Curating experience: Barkerville curator Mandy Kilsby

Perhaps one of the biggest cultural misperceptions is that history never changes—when, in fact, it changes as quickly as it’s written. Consider BC’s iconic Barkerville Historic Town: ground zero for the 1860s Cariboo gold rush, its unique collection of 125 heritage buildings has evolved over the past 70 years from a simple tourist attraction to a living example of cultural preservation and community development.

But as Mandy Kilsby well knows, it’s no easy task managing a collection of nearly half-a-million archival objects and photographs in a remote location with one road in . . . and only about 100 snow-free days a year.

While she has been Barkerville’s curator since 2014, Kilsby has spent the past 15 years working with the collection in multiple roles—but, like most professionals, finds it difficult to balance daily tasks with the need for professional development.

Mandy Kilsby in Barkerville in October 2020

The essentials of professional development 

Enter UVic’s Professional Specialization Certificate (PSC) in Collections Management, which allows museum professionals like Kilsby to develop applicable knowledge and skills in a flexible format that suits their busy schedules.

“This was a good opportunity to learn best practices and current methods, and to connect with other people in the field,” says Kilsby, one of 11 professionals receiving their PSC through the Department of Art History & Visual Studies this fall. “It’s just good training—the chance to have a bit more knowledge of what I’m doing, as everything otherwise is learned on the job.”

Administrated by Continuing Studies as part of their Cultural Resource Management program, Kilsby was able to undertake her PSC studies at her own pace while balancing multiple duties as Barkerville’s curator, a councillor with the District of Wells (site of its own gold rush in the 1930s), the museum collections and staff manager for the Wells Historical Society, and her role as a new parent.

It’s no easy feat curating a living museum like Barkerville (Photo: Thomas Drasdauskis, courtesy of the Union of BC Municipalities/Picture BC)

Sharpening her focus

Given the sheer size of Barkerville’s collection, Kilsby emphasizes the importance of good collections management skills. “A couple of years ago we were going through paper records and I came across a reference to a ‘Barker company axe’—it had been in the collection since [town namesake] Billy Barker owned it, but no one had seen it for years or knew it existed, so we tracked it down. It was all very exciting!”

While Kilsby’s PSC studies provided the opportunity to brush up on her archival and risk management skills, it also helped sharpen her focus on the importance of historical collections like the one she manages daily. “We can’t right past wrongs unless we know what really happened,” she says of BC’s often-problematic colonial past. “We’re moving away from doing interpretive history as a nostalgic experience and approaching it more like, ‘Holy cow, things were bad then—what can we do about it?’”

As Barkerville continues to evolve with its 160-year history—from climate-change issues like flooding, freezing and forest fires to shifts in tourism fueled by changing demographics, COVID and travel restrictions—Kilsby firmly believes our provincial past has an important role to play in BC’s future. “There’s still lots of our story to tell, and the older Barkerville’s buildings get, the more valuable a resource they are historically—and you can’t beat our location.”