CEO’s work honours community by preserving the past

June 15, 2011
Amy Dove
Tags: news

Pauline Rafferty has a hands-on approach to history.

Before taking on the post of chief executive officer of the Royal BC Museum, she worked for five years as an archeologist in the field, uncovering the past throughout British Columbia. Her work centered on First Nation sites, allowing her to travel throughout the province to hidden lakes and wondrous mountains. These are the places off the beaten path.

"I must admit some people (now) would say ‘you used to drive a truck around Northern B.C. ... you don't look the part,'" she says with a laugh.

She logged her fair share of time in tents, however, as her work took her to remote parts of the province - often for months at a time. Near Bella Bella, B.C., she sifted through thousands upon thousands of fish bones in First Nation midden sites. The bones painted a picture of the volume of food consumed by the people there, but also of the cycles in fish stocks. She dug her hands into B.C.'s coastline, uncovering First Nations basketry and net material, the woven cedar bark preserved by the intertidal zone around it.

"I remember lying on the beach, watching the Northern Lights," she says. "You have those experiences that stick in your mind forever."

Although her job description has evolved over the years, her professional career remains centered on the preservation of artifacts and helping people connect to British Columbia's rich heritage. For her outstanding commitment to community, and the history that strengthens it, Royal Roads University is honouring Rafferty with the Chancellor's Community recognition Award at spring convocation, June 16.

Rafferty transited her work from the field to the office in the 1980s. She worked for the provincial Archaeology Branch, Heritage Trust and the Ministry of Tourism. Her work first centered on archaeology, then on heritage interpretation. She supervised survey crews and managed grant proposals for heritage-project proponents. In additional to that work she also met the marketing needs at provincial sites such as Fort Steele and Barkerville.

In 1990, Rafferty was appointed assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Women's Equality.

She joined the team at Royal BC Museum in 1992 when she was hired to write a business plan for the organization. That work turned into nearly a decade long career with the museum as she rose through the ranks to become CEO in 2001.

After her appointment, Rafferty and her team successfully transformed Royal BC Museum as a Crown corporation, enacted a new Museum Act and had title for Cultural Precinct lands transferred to the Royal BC Museum Corporation. She did all of this while achieving greater financial self-sufficiency for the organization.

Rafferty plans to retire at the end of this year. She can step away from a job she loves because she knows she has helped the museum achieve great things and it is in good shape for the next person to take the reins, she says.

There will always be more than she wants to do, she adds, but there have definitely been some career highlights. Working with the Nisga'a First Nation to sign a treaty that saw historical artifacts returned from the museum's collection to its rightful owners was a high point, she says.

"To have elders talk to me and say they never thought that day would come... it was a monumental occasion to be a part of," she says of the September 2010 event.

Every day she has been privileged to see inside the museum's collection, much of which is not on permanent display for the public. Even more impressive than the amazing artifacts and specimens, however, is the passion in which the staff talks about it, she says.

"When I listen to our staff talk about it and why we hold it I think those are the hidden gems," she says. "Those to me are the moments when you go ‘wow, this is such important work. How do we share this with more people?' The public response to what we do is a great joy."

It is with that in mind that Rafferty is already working on the fall exhibition schedule, securing unique and educational displays for the museum. The City of Victoria recently approved a rezoning for the museum property, meaning the organization can move forward on plans to expand.

Rafferty will remain with the museum until the next CEO is found, but she is confident in her decision to move on. She is looking forward to a life with less structure and more time to pick up her exploring where she left off. This time, there won't be any tents though. Together with her husband Bob Plecas, Rafferty is heading to New York, then maybe Paris or London. The plan is to live in one location for several months to really immerse themselves in the culture.

For a woman who has made a career out of preserving and sharing artifacts and culture, it comes as no surprise as to what is on her itinerary.

"I plan to go to a museum everyday and a play every night."