Rhizomes: An Interview with Kelly Black

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Editor’s note: This is the sixteenth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Kelly Black, the Executive Director at Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, and an adjunct professor in the Department of History at Vancouver Island University.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

This is a tough question. Like many people who study history, I feel as if a million events and actions led me to where I am now. Probably the biggest catalyst was my time as a summer student at the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives (CVMA). In 2009 I had just completed my BA at Vancouver Island University and was very passionate about history. Over that summer, we worked on an exhibit about the Kinsol Trestle, a wooden railway trestle in danger of demolition. It crosses the Koksilah River and is well known on southern Vancouver Island. Completed around 1920 and built to transport minerals and timber, the trestle was named for the nearby King Solomon (Kinsol) copper mine. The last train crossed the trestle in 1979; the wooden structure then stood unused for over three decades. My research for the project introduced me to a 40-year history of local people and organizations fighting to save the trestle. I also felt strongly that it should be saved and wanted to research the history of efforts to protect and conserve it. This was my plan when I started my MA in Canadian Studies (with a specialization in Heritage Conservation) at Carleton University later that year.

At Carleton I was exposed to much more than heritage conservation. I started learning about settler colonialism, and I found it difficult to reconcile my desire to save a piece of industrial heritage with its role—and my own—in the dispossession of Indigenous territories. This led me to undertake a PhD, also at Carleton, in Canadian Studies and Political Economy. My dissertation tried to work out the contradictions and complexities of affect, local history, and settler colonialism.

The Kinsol Trestle in 2009, before restoration. Photo: Kelly Black.

Other than my experience at the CVMA, I can’t say that it was clear to me that I would be working in a museum if/once I finished my PhD. In fact, when I started the program I’m not sure I had any idea of where a doctorate could lead me. I enjoyed teaching, public history, and the ability to work on my own; a PhD promised all that (and more!). Like many people, the goal of becoming a professor was definitely top of mind. By the time I became a “non regular” faculty member at Vancouver Island University in 2015, however, this seemed out of reach.

It was my involvement with the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) at Carleton that really prepared me for life after school. At the GSA, I served as the Vice President of Operations and, later, the President. I learned how non-profits work, how to manage staff, how to build relationships with various communities, and how to advocate and be an activist. Working with a team of staff and fellow grad students, I helped plan, organize, and host two weeks of graduate student orientation events—everything from a boat cruise and tour of Parliament Hill to stuffing 2,000 student grab bags and hosting guest speakers. These experiences taught me about event management, media relations, risk assessment, and accessibility. Similarly, our executive team at the GSA was involved in countless campaigns: there was always a protest, rally, or event to attend, always a crisis to manage. From Israeli Apartheid Week and the campaign for campus support for survivors of sexual assault, to calls for free education, open access, truth and reconciliation, and the creation of a Carleton community garden, I learned the importance of collaboration, coordination, and solidarity.

Kelly at a rally for free education, 2012. Photo: Vincent St. Martin.

Reflecting on my time at the GSA, I recognize that some of these campaigns never ended for me. For example, I continue to fight for open access—free and unrestricted access to information and use of electronic resources for everyone—in my current role as President of the Friends of the BC Archives.

What do you like most about your current position? What things would you change about it, if you could?

At Point Ellice House (PEH) I have the privilege of overseeing a National and Provincial Historic Site. Positioned overlooking the Selkirk Water/Gorge Waterway in Victoria, Point Ellice House was constructed between 1861 and 1862 for Kate and Charles Wallace. In 1867, the O’Reilly family moved in. They lived there until 1975 when John O’Reilly and his wife Inez sold the home to the Province of BC—complete with 108 years of family possessions. The site boasts a collection of 12,000 artifacts; I like to tell visitors we have a family bible from 1725, a BC Hydro bill from 1975, and everything in between. Point Ellice House also has two acres of heritage gardens and the longest remaining natural shoreline on the Gorge Waterway.

Although the site is owned by the Province of BC, it has been managed by non-profits since 2004. In 2018, the society overseeing Point Ellice House hired me on a part-time basis to help with operations and visitor experience. Unfortunately, that society ended up disbanding due to political and interpersonal turmoil. After just a few months of getting to know the site, it seemed I would be out of a job. Seeking new site operators, the Province put out a request for proposals (RFP) that summer. Drawing on my work at the GSA and my understanding of BC history, I brought together colleagues and friends to form the non-profit Vancouver Island Local History Society. After six months and two stages of the RFP process, the Province selected our plans for the management of Point Ellice House.

Point Ellice House. Image courtesy Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens.

Although PEH has been a museum since the 1960s, the narratives it tells have not really changed. When our non-profit took over management of the site in 2019, we were able to make changes to longstanding interpretive themes and introduce new ones, including settler colonialism, empire, and heritage conservation. For example, we have made Peter O’Reilly’s work as Indian Reserve Commissioner a visible part of the site’s interpretation and volunteer training. Using exhibits, programs, and events to introduce visitors to the geographic violence of reserve creation in BC is a great example of where my academic and non-profit training intersect.

If I had to change one thing it would be our funding. In 2004, Provincial Heritage Sites such as PEH were devolved away from government to businesses and non-profits; financial support from the government was cut dramatically. In 2004, PEH received $40,000 from the Province of BC; in 2020, support for operations had increased to just $80,000. It probably goes without saying that this is not sufficient to practice public history, care for the site, and employ people at a living wage—though I am proud to say we are doing all of these things with the help of volunteers and grants. A lot of my time is spent chasing the money to fund PEH properly. Even though this work can be exhausting (as anyone who has worked in a non-profit knows), I feel privileged to be able to deploy my research, writing, and relationship-building skills in support of our activities.

Which aspects of your graduate training have helped you most in your current position?

Writing and producing public history is quite different than writing and producing academic history. Still, my PhD trained me to formulate convincing narratives based on evidence and particular ways of understanding the world. The history of Point Ellice House includes two families, thousands of objects, and an extensive archive that intersects with 160 years of colonial, provincial, and national history. My graduate studies training enables me to make sense of these historical resources and develop public history that prompts, engages, and provokes.

A recent example of this praxis is our feature exhibit, “Springs and Scavengers: Waste and Water in Victoria, 1842–1915.” Using Point Ellice House and its occupants as a focal point for wider histories, the exhibit links the everyday acts of drinking water or going to the toilet with class, race, and colonization in Victoria and BC. The history of waste and water in Victoria (like most other places around the world) is entangled with the history of public health, and the spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19 quickly increased the exhibit’s relevance. As we show through images, artifacts, and text, historical efforts to control and regulate public health resulted in policies that disproportionately targeted and impacted First Nations, Black, and Chinese residents.

Kelly showing the “Springs and Scavengers” exhibit at PEH. Photo: Rock Bay Business Community.

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

My PhD program was focused on training students to be academics. There was no preparation for a career outside academia. It’s becoming more common now, but at the time it would have been wonderful to hear from people with PhDs who were not employed at a university or college. Similarly, I think universities need to work much harder to introduce employers to the advantages of hiring PhDs. When I finished my degree I applied for a number of government jobs. I never got an interview. One time I requested feedback from the hiring manager and they told me (and obviously I’m paraphrasing here!) that my resume showed that I would be a good professor, but not good at working in government. In hindsight, that was probably true—but this person simply could not fathom why someone with a PhD would not be working as a professor.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history, and the history of space and place more broadly?

Get involved. Don’t put all your eggs in academia’s basket, so to speak. Although I was a teaching assistant in my MA and PhD, I had to work other jobs to pay the bills. If I hadn’t worked at the GSA, I probably would not have my current job. Similarly, I have been active in non-profits (including the Friends of the BC Archives), my faculty union, and the municipal heritage committee. Of course, this work was and is unpaid, but it has helped me develop important skills and connections. For example, through the Friends of the BC Archives, I was exposed to a large community of people involved with local history and advocacy. Similarly, as a member of the Heritage Advisory Panel for the City of Victoria, I gained a better understanding of heritage planning and development processes.

Across Canada there are countless local history societies that could benefit from the knowledge and skills of emerging (environmental) historians. Instead of attending Congress, for example, consider bringing your skills and passion to your local museum or heritage society. It could have a much greater impact than you might realize.

Hollyhocks growing in the garden at PEH. Photo: Kelly Black.
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