ATB Storytellers Exhibition: An interview with the team behind the scenes

October 05, 2016

The National Music Centre is excited to open a new exhibition at Studio Bell that will explore Alberta’s rich music history.

The ATB Storytellers Exhibition, sponsored by ATB Financial, is a new temporary exhibition that showcases Alberta’s rich music story. It is free and accessible to the public, and will run in Studio Bell’s Drop-in Zone from October 6, 2016 until January 8, 2017.

The exhibition will feature a collection of artifacts and recorded oral histories with iconic Albertans, including Jann Arden, noted journalist Holger Petersen, jazz pianist Tommy Banks, Royalty Records Founder R. Harlan Smith, blues artist Amos Garrett, and France Levasseur-Ouimet, Franco-Albertan historian and professor emeritus, among others.

Centering on four themes—Music Through the Times, Music in Alberta’s Communities, Cultural Influences on Music, and Prairie Scramble—the exhibition will also feature digital stories made in collaboration with several elementary schools, highlighting the next generation of Albertans.

NMC staffers Jenna Vikse and Mike Mattson have been instrumental in putting the ATB Storytellers Exhibition together and were happy to discuss their experience about the process below:

Jenna, can you please explain your role as Special Exhibit Coordinator and what responsibilities this role entails?

Jenna Vikse: As the coordinator for the ATB Storytellers Exhibition, my job is to make sure all of the people and departments working on the project are on track and that everything fits together. I’ve worked with the collections team, marketing team, educators, designers, and outside contractors to keep the project moving forward. I’m responsible for managing the budget and helping to select and edit the content we have included.

What kind of special skills are required to fill such a role?

JV: I think having background knowledge about exhibition design has been really helpful—thinking about how different visitors will interact with each other and the exhibition is important to creating an experience that many people will get to enjoy. On a day-to-day basis, I am a project manager, so that requires me to collaborate with lots of different people and keep track of where each separate piece of the exhibition is and what needs to be done.

Putting together a temporary exhibition like this must come with a lot of challenges, but could also be a very rewarding experience. What are some of your favourite tasks that have been specific to this project?

JV: There are so many cool things about this role! I really love the challenge of figuring out the physical build and working out how to construct a temporary space that looks and feels as professional as the rest of Studio Bell is a huge challenge, but very rewarding. Part of the ATB Storytellers project includes working with students, and I had the opportunity to work with some of them, which was a lot of fun as well.

With all the small pieces that come together to create an exhibition like this (such as the interpretive text, wall graphics, audio/video content for the kiosks, artifacts, etc.) what are you most excited about showing our visitors?

JV: I think the content really speaks for itself, and I hope we’ve created a space in which it is the star. My colleagues have captured some really wonderful moments on video, and that’s what I want people to remember. I think my favourite clip of all is one that we’ve managed to make a little interactive: Daniel Gervais teaches us how to clog along to music and we want to let our visitors do the same.

How has the experience of working with a sponsor like ATB on an exhibition like this benefit your work? Did you find it was a collaborative process? What was their role in the project?

JV: Working with ATB on this project has been great! It’s wonderful to collaborate with supporters who are so excited about finding ways to get involved with Albertan communities and to create memorable experiences. More than anything, I think their commitment to Alberta and its people has helped to guide a lot of our decision-making and I hope those values show up in our work.

Are there any new discoveries that you made or interesting tidbits about the history of music in Alberta that you didn’t know before working on this project?

JV: I have learned so much! The one that really stands out to me is the story of Chautauqua in Alberta. About 100 years ago, there was this extensive circuit of traveling performers who were based out of Calgary. The shows they put on were the highlight of the year for lots of people in small towns in Canada, and almost all of the business arrangements were handled by women—which is an incredible story that most people aren’t aware of. I’ve also had the opportunity to discover a ton of new music being made in the province right now that I really love. There’s a diverse scene out there, and I have some great new playlists.

Interview continued below.


Photos of the installation

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

  • ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation

    ATB Storytellers Exhibition Installation. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

Mike, you certainly have an interesting role working with NMC’s collections team as the Digital Content Coordinator. Can you tell us a little bit about this role and how you were involved in some of the content side of the ATB Storytellers Exhibition?

Mike Mattson: Digital content is an important part of our collections. The oral histories try to capture the stories of pivotal Albertans who have contributed to music in the province and internationally.

Your role involved some travel in order to make some of these recordings. What were some of the places that you’ve been able to travel in the province? Did you get to travel outside the province at all?

MM: So far the travel has been within the province, but we will need to go to other Canadian cities where Albertan’s careers have taken them. We have an interview coming up in Lethbridge with a fascinating Albertan named Fred Sillito. He is the last remaining member of the CFCN Old Timers. This was a radio orchestra that Fred joined in 1954, so I think there will be a story or two that will come from this 92 year-old gentleman.

Working from a collections standpoint, what are some of the primary considerations when capturing audio/video content in terms of exhibition use and archival purposes?

MM: One of the challenges is to capture complete stories at the highest resolution possible so that future generations can have access to these stories. The creative challenge is in editing short mini-documentaries so people can be introduced to the individual or the theme. In the past, oral histories have been transcribed and this is the most common document that is referenced. In my view, this method of archiving stops being an oral history once it is transcribed, as it is now in a written format and you lose the inflection that the human voice brings to the story. As we are capturing video of our storyteller, their body language and facial expressions that add to the story they are telling.

The other concept that we are bringing into the process is more from a musicology perspective, where we are recording songs and music of Albertans.

Interviewing musicians and music industry people must be a very interesting task. Can you tell us one of your most memorable stories you’ve heard while working on this project?

MM: Tommy Banks said to me, “Mike do want to know the most important date in the history of music in Alberta?” Of course I was interested.

He told me, on January 1, 1960, Alberta changed its liquor laws. Bars and taverns could serve alcohol and had to close at midnight unless they had a musical ensemble of three or more, then they could stay open until 2:00 am. This created a great environment for working musicians and spawned the growth of the music industry in Alberta.

How do you conduct your research and go about finding the stories you’d like to share in an exhibition such as this?

MM: It starts by mapping out the timeline and following the themes. There are obvious pivotal Albertans, such as Holger Petersen, for example, who are encyclopedic in their knowledge of music in the province. They refer other people and it spirals from there.

We are also focusing on any Albertans that are in the Canadian Halls of Fame, or who have received the Order of Canada. Dave Pierce, who won a Grammy for being the musical director for the Vancouver Olympics, made an interesting observation: The stories about the individuals are going to be good, but the intersection of all the musicians is going to be great.

If you could conduct your dream interview with any musician whose story contributed to Alberta’s music history, who would that person be?

MM: There really are so many, but k.d. lang and Joni Mitchell would certainly top my list. What a contribution these two have made to music on this planet. The world is a much better place because of their music.


Thank you both so much for answering some of these questions for our interested audience. It is a privilege to work with you both and learn about the incredibly interesting things you do on a daily basis.


About ATB Storytellers

In 2015, the National Music Centre (NMC) launched a multi-year initiative, sponsored by ATB Financial, designed to collect and connect the stories of Alberta’s music history. ATB Storytellers is a multifaceted project that includes a digital storytelling education program, an oral history recording initiative, live events with music icons, and an annual installation within NMC’s special exhibitions.

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