By Mia Vamos-Yuhasz
For the first time, the Brant Museum and Archives has focused a portion of an exhibit on living members of its community.
Bountiful County, which opened Wednesday evening, incorporates the work and experiences of Garth Pottruff, founder of the Grand River Rafting Company, and arborist Kyle McLoughlin into its natural history display.
Short biographies, accompanied by a handful of objects, highlight the work of each man. Pottruff’s display features mini birch bark canoes. McLoughlin’s features some fungal samples he’s collected.
The exhibit, housed in the museum’s temporary showroom downstairs, gives the public a chance to learn about and reflect on the area’s unique wildlife and plant life, as well as its geological and topographical history.
Glass display cases house text, pictures and objects that bring Brant County’s natural history to life. An interactive audio booth gives people the chance to listen to oral histories of the region.
Justin Butler is the mastermind behind the exhibit, the first he’s curated.
He began work on the project after executive director Lana Jobb asked for a natural history exhibit.
To tell the story of Brant County, Butler chose to highlight five specific features. First, it’s geology, where the land’s development and unique appearance are explained. Next, the Grand River is used as a focal point to show the important places that developed near its banks. Brant County’s place in the Carolinian Forest is then explained, followed by a display of four unique plant and animal species, as well as two fossil specimens. Finally, the focus turns to the work of Pottruff and Mcloughlin.
In his opening speech on Wednesday, Butler thanked the two local men for having “breathed life into the exhibit,” he said.
“Museums like to focus on dead people,” he said, but Bountiful County allowed him to do something different.
Butler is a recent history graduate and has been with the museum for a year and a half on a short-term, full-time contract while he works towards his master of information studies.
Though he’s learned a lot from his time at the museum, the most significant lesson is how to be adaptable in the workplace.
Though Butler is technically a museum technician, he said he’s taken on multiple roles, as do most of his colleagues.
“Archivist, museum tech, conservator, collection management, preservation expert, assistant curator and, like, ten other titles,” said Butler, listing off his many roles.
Along with his own museum research and curation tasks, which currently includes the inventory project and the creation of a new exhibit for the museum’s Market Square location, Butler and his fellow staff are also constantly aiding museum members with research projects, as well as some Laurier Brantford professors and students.
“You have to constantly change to whoever walks through the door, you have to be adaptable,” said Nathan Etherington, a museum staff member.
Etherington is acutely aware of the difficulties the museum faces because of the multiplying demands placed on such a small staff. The museum only has three permanent staff, Etherington included, and three full-time staff on contract, like Butler.
“There’s a lot of potential to what we could do,” said Etherington. “The hindrance then becomes to balance all those things that you’re responsible for.”
Etherington knows the museum needs to do a better job with community outreach and engagement and strike a better balance between permanent and temporary exhibits, but there are only so many hours in a day.
Etherington explained that when you take down a display, it can’t be instantaneously disassembled. The artifacts within have to be meticulously archived, which usually takes a month.
Setting up a display is just as time consuming. “Whatever time you spend on research, you also need to spend on design and promotion,” said Butler, explaining why the museum only does two different temporary exhibits a year.
“Realistically, to do an exhibit properly, you need about a year,” he continued.
Despite the job being demanding, Butler isn’t ungrateful for the hard work, noting that he’s “exceptionally lucky” to have a job in his field and to be learning so much.
“That’s the beauty of non-profits: you’ll learn a ton more than you’ll learn anywhere else,” he said.