National Music Centre: The Red Flag?

I intentionally waited for over a year before visiting Calgary’s new National Music Centre (NMC), aka Studio Bell. I wanted to give it time to work out the bugs and get all of its exhibitions and programming in place.  But, It was hard. The reviews of the interior architecture were all glowing. What I didn’t hear was how great the exhibitions or programs were.  All the talk was about how spectacular the building was.  To me, this was a red flag!

However, after returning from Nashville and experiencing their music museums I decided needed to check out NMC. I called up a friend who also hadn’t made it to the Center yet (even though he had an annual membership for the first year) and made plans to go together.

  National Music Centre's lobby invites visitors to play pianos and guitars.

National Music Centre's lobby invites visitors to play pianos and guitars.

Great First Impression

I loved that as I entered the National Music Centre I immediately heard live music. It was young girl playing the Dean Stanton-decorated piano in the lobby. Then I heard a young man tickling the ivories on another piano in the lobby, as well as some guitar sounds from the exhibition space just off the lobby.

GREAT - lots of hands-on opportunities for people to play and hear musical instruments.

Uplifting

The lobby was visually uplifting with its five-storey central atrium and stairwell to the heaven (pun intended) with slivers of light shining through.  Indeed, there was a sense of reverence - a cathedral-like sense of place. 

  It is easy to get seduced by the museum's striking architecture.  

It is easy to get seduced by the museum's striking architecture. 

Unfortunately, as we proceeded through the exhibitions we both became less and less enchanted.  There were lots of galleries that seemed to have very little in them or they had material to read but not much in the way of things to listen to or play with.

A lot of the information was easily available on the Internet or was old news.

  An example of large exhibition space devoted to information that is easily accessible on the Internet.

An example of large exhibition space devoted to information that is easily accessible on the Internet.

Some Things Missing

Given the Centre’s collection of over 2,000 musical instruments, we expected to see and hear hundreds of instruments. While there were some displays of instruments, it was often the same ones we had seen at the old Cantos Centre in the Customs House.  And while there were some places with headphones that allowed you to hear the instruments, they were too few and the music offered too short.

  An example of one of the exhibition from the museum's collection.

An example of one of the exhibition from the museum's collection.

I was also expecting some kind of introductory video summarizing Canada’s music history. Something that would get me excited about what I was about to see and put Canada’s music into perspective.

  This exhibition of "Trailbrazers" looks like billboard. This would have been a great place for a video documenting the how Canadians have been music "trailblazers" for over a century.  

This exhibition of "Trailbrazers" looks like billboard. This would have been a great place for a video documenting the how Canadians have been music "trailblazers" for over a century.  

But surprising to us both, there wasn’t and we didn’t see it anything that would helped international visitors appreciate the unique regional music of Canada.  For example, the role of the kitchen party in Maritimes and its links to Celtic music.  It seemed logical to both of us there would be separate galleries celebrating each region with listening stations that would invite you to sit and listen to a spectrum of the region’s music.

I was expecting something like the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, which organizes its huge collection of instruments into dozens of displays based on musical genre and countries.

I missed the in-depth historical story-telling I experienced in musical museums in both Nashville and Memphis.  For example, at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, there was a very large display of Shania Twain artifacts that not only told the story of her rise to fame, but also how she is responsible for linking country music to pop music, and thus significantly changing contemporary music.

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I didn’t find NMC’s k.d. lang exhibit with its display of outfits and interview particularly insightful.  I would have loved to have seen a video of her performances and how they changed as her career evolved. I will never forget seeing Lang at Calaway Park in the early  ‘80s wearing a wedding dress and cowboy boots and dancing like a possessed shaman.  I wanted to be "wowed" by her exhibition. Link: Early k.d. lang performance

  k.d. lang exhibition seemed more focused on fashion than on music and performances.

k.d. lang exhibition seemed more focused on fashion than on music and performances.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was we couldn’t see and hear the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, as it is located in the King Eddy wing of the Centre, which is only open for special events. 

The state-of-the-art exhibitions I was expecting were not to be. I came away with the impression that the champions of the Centre spent lots of money and attention on the building design, but little on the exhibitions and programming of the space. 

Highlight

On the upside, the highlight for me was the 15-minute live demonstration of the 1924 Kimball Theatre Organ that was used to make music and sounds for silent movies. The thundering sound of this huge instrument - the size of main floor of a 1950s house - was impressive, as were the range of sounds it could make.    

This is what I was expecting more of - turns out it was the only live demonstration of the day.  If you came in the morning, there were no live demos. I would have loved to hear someone play some early Elton John on the white Elton John piano.  Or how about a demo of the Theremin - a musical instrument that you control by waving your hands over it, rather than physical contact.  I want to hear the instrument, not just read about them.

To me, the key to a music museum is the ability hear lots of different types of music, not just read about it.   And when the museum has a large collection of rare instruments, I want to see and hear them performed.

Poor Design

While everyone is blown away by the architecture, it doesn’t really work well as a museum space.

The open central atrium and tiled surfaces mean sound echoes through out the building.

 The ramp/stairwell of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has many of the same design vs function issues at the National Music Centre. 

The ramp/stairwell of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has many of the same design vs function issues at the National Music Centre. 

It was really annoying when kids were talking loudly in the lobby (as you would expect) but you could hear them throughout the building. 

The stairwell, atrium and other design elements also mean there is actually less exhibition space than one would think given the size of the building.  

I had many of the same feelings, when I visited the Canadian Museum for Rights in Winnipeg. 

In both cases, the champions built a uniquely shaped building but that doesn’t function as a great exhibition space and has lots of wasted space.

  Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. 

Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. 

  National Music Centre aka Studio Bell in Calgary.

National Music Centre aka Studio Bell in Calgary.

Importance of Programming

As a former art gallery director and curator, I am very cognizant of the fact the exhibitions and programming are the key to a successful gallery or museum, not the architecture.  In fact, you don’t really need to pay admission to appreciate the NMC’s architecture - you do that from the outside and the lobby.

Over the two hours we were there on a Friday afternoon in November, there were perhaps 35 people in the entire museum and only 11 showed up for the Kimball Organ demo. This pales in comparison to my experience at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum a week earlier where hundreds of people packed the museum on a Monday morning.

We were told it was a slow day.
  Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum was busy even first thing on a Monday morning. 

Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum was busy even first thing on a Monday morning. 

Value for Money

While, the 163,000 square foot National Music Centre costs $191 million to build, I feel it would have been better to budget $125 million (for which you could still get a stunning building) and then raise $50 million as an endowment to create stunning exhibitions and programming, including having the King Eddy fully operational with live music 7 days a week.  I am told the King Eddy will open full-time in July 2018.

In fact, the 210,000 square foot expansion of bass clef-shaped Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 2014, cost $130CDN million and has very similar specs.

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Last Word

Though just my opinion, it is an informed and honest one. Just in case you are wondering, the opinion of my fellow visitor was “the Centre is sterile and underwhelming.” 

I was expecting a lot of Calgarians to disagree with these observations, however, the response (10 emails and 2 calls) to date (Dec 7th) has all been in support of these observations. 

If you like this blog, you will like these links: 

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?

Postcards: International Musical Instruments Museum

Music Museums In Memphis

National Music Museum accepts authenticity challenge

Calgary Hidden Gem: The Book Dissected

University campuses are fascinating to me.  They are a world unto themselves, each with their own sense of place and unique energy.  After a recent Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change Advisory Committee meeting at the University of Calgary, I decided to flaneur the campus. 

Hidden Treasures 

For those of you who haven’t been on campus (or haven’t been there in many years), it is a maze of buildings, pathways and +15 bridges that can be difficult for the neophyte to negotiate. I was immediately drawn to the relatively new (opened in 2011) $205 million Taylor Family Digital Library complex which seems to have become the heart of the campus (but not before getting trapped in a construction detour). 

Upon entering, there was an advance Municipal Election polling station in the lobby, so I quickly voted.  Then above the polling station tables I saw a huge sign saying “The Book Dissected” exhibition was on the 5th Floor.  I couldn’t resist.

What I found was an amazing treasure – a tiny exhibition room hidden at the far end of the hall.  While the floor was packed with students, I doubt many or perhaps maybe any of them realized what lie at the end of that hall. 

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“Paradise Lost” Found

What I found was an intriguing exhibition entitled “The Book Dissected” exploring book construction and illustration from 1500 to the 1800s.  

The highlight for me was Book IX of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (published in 1688) opened to a full-page engraving illustrating the “fall of humankind.”  Nearby was a Latin bible from 1556 with an alchemical recipe scribbled on it and an ancient Swedish bible with pressed flowers still sitting on the opened page.

 There are actually two edition of Milton's Paradise Lost in the collection a fourth edition (top, 1688) and second edition (bottom, 1674). 

There are actually two edition of Milton's Paradise Lost in the collection a fourth edition (top, 1688) and second edition (bottom, 1674). 

More Treasures

One of the most remarkable illustrations was an ancient clergyman’s design for Noah’s Ark, which the exhibition brochure says, is mathematically correct. Not sure how they would know that?

The exhibition also explores the collecting pursuits of ancient English travellers combined with specimens of the same time borrowed from the Faculty of Science to create a 17th century cabinet of curiosities.  

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Fun With Bibles

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Last Word

I left shaking my head wondering what other amazing treasures the University of Calgary has hidden away in remote locations.  In fact, the exhibition brochure says, “The bibles in Special Collections are a particularly rich source for provenance research.”  Surely, the Special Collections deserves a more prominent location in the Library and more recognition as one of Calgary’s best treasures.  With the right location and marketing, it could become a tourist attraction!  May I suggest it could replace the gift shop next to the Nickle Museum on the ground floor?

“The Book Dissected” is presented by the University of Calgary’s Special Collections and curated by Maria Zytaruk, Department of English.  It continues until December 4, 2017.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

A-mazing University of New Mexico Campus

University of Arizona: Resort vs Research

Dublin: Newman University Church a hidden gem!

Calgary: East Village Envy

It all happened so innocently. I saw a tweet inviting East Village residents to visit the National Music Centre (NMC) free on Sunday, August 6th and tweeted back “Why were only East Village residents getting in free?” I was quickly bombarded with tweets and an interesting twitter conversation ensued over the next 10 hours.

Some thought it was a great idea, given East Village residents have had to put up with construction for so many years.  Others thought it would be great for the seniors living in the affordable housing complexes who can’t afford regular admission.  Yet others like me, thought it was strange that one community had been singled out for free admission. 

  Studio Bell or National Music Centre is a massive building that has attracted significant attention from the international design community for its unique shape and design. 

Studio Bell or National Music Centre is a massive building that has attracted significant attention from the international design community for its unique shape and design. 

 Calgary's East Village is perhaps one of the largest urban construction sites in North America with several new condos, hotels and retail developments, as well as an iconic new library currently under construction. 

Calgary's East Village is perhaps one of the largest urban construction sites in North America with several new condos, hotels and retail developments, as well as an iconic new library currently under construction. 

Truth Is…

On Monday morning, I checked with the National Music Centre to learn what the rationale was for free admission for those living in East Village only.  Turns out the free admission was sponsored by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), the city body responsible for managing the redevelopment of East Village and one of the investors in the Museum.  

In 2017, CMLC has a $1.5 million dollar budget just for Community Relations and Marketing - no other community in Calgary has anything near that, not even ones with a Business Improvement Area levy like downtown, 17th Ave, Kensington or 4th Avenue.

For me this was another reminder East Village has a special status that no other Calgary community has.  Over the past year, I have been hearing comments like “How did East Village get a deluxe community garden given to them when we had to raise our own money? How did East Village get St. Patrick’s Island redevelopment while our park gets little or no attention? I sure love the benches in St. Patrick’s Island; how can we get one in our park?  Who is paying for all the free community events happening in East Village every weekend?” 

In fact, no community in Calgary has received as much municipal investment in such a short time as East Village. 

Yes, some of the investment like St. Patrick’s Island Park and Central Library are citywide amenities, but if that is the case, then the Rivers District Community Revitalization Levy (RDCRL) probably shouldn’t fund them.

  Riverwalk has become a very popular place on the weekends for people to sit and stroll.  It has been heavily programmed by CMCL as a marketing strategy for selling condos.

Riverwalk has become a very popular place on the weekends for people to sit and stroll.  It has been heavily programmed by CMCL as a marketing strategy for selling condos.

What is the RDCRL?

To accomplish the mega makeover of East Village, the City of Calgary set up a special Rivers District Community Revitalization Levy in 2007. To date City Council has authorized $276M (additional revenue has been generated by the sale of city owned land in East Village) to be borrowed to make all the necessary infrastructure and other improvements needed to create a 21st century urban village, with the loan payments being paid for by the new property tax revenue from new developments.  

The RDCRL boundaries not only include East Village, but Victoria Park and Stampede Park and downtown.

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Council also set up the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (with its own Board of Directors) as a “wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary with a mandate to implement and execute a public infrastructure program approved by the City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta to kick-start Calgary’s urban renewal in East Village.”

CMLC has done an amazing job of the mega makeover of East Village converting it from a sea of surface parking lots, a prostitute stroll and drug dealers’ den to a haven for YUPPIEs and empty nesters. 

To date, CMLC has attracted $2.7 billion of new construction in East Village which has generated the $357 million in levy revenues and it is anticipated to be whopping $801 million by 2027 when the RDCRL expires.  

  Calgary's "float boat" shaped Central Library with its playful geometric decals is destined to become Calgary's newest postcard to the world.    

Calgary's "float boat" shaped Central Library with its playful geometric decals is destined to become Calgary's newest postcard to the world.    

How has the $357 million been invested to date?

The first wave of projects were budgeted at $143 million for infrastructure improvements (raising the roads, sewer, environmental clean-up and new sidewalks) $55 million for the 4th Street Underpass and $23 million for phase I & II of RiverWalk.  

  St. Patrick's Island has been transformed from an under utilized, almost forgotten park, into a wonderful urban playground for the growing number of families living in the City Centre. 

St. Patrick's Island has been transformed from an under utilized, almost forgotten park, into a wonderful urban playground for the growing number of families living in the City Centre. 

The second wave of projects were less infrastructure projects and more about making East Village a 21st century urban playground. 

Specifically, the St. Patrick’s Island makeover cost $20 million plus $25 million to replace the existing pedestrian bridge. 

There was $22 million to restore historical buildings, $70 million to the New Central Library once it was decided it would be located in East Village (total cost of the new library is $245 million) and $10 million to the National Music Centre.

  Bloom by Michel de Broin is just one of several public art pieces (permanent and temporary) that CMCL has commissioned for East Village. 

Bloom by Michel de Broin is just one of several public art pieces (permanent and temporary) that CMCL has commissioned for East Village. 

As well, smaller projects included the Elbow River Traverse pedestrian/cycling bridge ($5 million), C-Square, a plaza along the LRT tracks designed as a passive gathering / small event space ($3million) and a community garden with 80 plots ($75,000).

Collectively, all of these projects convinced developers the new East Village was an attractive place to invest and they have worked with CMLC to transform East Village from an urban wasteland to an urban playground.

  Excerpt from CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan.

Excerpt from CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan.

Is $357 million too much?

While I appreciate East Village was woefully ignored by the City for many years and therefore in need of a huge investment to kick-start the redevelopment, I think the investment of $357 million by the City of Calgary via CMLC in one community is excessive.

When I pointed out to Calgary’s Twitter community that while East Villagers have indeed put up with a lot of construction, they have gotten - or are getting - a lot in return – spectacular new library and museum, beautiful new RiverWalk, lovely sidewalks with hanging baskets, a wonderful redeveloped park, new playground and an upscale community garden, I was (not surprisingly) lambasted by some and applauded by others. 

  These benches in St. Patrick's Island have a contemporary sculptural look with the mix of wood, concrete and minimalist sensibility. The design is very clever as one person can be lying down on one side while two people can be sitting on the other side of the back support and two more on the concrete slab.  Not that I have ever seen that happen. Wouldn't they be lovely in parks across the city?

These benches in St. Patrick's Island have a contemporary sculptural look with the mix of wood, concrete and minimalist sensibility. The design is very clever as one person can be lying down on one side while two people can be sitting on the other side of the back support and two more on the concrete slab.  Not that I have ever seen that happen. Wouldn't they be lovely in parks across the city?

Perhaps the most poignant tweet was by Elise Bieche, President of the Highland Community Association who wrote “And we thought asking for the creek to be daylighted was too much for the developer or the city to handle.” 

(FYI. Daylighting in this case refers to that community’s request to have the creek that used to run through the Highland Golf Course and has been covered over for decades (the water currently run through a pipe underneath the golf course) to be returned to its natural state and become an public amenity for the entire community.)

Indeed, the first wave of East Village projects were much needed infrastructure improvements – raising the roads, new underpass to connect to Stampede Park, flood protection, new water and sewer lines and sidewalks (about 50% of investments to date).

However, I don’t believe RDCRL revenues should have helped pay for the new Central library, National Music Centre, redevelopment of a regional park (St. Patricks’ Island), a deluxe community garden and children’s playground. These are not infrastructure projects, as per the intent of the levy

I do not blame CMLC. They have done an amazing job. But I am questioning how much taxpayers’ money has been invested in East Village to create a public realm that raises the bar way beyond what the City can provide in other communities.  

  These summer chairs look like something you might find on a cruise ship.  They create a very welcoming sense of place along the Riverwalk.

These summer chairs look like something you might find on a cruise ship.  They create a very welcoming sense of place along the Riverwalk.

Nenshi’s Cultural Entertainment District Proposal

It is very possible the next wave of RDCRL projects could be a new arena in Victoria Park and an expanded convention/trade show centre in Stampede Park. They will be the equivalent of East Village’s Central Library and National Music Centre. Other projects included in Nenshi’s Bold Plan include renovations to Olympic Plaza (Riverwalk), Expanded Arts Commons (St. Patrick’s Island/Bridge) and Victoria Park development (Traverse Bridge).

Indeed, the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation is lobbying the City to create a CRL to fund their new arena/events center be it in Victoria Park or West Village. 

I ask – “Is this the best, most appropriate way for the City to fund these two mega projects?” I am not sure it is. It is my understanding that CRL's work best when the levy's pay for infrastructure projects that are the catalyst for private sector (tax paying) projects.  

Perhaps it is time to rethink how Community Revitalization Levy funds are used to ensure fairness to all Calgarians.

  Mayor Nenshi kicked off his 2017 re-election campaign announcing his bold vision for Culture and Entertainment District that not only included East Village, but Victoria Park, Stampede Park and the existing cultural district around Olympic Plaza. FYI: All of these ideas and projects were included in CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan published earlier in the year. 

Mayor Nenshi kicked off his 2017 re-election campaign announcing his bold vision for Culture and Entertainment District that not only included East Village, but Victoria Park, Stampede Park and the existing cultural district around Olympic Plaza. FYI: All of these ideas and projects were included in CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan published earlier in the year. 

Last Word

As my father of four used to say “If I give it to you, I have to give it to the other three.”  While I realize not all communities are created equal (i.e. not all communities have the potential to attract $2.7 billion in new investments like East Village), I do think it might be time to rethink the RDCRL. 

Do CRLs create an uneven playing field for private developers in Calgary where they have to pay for all of the public amenities and pass on the cost to the new home buyers? Think Currie, Seton, Quarry Park or University District?

And yes, I am envious of all the lovely amenities in East Village. I think many other Calgarians are too.

If you liked this blog, you might like these links:

East Village: The Lust Of The New Playground

East Village: A Masterpiece In The Making?

Crazy Idea: New Arena In Victoria Park

Calgary's Audacious New Library 

 

 

 

 

Olds: The Fastest Town in Canada?

We’d been hearing good things about Olds for awhile, including the fact it was Canada’s first “gig town.”

  The town of Olds thinks globally acts locally.

The town of Olds thinks globally acts locally.

Backstory: One gigabit per second is super high-speed Internet that only a few North America cities have.  With that kind of bandwidth, you can stream at least five high-definition videos at the same time (allowing multiple people to watch and download different things in different rooms of a house or busines.  The Olds Institute’s Technology Committee conceived the idea back in 2004 as one of its economic development strategies to attract new businesses to locate there.   Called O-NET, it not only offers residents and businesses the fastest internet in Canada but also free community WiFi in dozens of public places across town – pretty much everywhere.   

Link: Gigabit Broadband in Olds

Then, a few weeks ago, a visiting young couple from Olds (they were picking up a bed that we were storing in our garage for friends) enthusiastically shared with us why they loved living in Olds and some of their favourite things to see, do and eat.

We decided we must go.  So we did, the next weekend.

  We loved these inviting colourful chairs strategically placed throughout Olds College campus. 

We loved these inviting colourful chairs strategically placed throughout Olds College campus. 

Six good reasons to visit Olds

#1 Garden & Butcher

Olds College started as a demonstration farm back in 1911, followed by the Olds School of Agriculture and Home Economics in 1913.  Today, it has a wonderful park-like campus and yes, the farm is still there.  A relatively new feature is the Botanical Gardens (started in 2001) has evolved into 13 specialty gardens including – Rose Garden, Herb Garden, Iris Collection, Wetlands, Water Garden, Alpine Garden, Apple Orchard, Conifer Bed, Heritage Grove and Perennial Border.  Visit the garden several times a year and get a different experience each time. 

A popular spot for weddings, they added some pageantry and colour on our Saturday visit.

Link: Visit the Gardens

You also won’t want to miss the Olds College National Meat Training Centre.  The College has the only facility in North America where students have the opportunity to learn everything from humane animal slaughter to retail meat cutting. 

For the public, this means there is a retail store on site that carries a wide variety of beef, pork, lamb and poultry cuts. They also have smoked sausages and ready-to-eat meals. Time your visit accordingly as they are open Monday to Friday (noon to 5 pm) and Saturdays (10 am to 4 pm).  It is located in the Animal Science Building. (Note to self: bring a cooler and ice packs with you.)

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 Olds college also has 20,000 square feet of greenhouses.  Stop by to purchase cut flowers, veggies and herbs.  Seasonally you can find annuals, perennials, succulent and tropical plants sold as single plants and mixed planters in the greenhouse rotunda Fridays from noon to 1 pm September to June.  Availability changes weekly so consider signing up for their Thursday e-mail flyer to be kept up to date. (photo credit Olds College website)

Olds college also has 20,000 square feet of greenhouses.  Stop by to purchase cut flowers, veggies and herbs.  Seasonally you can find annuals, perennials, succulent and tropical plants sold as single plants and mixed planters in the greenhouse rotunda Fridays from noon to 1 pm September to June.  Availability changes weekly so consider signing up for their Thursday e-mail flyer to be kept up to date. (photo credit Olds College website)

#2 Pandora’s Boox and Tea (PBT)

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No, that isn’t a typo! The rationale for the name is that every time one opens a book, a new realm of possibilities opens up which is play on the Greek myth, Pandora’s box.

The name is very apropos for this unique shop.

Located in an early 20th century CIBC bank building, PBT is a lovely urban-esque surprise - it combines a bookstore, games entertainment hub and teashop.  For Calgarians, think Sentry Box meets Pages bookstore meets Tea Traders.

A lovely hour was spent browsing the shelves (full of books, games and cards), sipping tea and watching some board gamers play. This would be a good place to check out just how fast this “gig town” is.

  We loved the colourful, modern retro design of our cups and pot of tea.  The biscuits were a nice touch.  

We loved the colourful, modern retro design of our cups and pot of tea.  The biscuits were a nice touch. 

  Pandora's Boox is a relaxing chill spot for people of all ages.

Pandora's Boox is a relaxing chill spot for people of all ages.

   eeny, meeny, miny, moe...

eeny, meeny, miny, moe...

#3 Shoe Shopping

If you are looking for a new pair of shoes, you might want to think about heading to Olds.  They have a couple of great shoe shops. Our favourite - Henry’s Shoes - had over 15,000 pairs of shoes (we were told their Trochu store is even larger…hmmm a future road trip).  A great range of quality brands and sizes, and second-to-none service and fitting to boot (pun intended). 

It was all we could do to resist buying a pair. 

   Shoes or folk art?

Shoes or folk art?

  A blast from the past!

A blast from the past!

Not to be outdone, Jensen’s Men’s Wear also has a large selection of men’s and ladies’ footwear worth checking out, as well as a huge collection of western wear.  You are in the heart of cowboy country after all!

And then there’s Craig’s, serving Olds and community with quality fashions, fabrics, yarns and giftware for 119 years. 

To celebrate Canada 150, they have created several displays using vintage store artifacts from their collection 

I was even invited to check out the historic vault in the back room. 

Craig’s is fun a walk back in time

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#4 Retro Fun

Rockin’ Retro is a huge antique, retro, vintage shop.  While there is some rock and roll memorabilia (as the name suggests), there is a diverse selection of artifacts including one of the best collections of old tins that I have seen in a long time.

The Nu2U Thrift store located nearby is also worth a visit. You never know when or where you will find a hidden treasure!

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#5 Aggie & Old Skhool

Don’t leave town without a visit to the Olds College Teaching Brewery and Tasting Room established in 2013 (exactly 100 years after the school opened, wonder what took them so long). Attached to the Olds Pomeroy Inn & Suites, it offers tasting of seasonal brews as well as four commercially branded beers – Aggie Ale, Old Skhool, Hay City and Prairie Gold.  I came home with a 6-pack of Aggie (amber) and Old Skhool(brown), which may well become my new “go to” beers.

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#6 Mountain View Museum & Archives

Housed in the Olds AGT building (1920), this museum has a collection of 7,000 artifacts, 14 meters of textual documents and 2,000 photographs.  Group and guided tours are available.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Saturday (it is only open Tuesday to Friday from noon to 5 pm).  We were told it is worth a visit. Next time.

Where to eat?

Our pick for lunch was the Black Forest German Bakery where everything is made from scratch and baked on site in their stone ovens, which keeps in the moisture and gives their breads a beautiful golden crusty exterior and a soft, tasty interior. They use local flours when possible, including spelt and rye and crack their our own grains for their multi-grain loaves. The European‐style bacon used in their famous Bacon Bread is sourced locally.

The daily lunch special immediately caught my eye. Who could resist Schnitzel & Spaetzle with salad, your choice of soup and dessert for $15.  We loaded up with some yummy cinnamon rolls and a huge piece of apple strudel (only $5) to enjoy at home. 

The Bakery and restaurant is part of a larger space that includes a mini marketplace with locally grown/made fresh foods and food products. 

  The empty dessert case is a testimony to the popularity of the bakery. Don't worry the it was filled up while we were there. 

The empty dessert case is a testimony to the popularity of the bakery. Don't worry the it was filled up while we were there. 

Last Word

From Calgary (or even Edmonton or Red Deer) you could easily combine a trip to the Torrington Gopher Museum and Olds to create a kickback, fun rural day trip. We did and we plan to do it again - perhaps on a Thursday so we can check out the Olds Farmer’s Market, hit the museum and and maybe even play a round a of golf at Olds Golf and Country Club. 

But most likely we will visit again on Victoria Day when Torrington has its longstanding annual community-wide yard sale.

If you like this blog, checkout these links:

Calgary: Tea Trader & Lapsang Souchong

Nanton: Bomber Museum 

Torrington: The Kitsch Capital of Alberta

We’re Going to Medicine Hat

 

Torrington: Kitsch Capital of Alberta

Finally! We made the trek to the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta. And, we weren’t disappointed. 

For years, friends have been saying this quirky museum would be right up our alley.  The museum has attracted lots of media attention - including Huffpost calling it “Alberta’s Most Insane Hilarious Destination” to Calgary’s Avenue Magazine proclaiming, “You must see it to believe it.”

  Just a few of the 47 dioramas at the Torrington Gopher Museum. 

Just a few of the 47 dioramas at the Torrington Gopher Museum. 

  Yes, Torrington has a community annual yard sale on Victoria Day....we have marked it in our calendars for next year. 

Yes, Torrington has a community annual yard sale on Victoria Day....we have marked it in our calendars for next year. 

Summer Only!

And, we weren’t disappointed.  Since 1996, this grassroots museum has been attracting 6,000+ visitors every summer (it is only open from June 1st to September 30th, when the gophers go into hibernation). 

Arriving shortly after it opens at 10 am on a recent Saturday, we were the first to arrive, but by the time we left, there were several visitors and a motorcycle caravan was expected later in the day as part of a scavenger hunt. 

So popular with visitors, a great unofficial website guide to the museum was created by fans as a tribute.  Very professional and comprehensive, the website has lots of fun information. I loved the “Meet The Team” link.

Link: Gopher Hole Museum

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Gopher Hole Museum 101

The museum is located in Torrington, Alberta on Highway 27 just 15 minutes east of the QEW II highway, about an hour’s drive north of Calgary. 

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Housed in an unassuming, cottage-like former house just off of Main Street, it is not an iconic building designed by a star international architect as we have become accustomed to in big city museums. 

Murals on the west side of the building let you know you have found it.  You can park right next to the museum at no charge. Try that in the big city.

Speaking of cost, the museum admission fee is $2 for adults and 50 cents for children under 14. How good it that?

  Kitschy mural on the side of the museum.

Kitschy mural on the side of the museum.

  This photo is for my Mom who loves trains and calls herself Queen of the Rails.

This photo is for my Mom who loves trains and calls herself Queen of the Rails.

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Very Welcoming!

  Dianne Kurta greeted us with a big smile.

Dianne Kurta greeted us with a big smile.

Once inside, the friendliest person we have encountered at the front desk of a public museum or art gallery in a long, long time welcomed us.  

Dianne Kurta, the museum’s curator since it first opened in 1996, greeted us. She seems as proud and enthusiastic today as if the museum had just opened.

After a hearty welcome, you are free to explore the single exhibition room that houses the 47 dioramas with 77 mounted gophers.

They look like old box televisions, with the innards replaced by miniature scenes from early 20th century rural life in a small Alberta town, the “twist” being the humans are represented by (real!) stuffed gophers. 

The result is hilarious; there is a clever tongue-in-cheek sensibility to each of the scenes. 

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  This one was Brenda's favourite - The Yard Sale.  

This one was Brenda's favourite - The Yard Sale. 

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Gift Shopping!

Local artist Shelley Barkman who lives on a farm west of Three Hills painted the murals for each of the dioramas.  She had become well known in the community for her work painting animal portraits as well as farm scenes.  When asked if she was interested in painting the murals for the Gopher Hole Museum, she jumped at the chance. Working inside a box was a bit more challenging that painting scenes of the flat surface of a canvas but she was up for the challenge. And she did a great job!

You will probably spend 20 to 30 minutes looking at the dioramas, depending on how many photos you take and there is lots of documentation on the history of the museum to read as well.

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Like all good museums, you exit (you also enter) through the gift shop which is full of a wide variety of souvenirs, hand crafted by the volunteers. It has the feel of a good old-time church bazaar.

No mass-produced, made in China junk that ends up in garage sales here! They even have their own postcards.

Whether you buy or not, make sure you vote on your favourite diorama and also make sure your town or city has been identified with a pin on the world map hanging on the wall.  This is truly an international tourist attraction.    

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Kitschy Fire Hydrants?

As you leave the museum, you are invited to tour (an easy walk) the town to check out the 12 kitschy fire hydrants, all painted to look like a gopher, each with a name and story. 

Grab a copy of the Torrington Tourism Action Society’s map to guide the way.  You can easily spend another 20 minutes or so wandering the town, taking selfies with the likes of Butch, Gramps, Tubby and Peggy Sue and reading their life stories. 

You will also pass by the huge Clem T. GoFur statue at the entrance to town – great family selfie opportunity.

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  Mabel was the town's schoolteacher when she met Butch on a holiday. She is very involved with community affairs and still teaches part-time at the school while also raising a family of little GoFurs. 

Mabel was the town's schoolteacher when she met Butch on a holiday. She is very involved with community affairs and still teaches part-time at the school while also raising a family of little GoFurs. 

Why A Gopher Museum?

The museum idea was in response to the decline of the small agricultural towns in the late 20th century, as large-scale agricultural farms gobbled up the 100-year old family farms across Prairies, including Torrington.

Many once thriving small towns with a post office, school and a few stores became almost ghost towns.  In Torrington’s case, it couldn’t compete with larger towns nearby – Olds, Trochu and Three Hills. Soon, the gophers began to take over the town and local folklore says a town council member suggested, “we should stuff them and put them on display.” 

While the museum and fire hydrants are fun, there is a sadness that permeates the town as you enter and wander the hamlet of about 200 people. Many homes lack a pride of ownership and there are only a few businesses left. Gone are the school, post office, general store, bank and other businesses you would expect in a bustling community.

Like lots of towns and cities, down and out on their luck Torrington looked to tourism to rescue a declining economy.  (Perhaps the most famous example being Bilbao, Spain who hired Frank Gehry, a famous international architect to create an iconic art gallery for them. It captured the world’s imagination and today, what was a dying city is a mega tourist attraction.  Unfortunately, Bilbao is the exception not the rule.)

  Clem T GoFur the Torrington Mascot is positioned at the entrance to town and serves to welcome visitors and encourage them to stay at the Torrington campgrounds.

Clem T GoFur the Torrington Mascot is positioned at the entrance to town and serves to welcome visitors and encourage them to stay at the Torrington campgrounds.

Last Word

After 21 years, the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is still going strong, but as you wander around the hamlet you have to wonder about its long-term future. Will anyone have the same passion for the museum as Kurta? While she has endless optimism and pride in the town, will there be a next generation to carry the gopher torch?

I really hope so. The world needs more kitschy fun that everybody can enjoy!

  Be sure to sign the guest book before you leave. The comments are great read.  I think it is the most used guest book I have ever seen in a museum or gallery. 

Be sure to sign the guest book before you leave. The comments are great read.  I think it is the most used guest book I have ever seen in a museum or gallery.