Manager of Historic Places Research and Designation Program Leads Diverse Identification, Research, and Protection Efforts

As Manager of the Historic Places Research and Designation Program, Brenda Manweiler heads what may be the unit with the greatest variety of responsibilities within the Historic Resources Management Branch. Brenda joined the branch as a Municipal Heritage Services Officer in 2009, after working for museums, British Columbia’s Heritage Branch, and Parks Canada. She has been in her current position since April 2013.

Brenda Manweiler, pausing for a moment during a busy day.
Brenda Manweiler, pausing for a moment during a busy day.

She now heads a six-member team of historians and heritage specialists. The unit’s primary role is administering the Provincial Historic Resources Designation Program (described below). But there’s much more!

In addition, her group provides ongoing advice on how best to address the impact on historic structures (that are not designated) in cases where they may be affected by development in Alberta. This is part of an integrated regulatory function that Alberta Culture administers for the preservation of historic resources.

Members of her staff provide research services to many of the historic sites operated by the Historic Sites and Museums Branch of Alberta Culture. Their services help, for example, to develop exhibits at these sites.

The Historic Places Research and Designation Program also works closely with the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. The unit’s staff evaluates applications for Heritage Awareness, Research, and Publication grants submitted to the Foundation’s Heritage Preservation Partnership Program.

Creating Heritage Markers

As well, this unit is responsible for the Foundation’s Heritage Markers Program. This program supports the development of heritage markers that promote awareness of the historic people, places, events, and themes that have defined the character of the province. The markers are ideally sized for placement within parks, along trails or sidewalks, and in other community locales. Once the topic of a new marker has been selected, unit staff members develop the text, select photographs, and are responsible for coordinating the design, fabrication, and installation of the markers.

The unit includes the coordinators for two other programs, as well:

What kind of historic places are “out there” in Alberta?

The Coordinator of the Alberta Heritage Survey Program oversees a database of information about non-archaeological historic resources across the province. The Alberta Heritage Survey was established in the mid-1970s, has information dating back to 1971, and is being continually updated. Entries about individual resources include photographs, details of architectural characteristics, history, designation status, and location. This information comes from heritage surveys of neighbourhoods or building types, many of which have been commissioned by municipal governments and conducted by consultants and heritage groups. Today there are almost 100,000 individual resources documented on a searchable online database.

How do Geographical Features Get Names?

The Coordinator of the Geographical Names Program manages the process to formally name geographical features in Alberta. Names are chosen in accordance with international standards and guidelines, with preference usually given to names that have a demonstrated local and/or historical usage. The coordinator’s work includes communicating with governmental organizations from the municipal to international level, disseminating geographical names information from both popular and scholarly sources, maintaining records, and conducting related field and archival research. All this leads to making a recommendation on a name to the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation board and the Minister of Alberta Culture.

How do places get designated?

The Historic Places Research and Designation Program’s largest responsibility, however, is the Provincial Historic Resources Designation Program, which identifies, evaluates, and designates those historic resources that are most significant to the province as a whole. Resources eligible for consideration include structures, archaeological sites, palaeontological resources, and other works of humans or nature that are of value for their historic, cultural, natural, scientific, or aesthetic interest.

Once a resource is designated, its owner cannot destroy, disturb, alter, restore, or repair it without written approval from the provincial government. But the owner gains tangible benefits, including access to conservation grants and technical advice, and the intangible benefit of knowing that a valued property will be preserved and protected into the future. Currently there are some 360 sites protected as Provincial Historic Resources in Alberta.

Owners or advocates interested in obtaining heritage designation for a property often start by contacting Brenda for advice. She’ll ask questions to determine if the property is eligible for consideration, and to gauge whether designation should be pursued at the provincial or municipal level, or both. Occasionally one of the branch’s Heritage Conservation Advisers will make a site visit to answer property owners’ questions and assess the potential eligibility of their property for designation.

Once an application is received, Brenda administers the evaluation process. The Designation Committee, made up of her staff plus staff of the Heritage Conservation Advisory Services unit, meets about every six weeks to confirm the eligibility of new applications and to monitor the progress for sites currently under study. The Designation Committee works to determine if the site has heritage significance (according to five specific evaluation criteria), and a Heritage Conservation Adviser studies the site to determine if it retains enough integrity to communicate that significance. Much archival and onsite research is required to complete an in-depth evaluation. If the committee recommends designation and that is approved at a higher level, the owner is informed and his or her support is obtained, a designation order is signed, and the site is listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places, an online database of all designated historic resources in Alberta.

Benefits of Designation

Why would owners want their properties designated? Brenda explains: “They believe that they have a property that’s of significance. They want to keep it around so that future generations can enjoy it and benefit from it, so that it can continue to be a part of the communities that they live in. Also, the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation provides conservation grants to property owners of designated resources, which serves as a fantastic incentive for people to conserve their property for the long term.”

There have been about five new applications since Brenda started in her position nearly a year ago, so she estimates that five to ten per year would be the norm. Her team is currently working through the evaluation process for approximately twenty sites.

So Brenda’s job involves lots of paperwork and administrative management. But she never loses sight of what it’s all for: “So many people work in this field because they feel passionately about the buildings, and I’m certainly no different there,” she says. “But for me, so much of it comes down to the people: the applicants, the owners, the community members. The public is so passionate about the sites that they so want to see conserved. I love being able to work with the public to help them reach their goals of contributing to a legacy for Alberta.”

Written by: Kerri Rubman.

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