Meet our Organizers: Charlene Van Buekenhout from Dalnavert Museum

Culture Days

Mar 11, 2022

Meet our Organizers Series
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The annual Culture Days celebration would not be possible without the creativity, hard work, and passion of our organizers. Through this series we want to highlight some exceptional organizers and arts and culture champions who help make the Culture Days celebration what it is across Canada. Charlene Van Buekenhout, programming and marketing director at Dalnavert Museum, has a lot experience creating unexpected and engaging experiences within a historic house museum setting, including turning those “wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas into something fresh and different for the community. Here’s what she shared with us.

Hi Charlene! Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

My name is Charlene Van Buekenhout, I am the programming and marketing director at Dalnavert Museum on Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba—the homeland of my nation, the Métis nation! My background is in theatre and the performing arts, and that’s how I came to discover the Museum, as I was using the space to perform plays. I guess they thought that the performance work I was doing in the heritage house was pretty neat because I was later hired to do programming for the Museum. Being in a museum space—especially one which interprets the 19th century—with such passionate volunteers, staff, and members, has been very educational for me and really fruitful for our programming.

Charlene Van Buekenhout.
Charlene Van Buekenhout.

Dalnavert Museum is a small Victorian Mansion nestled in the heart of Winnipeg’s Downtown. Can you speak more to the history of this unique home and how it came to be a museum?

The house was built in 1895 and was home to John Hugh Macdonald—son of the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald—and his family. The name “Dalnavert” is Scottish and comes from a small hamlet where John A. Macdonald’s mother was born. The family lived in the home until 1929, and it was then purchased and transformed into a boarding and rooming house, mostly for women who came to the city for work and needed accommodations. In the 1970s its care was taken over by the Manitoba Historical Society, which stewarded the house and grounds until 2013. In 2015, an extremely passionate and dedicated group of people came together to save the house and collection under the name Friends of Dalnavert Museum. Today, the Dalnavert Museum and Visitors’ Centre is set up to reflect a day-in-the-life of an affluent 19th-century family. It’s decked-out with a large collection of decorative arts, and appears absolutely filled—as the Victorians would have had it—with stuff and ‘essentials’ for living.

I think the compelling thing about Culture Days for the Museum is that it allows us to think more intentionally about the culture we are presenting at Dalnavert.

What do you think makes the museum stand out as a space for community engagement?

I see Dalnavert as having an advantage in this sector because of its small size and because of structures and barriers that the house presents. Hear me out! We are able to do a lot of really interesting events and programs and form partnerships because of the creativity we need to have to approach using the space. Working in a space that houses so much history in unique and different ways, shows that arts, culture, and heritage can live together, can engage with each other. It is what attracts a lot of artists, creators, and fellow cultural and historical organizations to us.

United Drumming event. Culture Days 2021. Photo credit: Ayda Loewen-Clarke.
United Drumming event. Culture Days 2021. Photo credit: Ayda Loewen-Clarke.

How do you incorporate fresh and engaging experiences for audiences in a historic house such as Dalnavert Museum?

I have a theatre background and have always been interested in using alternative spaces for performing arts and interactive experiences. I also really like to listen to people, guests, kids, staff, volunteers, artists, anyone who might have a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea, and then try and make it work. I think the Museum itself presents a lot of structure in which to play with or navigate. (For example, “Do not touch or sit on the artefacts!”) Said structure or limitations fuel creative problem solving. It’s a small mansion so we can get away with really niche, boutique experiences, and trying new things.

Is there anything that surprises or delights you most about working in a space like this?

I find it really interesting how many stories we haven’t told yet. There’s always something we haven’t touched on that would be really cool to explore. Like, we’ve never had an astronomy program…and we should because the attic of the house has these really deep, inset window nooks that would be the perfect length for telescopes!

How long have you been involved with Culture Days? Why do you feel compelled to participate year after year?

We’ve been participating in Culture Days since 2015. Over the years we have offered audio tours of the museum, a video projection art piece by Wendy Sawatzky as part of Nuit Blanche, and a DJ performing on the veranda. We later expanded our Culture Days programming in a meaningful way by exploring the many “cultures” of the historic house. We held Scottish Days with a pipe band and highland dancers, and also invited Ojibway Elders and drum carriers to lead workshops. I think the compelling thing about Culture Days for the Museum is that it allows us to think more intentionally about the culture we are presenting at Dalnavert. It’s also important for us to offer low-cost or free events because of the community we are in, and Culture Days allows us to connect with folks who might not otherwise visit our space. This means that it is really important to make sure that what we are presenting is engaging and different and maybe makes one want to come back for more!

Medieval/Early Music festival with the Winnipeg Early Music Society. Culture Days 2021. Photo credit: Ayda Loewen-Clarke.
Medieval/Early Music festival with the Winnipeg Early Music Society. Culture Days 2021. Photo credit: Ayda Loewen-Clarke.

Tell us more about the Culture Days 2021 activities that took place at Dalnavert Museum. Is there a favourite memory or fun story from this year’s celebration that sticks out?

This past year was our most involved year as a Culture Days hub, as were fortunate and grateful to receive funding from the Manitoba Arts Council and Culture Days Manitoba to present our programs. We held a United Drumming event (supported by The Winnipeg Foundation) created by Barb and Clarence Nepinak, Ojibway Elders-In-Residence at Dalnavert. The event invited drummers from different cultures to play together while a hoop dancer performed. We also hosted a Medieval/Early Music festival with the Winnipeg Early Music Society. I say festival because it ended up being a really long afternoon as there were so many Early Music groups! Who knew that Winnipeg had over 10 ensembles all dedicated to Early Music?! They hadn’t played live together for over one year because of the pandemic, so they didn’t want to stop playing! But, it was a beautiful afternoon and we were even treated to an authentic Hurdy-gurdy performance! We also piloted a program called “Museum Music Minutes” which featured musicians from three different music genres that were popular during various periods of the historic house’s lifespan: Opera, Jazz, and Métis Fiddle. All of our programming was developed with Covid-safe protocols, and it was also our first stab at livestreaming events…which more or less worked out!

What goals do you hope to see Dalnavert Museum accomplish in the future?

I hope that we continue our journey through reconciliation in an active way and become more intentional about our role. I would love to see Dalnavert become a museum that delivers really interactive and engaging experiences for everyone, reducing as many barriers to access as we possibly can within an old Victorian home.

This article is part of the Meet our Organizers blog series. Find more profiles here.