Description: Museums dedicated to natural resources (including forestry, coal mining, petroleum, and water) typically celebrate a local industry that uses, reshapes, and markets natural resources. For the most part, these displays are promoted and funded by the regional groups and corporations that have developed and profited from this industrial activity. Drawing on interactive forms of museum display found in science and children’s museums, these exhibitions typically celebrate industrialization, telling a story of progress while insisting that such activity is both crucial to and embedded in the local economy and identity. Examples of this kind of industrial museum include the Forest Interpretive Centre in Whitecourt (opened 2000), which is owned and operated by the Whitecourt and District Heritage Society, and supported by local industries; it highlights the number of people employed in and revenue generated by two major pulp mills in the area even as it makes reference to the necessity for conservation efforts. The Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray features the technologies associated with extracting bitumen from the oil sands, while inviting visitors to climb up and imagine driving a 150 ton heavy hauler truck. Using museums to promote corporations and present them in a positive light is nothing new. During the 1930s, for example, Du Pont created exhibitions championing the wonders of chemical products for the New York Museum of Science and Industry. Some historic sites and museums adopt, however, more nuanced and complex representations of the use, management, and exploitation of natural resources in Alberta, including those featured in this section.
Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site
Click the image for more photos of Brooks Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site
“Like a giant centipede, the Brooks Aqueduct spans a shallow 3.2-kilometres-wide valley, suspending a concrete sling twenty metres above the parched prairie landscape. Once filled to overflowing with precious water bound for the thirsty croplands of southwestern Alberta, today it holds only memories.” This description of the Brooks Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site is featured on promotional pamphlets and web sites created by the Government of Alberta. Built between 1912 and 1914 by the Canadian Pacific Railway's irrigation division, the aqueduct delivered water diverted from the Bow River by the Bassano Dam to farmers in the Eastern Irrigation District of Alberta until the 1970s. The imagery provided in government literature does more than compare the paired pedestals with the legs of a centipede. It suggests that the aqueduct is a living creature, both monstrous and fascinating like a centipede. Centipedes are impressively complex, consisting of numerous segments, and while they may be unwelcome in domestic spaces, they are also beneficial, devouring such bothersome insects as bed bugs. In tension with the quantitative information that is also provided in most pamphlets, this characterization of the aqueduct portrays it is part of nature and not human made. Information offered at the visitor’s centre and during the self-guided walking tour reconfirm this images of the aqueduct as an entity that never fully cooperated with humans and could not be controlled by them.
While the Brooks Aqueduct is impressive, especially the siphon that once forced water to travel beneath the CPR tracks that intersected its path, it was never very efficient and was always difficult to maintain. In 1979, the aqueduct was replaced by an earth filled canal that carries close to 50% more water than the original structure. The Brooks Aqueduct never operated at full capacity; problems with the relatively weak Portland Cement were evident as early as 1918, when the first pieces fell away from the concrete shell, and the alkaline water began dissolving the surface of the pedestals. Throughout the 1920s, the CPR constantly repaired the aqueduct, replacing the leaking expansion joints and adding drainage ditches, while using a cement gun to spray the rotting pedestals and flaking shell. This annual repair work was continued by farmers in the Eastern Irrigation District in 1935 after they organized to take over water management, negotiating a payment of $300,000 from the CPR in recognition of the ongoing challenges in the district, including the crumbling aqueduct. The Brooks Aqueduct was finally declared structurally unsound in 1979 and it was scheduled for demolition. When this process was deemed too expensive, however, a protective fence was placed around the aqueduct; it was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1980, and a National Historic Site in 1983. In contrast to most museums or sites devoted to natural resources and industrialization, the Brooks Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site potentially allows for recognition of human failure and an ultimate inability to manage the natural world or control the unforeseen impacts of human intervention.
Other Natural Resource Museums:
Forest Service Museum
Click the image for more photos of Alberta Forest Service Museum
This small museum occupies a replica of a ranger's cabin on the grounds of the Hinton Training Centre, a provincial facility for the education and accreditation of forest rangers. A number of name changes since its opening in 1975 have somewhat obscured the centre’s focus on conservation and sustainability. (In stark contrast, the Whitecourt Forest Interpretive Centre is a paean to the logging industry.) Although the museum is unstaffed and has become rather dated, the collection is brought to life by a 40-minute audio documentary. This informative presentation beings with a critique of early settler's attitudes to the forest – for example, clearing land with fire without realizing that they were destroying necessary humus, for example. The presentation also covers the difficulties of ranger life, such as a historic rabies outbreak in the 1950s, fire education as a more effective strategy than fire control, and the development of the school itself. The museum is only opened by request, and although signage is present on the highway it is rather difficult to locate. The museum suffers from a lack of promotion but remains a little gem from Alberta’s centennial.
Click the image for more photos of Atlas Coal Mine
The museum's claim to fame is its 125-foot tall wooden tipple, the last of its kind in Canada. It has been restored and stabilized by modern engineers, and is accompanied by a historic mine office and other buildings, as well as an abundance of mining equipment, all neatly labelled along a gravel path. Although tours can be expensive they are worthwhile, ranging from 45 to 90 minutes. Topics covered include the history of the mining industry in the Drumheller Valley, the competition between companies, the life of the miner, health and safety, strikes and unions, and the marketing and uses of coal. The tipple itself is a gravity-feed mechanism much like a grain elevator, with sorting grates to separate coal into five sizes (slack, stoker, nut, egg, and lump). The Atlas mine is famous for painting its coal with an orange highlight, and selling it as "Wildfire" coal. The orange was explained as a unique element veined into the charcoal which increased its flammability. As an advertising gimmick it worked all too well, with other companies paying to use the trademarked secret. As natural gas displaced coal for domestic use, the tipple mines slowly went out of business. Strip mines, which produce a different, harder coal for the energy sector, remained viable for much longer. The Atlas Coal Mine transitioned from a working mine to a museum in 1984, and they now sell "Wildfire" soap made from the same charcoal.Transportation Museumstop of page