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Aritha van Herk named a Fellow of the Glenbow Museum

To say that the work of author Aritha van Herk has been widely celebrated over the years is an understatement. The veteran professor of creative writing and Canadian literature at the University of Calgary has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and she’s won the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award. Add to that the Alberta Order of Excellence and a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal for contributions to culture and the arts. This is but the tip of the iceberg.

And yet, in many ways, van Herk has never felt more honoured than recently when she was made a Fellow of the Glenbow Museum, along with photographer George Webber and former Glenbow Board Chair George Bezaire. That’s because van Herk has a special connection to the museum.

“Aritha has been part of the fabric of the Glenbow and what we stand for in the community for as long as I can remember,” says Donna Livingstone, president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum, at the induction ceremony on Sept. 27. "She draws deeply from our historical and cultural resources to create fresh perspectives on the past. She directs her classes here, and she is an enthusiastic guest at all our events.”

But, even more significantly, it was the direct influence of one of van Herk’s books, 2001’s Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, that inspired a permanent exhibition at the Glenbow Museum, which serves as a defining centerpiece of the Calgary institution to this day. The Glenbow’s Mavericks exhibition opened in 2007.

“It was her brilliant Maverick take on how we read our history — through the colourful characters and startling events that shaped our lives — that shifted Glenbow from a traditional museum to a venue that uses these stories to prod at western meaning,” says Livingstone. “That exhibition opened 10 years ago and still has people talking every day.”

Van Herk says that when she wrote the book Mavericks, “I felt like I was explaining Albertans to the rest of Canada. I realized that as Albertans we don’t talk about our great stories and our great characters enough.” The book was a huge hit, winning van Herk the prestigious Grant MacEwan Author’s Award. Not long after it was published the Glenbow Museum approached van Herk about adapting the concept for a permanent exhibition.

“It was a three-year project,” van Herk recalls. “I curated the story and I wrote the highlighted text for that exhibition. 

“It’s tough work to take a 600-page report on the history of somebody like James Macleod, after whom Macleod Trail is named, and turn it into a 133-word summary! And I did that with all the characters featured in the Mavericks exhibition. It was a challenge, and I can honestly say I am as proud of that work as of any story I have ever written, because it had to be so tightly compressed. I think it honed my narrative skills more than any other project I’ve done.”

Because of her connection to the Glenbow Museum, being made a Fellow of the Glenbow was a special honour, van Herk says. “It does mean a lot to me. The Glenbow Museum is a wonderful place here in the heart of Calgary and it tells our story, with all its warts and crazy ups and downs and challenges and changes. It’s an amazing place that reflects our contemporary world, but also our past and what made us who we are. I love this city and I love the Glenbow Museum. I admire them for the work that they do.”