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MUSEUM VOLUNTEERING: A Retirement Strategy

Honorary Colonel Dale Watts in the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules aircraft en route to military Exercise Maple Resolve in Wainwright, AB in May 2019.

My observation about people who are contemplating retirement is they tend to fall into one of two groups: (a) those who have planned for their retirement and know what they want to do with their post-employment time; and (b) those who have few or no ideas. Some continue to work well beyond “normal” retirement age, perhaps because they enjoy what they do (or may need the financial resources for whatever reason). Others, I suspect, continue to work because they have no real idea what they would do with their spare time.

The former group have probably been involved in extracurricular activities throughout their working life such as associations, committees, community groups, and interest clubs prior to their retirement. Travelling is often part of their post-employment plans.

The latter group have often not thought much about what they will do post-employment. They have few interests or hobbies that might occupy their time. Work has been their sole focus for much of their adult lives. That giant step into retirement leaves them bewildered and uncertain what to do next.

I’m fortunate to be one of those who falls into the former category. During my adult life, I‘ve been involved continually with associations, committees, clubs, societies and groups which have mostly complemented a part-time Army Reserve career of about 25 years and the acquisition of graduate degrees. The transition into retirement was relatively easy for me. I still belong to many of those associations and groups, whose activities has been inhibited somewhat by the COVID-19 virus lately. However, instead of work, I visit a gym three afternoons a week and volunteer at a military museum one afternoon a week.

There are numerous military museums in Winnipeg. The one I volunteer with, the 38 Service Battalion Combat Service Support (CSS) museum, is one of three military museums located at Minto Armouries, 969 St. Matthews Avenue, Winnipeg. The other two museums at the Armouries are the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum and Archives and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders Museum.

“Armoury long view” by Krazytea / used under CC BY-SA / perspective corrected from original

I’ve always had an interest in history, particularly military history, but kind of fell into my current volunteer involvement with the museum. My predecessor, who actually started the Combat Service Support Museum in 2003, had reached an age where he could no longer carry on volunteering, so I took his place in 2009.

I knew very little about operating museums, just that most were interesting to visit. The one other volunteer at the CSS Museum at that time was helpful with teaching me some of the basics, but unfortunately he passed away not long after I began.

Fortunately, the Association of Manitoba Museums offers a Certificate in Museum Practices program which I completed. This program provides the basics of museum operation in eight, one or two-day courses. There are supplemental courses offered in other areas as well such as mannequin-making and deaccessioning, some of which I have also completed. These certificate and supplemental courses did not make me an expert in Museum Management, but provided enough grounding to maintain and to progress our museum.

There are myriad activities involved in volunteering at a museum including activities such as: (a) receiving, determining the provenance of (researching) and accessioning (cataloguing and recording) artifacts; (b) creating static and interactive displays that tell a story (educate); (c) conserving and preserving artifacts (most are from decades to over a century old); (d) operating a workshop and learning how to use tools; (e) building and dressing mannequins in uniforms; (f) engaging the broader community with outreach programs; (f) writing proposals and accessing grants; (g) forming a Board and developing policies; and (h)taking care of the museum facility (the host building is 105 years old).

“World War II 1942” by Sr.Zanahoria / CC BY 3.0 / cropped from original

There are always tasks to be done at our CSS museum and there are four of us now, all of whom happen to be former serving military and retired. We tend to receive donated artifacts regularly, often when families are clearing materials from a veteran’s estate. Our volunteers all agree there is something special about handling a war artifact or holding a component of someone’s personal kit in one’s hands and trying to envision the circumstance in which the artifact was used or the nature of the original owner of the personal kit items. Most Canadian Second World War veterans were young men. The average age of 700,000 of Canada’s 1.1 million military in that war was 21 years.

These museum artifacts have taught us so much about Canadian military history. For example, while Canada was not too involved in the Pacific war, there was a Winnipeg Grenadiers contingent based in Hong Kong, along with the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec City, when Hong Kong was attacked by the Japanese on December 8, 1941. These units held out for 17 days before they surrendered and spent about 44 months in a prisoner of war camp. Many were killed during the battle; many others did not survive the camp.

Pacific War Display Case

The CSS Museum has a display case that focuses on that small piece of the Pacific war. There are two Japanese flags in the display case: one ceremonial; the other a “friendship” flag. The latter flag flew over the city of Kure, Japan’s railway station, which is 14.9 miles from Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. It was signed by railway workers and interpreters at the station and presented to a Royal Engineer who was part of an occupation force in 1946. The Royal Engineer passed it along to his daughter and she to her son who then donated it to our museum. It is one of our more unique artifacts.

Volunteering at the CSS Museum keeps us interested in our commitment. In some circumstances we need to work together to accomplish tasks. In other situations, we are able to work on individual projects. Generally, there is a discussion and consensus amongst the volunteers about how to tackle a particularly challenging project. On the whole, our volunteer days are usually an enjoyable, interesting and productive time.

If museum volunteering is of interest, for those not quite sure what to do with their retirement time, there are numerous museums around the city most of whom would welcome new volunteers.

Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada

Dale’s is the third HG-member article—thank you Dale—in a new Celebration of (Retired) Life series. We welcome any uplifting, funny, inspiring, or otherwise simply interesting story, profile, or bit of whimsy. To share with our other retirees, simply email your 500- to 1,000-word piece to HG-Editor@RRC.CA.

Categories: All, HG Life, Volunteering

2 replies »

  1. Great article, Dale! I agree, volunteering is a wonderful outlet. There’s no shortage of opportunities: museums, the Art Gallery, the airport… Mine include my local rec. centre and the Canadian Red Cross.

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