R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum curator/archivist Deborah Chapman is working on Weyt-k, an exhibition about late Neskonlith elder Dr. Mary Thomas. It will be Chapman’s last museum exhibit before she retires at the end of the year. (Barbara Brouwer photo)

R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum curator/archivist Deborah Chapman is working on Weyt-k, an exhibition about late Neskonlith elder Dr. Mary Thomas. It will be Chapman’s last museum exhibit before she retires at the end of the year. (Barbara Brouwer photo)

Giving back as important as looking back: Salmon Arm Museum curator reflects on career

R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum’s Deborah Chapman to retire at end of the year

It was a hook that launched a Grade 4 student into a lifelong love of museums.

Salmon Arm Museum curator/archivist Deborah Chapman recalls a trip to the Kamloops Museum with her first donation, a button hook.

“I was terribly impressed when museum staff accepted my gift with reverence,” she recounted .

Passionate about museums and the history they hold, Chapman has been in charge of museum collections at R.J. Haney Heritage Village since 1990.

While there were a few buildings, such as the original Haney house, a fire station and gas station, a school and a church and more, Chapman wanted to create a whole village.

Her passion and generous donations from businesses and community led to the creation of the Montebello building, a beautiful structure that features historical storefronts and interior dioramas, along with archives and a gallery.

Chapman was able to choose nine buildings that would complete a story about what was offered in the the community’s downtown core more than 100 years ago.

“Before Montebello, you couldn’t call it a village,” she said, noting there was nowhere to buy groceries, make a phone call or visit a pharmacy.

The building opened in 2017 before some appropriate dioramas were installed. It houses an Observer office, a barber shop and pool hall, a studio featuring the work of photographers Rex Lingford and W.J. Honey, the telephone exchange, post office in McGuire General Merchants, Miss Puff’s dressmaking business and Palmer’s Meats. Bedford Pharmacy will be added this year.

“I hadn’t planned to have a butcher, but Askew’s donated a lot of money,” she said, pointing out the business is named after the original owner. “When it came to Montebello, I wanted to connect to history, otherwise we’re Disneyland and I try very hard not to be Disneyland.”

Inspiration for the dioramas and exhibitions often comes from photos of several business interiors Rex Lingford took in 1914, or an artifact held in the museum’s collection.

“The Salmon Arm Observer is my most valuable written resource,” she says of the microfiche copies of the newspaper that are also held in the museum.

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Each Montebello business is set up with period-appropriate artefacts and peopled with life-sized signboard characters created from old photographs.

Chapman earned a degree in archeology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, and volunteered at that city’s Citadel cataloguing historic archeological artefacts.

She also volunteered at the Fraser Fort George Regional Museum where she took her first museum course. Museum and archival studies continued after she, her husband and children moved to Salmon Arm.

“I was just fascinated and I think I am an old soul,” she said of history and the stories she has told through exhibitions, columns published in the Observer and her popular fall cemetery tours. “They are important stories of how our community developed.”

Chapman’s first exhibition featured late Neskonlith elder Dr. Mary Thomas. “Mary came into my life soon after I lost my mother and I felt a strong connection with her,” she said. “She worked in truth and reconciliation long before it was popular.”

Chapman is retiring at the end of this year and, with the help of Mary’s youngest daughter, Bonnie, and Erin Stodola, she is building Weyt-k, her last museum exhibition around the much-loved elder and her far-reaching influence.

The purpose of the exhibition is to share Mary Thomas’ message of bringing people and ideas together – something she did very well.

Bonnie and the museum will do short interviews with people who knew Mary Thomas and whose lives she influenced. They will also display photos of the people interviewed.

The exhibition will be in the Montebello Gallery at the R.J. Haney Heritage Village from May to September 2022 and 2023.

If you’d like to help by being interviewed, please contact Bonnie Thomas, email: bonniethomas001@gmail.com or phone 250-463-2855, or Deborah Chapman or Erin Stodola by emailing: archives @salmonarmmuseum.org or phone 250-832-5289.

Chapman believes giving back is as important as looking back. Her list of past volunteerism is long and includes chairing the board of the Sockeyes Swim Club and collecting hearing aids for Third World countries. She became a volunteer with the Salmon Arm Community Heritage Commission in 2009 and has been the regional rep of the Archives Association of B.C. for the past eight years.

In 2006, Chapman was invited to volunteer for the Shuswap Community Foundation Grants Committee, was appointed to the board in 2008 and took over as chair of the Grants Selection and Grants in Aid committees in 2009.

The Chapman Family Endowment is a general fund created to help groups who are unable to go after big money.

Chapman is confident that when she retires, the museum will be in good hands with Stodola, who has a masters in museum studies and has been working with her for a year.

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