Saskatchewan. People from 15 sites across the province will be meeting in Regina next month to talk about the possibility of an ecomuseum taking root in their communities. At the provincial level, 18 organizations have discussed the idea, and it has been recognized as a core project by both the Museums Association of Saskatchewan (MAS) Committee on Sustainability and the Saskatchewan UN Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) on Education for Sustainable Development. Most importantly, a steering committee is in place to keep the discussion going, chaired by the RSM, with representation from MAS, Heritage Saskatchewan, and SaskCulture.  

So the time is right for a blog on what ecomuseums are all about, and why people might be interested in them. I suspect that part of it has to do with the word ‘ecomuseum’ and the layers of meaning behind it.

First – a bit of context. Invented in France in the early 1970s, ecomuseums have been set up around the world and now number in the hundreds, according to resources like the Ecomuseum Laboratory in Italy. Examples include the Kristianstads Vattenrike Ecomuseum in Sweden, which was set up to address concerns about water and is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum in Alberta, which encourages tourism across 20,000 sq km.

ecomuseum model

As for the word, the prefix ‘eco’ is derived from the ancient Greek ‘oikos’ for house, household, or family.  Words that start the same way, like ‘ecology’ and ‘economy,’ are associated with holism, relationships, interactions, inter-dependence, and the behaviour of complex systems. This gives an ecomuseum a broad foundation for addressing issues and bringing groups together to protect and raise the profile of local heritage assets and living cultures.

The ‘eco’ prefix is not without problems though. Ecomuseums are sometimes confused with ‘economuseums,’ which are organizations that aim to preserve traditional skills and promote the production of small-scale, local crafts.  Ecomuseums have a much broader focus but they often involve local artisans, which only adds to the confusion!   

The word ‘museum’ is also rich with meaning. Museums are often seen as places with collections, but the word itself refers to the ‘place of the muses,’ the ancient Greek goddesses of inspiration and creativity (Worts 2006, pg 167). In early Greek mythology there were three muses – meditation, memory, and song. Later, the muses were the nine daughters of Zeus, responsible for history, song, dancing, astronomy, and different types of poetry. That’s a lot to ask of a single place, but it also gives the word ‘museum’ a fair bit of flexibility, and cache!

Hugh De Varine, the man who coined the term ‘ecomuseum’ in 1971, eventually shied away from it “because too many people have used that word for too many things” (quoted in Davis 2011, pg 78). Yet the notion of a home-based (eco) place of the muses (museum) continues to attract attention and bear fruit. There seems to be something compelling about bringing ‘eco’ and ‘museum’ together to create: ‘a museum without walls,’ an ‘agreement by which a community looks after a place,’ and ‘a dynamic way in which communities preserve, interpret, and manage their heritage for sustainable development’ (Murtas and Davis 2009). 

roche percee formation

To facilitate further discussion about this idea, the Saskatchewan Ecomuseums Steering Committee has adopted the following definition, developed by Dan Holbrow from MAS: 

Ecomuseums are community museums that provide a unique mechanism for community engagement, in which community members work to preserve and learn from tangible and intangible heritage in its living form. Through community consultations, stakeholders agree on cultural assets that they value and create plans to ensure they are preserved and used as the basis of sustainability planning. Unlike a traditional museum, ecomuseums do not necessarily gather objects in a museum facility. Instead, they enable communities to preserve and learn from valued objects, sites, and cultural practices where they exist, enhancing their visibility and the contributions they make to community development activities.

As this working definition is debated and other steps are taken to explore the potential for ecomuseums in Saskatchewan, I will use this space to reflect on developments, and to pass on news. With that in mind, mark your calendars! The Kalyna/Edmonton region will be hosting a major international conference about ecomuseums on Aug 26-29, 2014.

More reading:

Worts, D. (2006) Fostering a culture of sustainability.  Museums and Social Issues 1: 151-172

Davis, P. (2011) Ecomuseums: a sense of place, 2nd edition.  Continuum International Publishing Group, New York.

Murtas, D. and Davis, P. (2009)  The role of the Ecomuseo Dei Terrazzamenti E Della Vite, (Cortemilia, Italy) in community development.  Museums and Society 7:150-186.