SHERBROOKE – With plans to hire senior staff and expand First Nations cultural programming over the next two years, the new executive director of Historic Sherbrooke Village says he is excited to shepherd the “largest locally managed site in the Nova Scotia museum system.”
York Lethbridge – recently executive director of the Quinte Museum of Natural History in Trenton, Ontario – sat down with the Journal last week for his first interview since being appointed in April to head Sherbrooke’s iconic living museum, founded in 1968 to provide visitors with an experiential interpretation of village life in late 1860s Nova Scotia.
“There are at least three or four roles that would normally be part of our management matrix,” he said. “We don’t currently have a curator, a manager of operations, a manager of visitor experience or a marketing and events manager … We will be hiring but, of course, we have a process where, if someone qualified from the existing staff is interested, they will go through the interview process. We’re just at the beginning stages of looking at what the job descriptions might be.”
Regarding new Indigenous programming, he emphasized, “That is a priority for me. For my own purposes, I’m starting research on what the 19th century experience of Indigenous peoples were in the area, and specifically, Mi’kmaq communities, in and around the Sherbrooke area. The story that we are looking to tell is meant to be provincewide in nature. [We will want to] start with what is specific to our localized area, but then branch out from there to become more inclusive.”
To do this, he added, “We are going to be bringing on additional community partners … We are in the process of assembling a working group … We also have resources through the Nova Scotia museum … It would be a long-term desire to have traditional Mi’kmaq crafts and arts brought into our programmatic focus.”
Lethbridge said that, while he’s still “in the process of learning the complexities of a museum of Sherbrooke’s size,” he’s enthusiastic about what he sees. “It’s also very unique in terms of how it relates to government, how it relates to its community, how it engages with its particular history and how it sits relative to the municipality.”
Sherbrooke Village receives $1.3 million a year from the provincial government for its annual $2 million budget. The balance comes from admissions, external contracts for restoration projects through its working woodshop and gift shop sales. Over the past two years, the facility – which typically employs approximately 100 people during the June to October tourist season – has endured a serious slowdown in visitor traffic due to COVID.
In 2021, the museum received a $994,000 provincial grant – part of a $228-million community stimulus package designed to offset the economic effects of the pandemic – to repair and upgrade many of its 90 vintage structures, and complete work on a new community park.
“We did wonderful things with [the funds],” Lethbridge said. “We are a site that has largely framed buildings which require continual maintenance. You know, it’s always about trying to stay ahead of the curve, ensuring that we’re preserving that heritage for future generations.”
Still, he said, “It’s a balancing act. In order to make sure that we meet our budgetary targets, we need to make sure that people are coming to the sites and helping to generate those revenues so that we break even at the end of the year.”
To that end, he noted, the focus this year will be on strengthening the existing brand and building back the core visitor business.
“I would say that the [Sherbrooke Village] commission is very collaborative, and it recognizes this difficult situation [we’ve been through] and where we’re really just trying to ensure stability of the organization, before we start … experimenting,” he said.
“We’re really looking at 2023 as an opportunity … to become more inclusive and more reflective of the community experience of the 19th century, but for a 21st century audience.”
Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal