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The heart of the Nelson Museum: remembering Shawn Lamb

For decades, she was the museum’s curator, archivist — and everything else
Longtime Nelson museum curator and archivist Shawn Lamb examines the contents of a 100-year-old time capsule at Central School in 2009. Lamb died on Oct. 20 at 83. Photo: Greg Nesteroff

Shawn Lamb, who spent more than 25 years as Nelson’s museum curator and archivist and received the city’s highest honour, has died at 83.

Her passing Wednesday was announced by Touchstones Nelson, which wrote:

“It is with heavy hearts that [we] acknowledge the passing of former archivist, dear friend and heart of the museum Shawn Lamb. Shawn has contributed an immense amount to the preservation of our community’s history … Her legacy will live on in the Shawn Lamb Archives.”

In one of many online tributes, local author and retired librarian Anne DeGrace called Lamb “one of the kindest people I have ever met; she was kind without judgement, kind simply as a way of being … She had a huge role in planting the seeds for who we could be as a community that honours its arts and heritage.”

Former Touchstones curator Rod Taylor said Lamb was “generous and kind and her amazing knowledge of local history was really just a bonus.”

Lamb was held in high esteem by her peers around the region. Cathy English, the longtime curator of the Revelstoke Museum and Archives, said she “appreciated [Lamb’s] knowledge and passion for the history of the Kootenays.”

Creston Museum and Archives manager Tammy Bradford said Lamb was her “first mentor in the museum world,” giving her all sorts of opportunities: “She encouraged me to just dive in and start, no matter how big or scary the task before me seemed, and was there with advice and support as I launched my own life-long career in a community museum.”

Shawn Harold was born in 1938 and came to Nelson with her family as a toddler. Her arts-loving parents named her after American dance pioneer Ted Shawn, and ensured that she was exposed to and involved in the arts from a young age. She credited her interest in history, however, to her Grade 7 teacher, Enid Etter.

After graduating from Nelson High School in 1955, she attended Notre Dame University locally and then the University of BC, where she earned a BA in History and English. Later returning to her hometown to raise her children, she volunteered on local boards and developed an intimate knowledge of the arts scene.

Lamb began working at the old Nelson Museum on Anderson Street as a volunteer in the early 1980s, at the invitation of board member Alan Ramsden. In 1984, she became the museum’s first paid employee, initially working three days a week and doing a little of everything.

Under her watch, the museum’s public profile and outreach flourished. She wrote a newspaper column (Museum Memo, later named Looking Back), hosted a local TV show (Turn Back the Clock), and made frequent presentations to community groups — in addition to answering inquiries, cataloguing artifacts, curating exhibits, and helping publish books.

“If I have a gift, it’s a gift to be able to pull things together,” she said in a 2004 interview. “I’m not an original mind but I guess I have the ability to see connections and it has been very fulfilling for me to be able to use that gift.”

Asked about the importance of history, Lamb replied that she was raised on the notion that you should know where you came from, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. “Besides,” she added, “it’s bloody interesting.”

Shawn Lamb lays out the contents of a 100-year-old time capsule at Central School in 2009 as principal Dan Dalgaard looks on. Most of it did not fare very well. “Silverfish dinner,” Lamb said. Photo: Greg Nesteroff
Shawn Lamb lays out the contents of a 100-year-old time capsule at Central School in 2009 as principal Dan Dalgaard looks on. Most of it did not fare very well. “Silverfish dinner,” Lamb said. Photo: Greg Nesteroff

Lamb’s time at the museum coincided with the heritage restoration of Nelson’s downtown, sparking a new appreciation for the city’s past. She was frequently called upon to find photos of what buildings once looked like.

“It was exciting times. They would be uncovering all of these beautiful things and we would be looking and saying, ‘Why were they covering that up?’”

Lamb also mentored the museum’s summer students and others interested in history. In a companion booklet to a 2019 exhibit on the Anderson Street museum, author-historian Art Joyce said Lamb was like a den mother to those who hung around the drafty building.

“Shawn’s presence was a ray of sunshine any time you walked through those doors,” he wrote. “No matter what she was doing, she always took time to stop and help you out with your inquiries.”

Lamb finally became a full-time employee in 1995.

The worst moment of her career occurred in 2003 when the MV Amabilis II, a retired forest service boat in the midst of restoration, caught fire and spread to the museum. The museum was closed and a restoration company was hired to clean all of the artifacts.

As disastrous as the event was — and as much of a headache it caused for Lamb — it provided additional impetus for a long-wanted new facility. Lamb had already been involved for years in planning a new museum, archives, and art gallery.

After several false starts, that dream was finally realized as Touchstones Nelson, which opened in 2006 in the former city hall. Ed Mannings, whom Lamb recruited to join the museum board for his financial expertise, spent six years working with her during that transition period.

“I will always remember and appreciate Shawn for the time spent helping her enthusiastically fulfill her dreams,” he says. “Shawn was an inspiration. Had it not been for Shawn, the Nelson Museum may not have even survived to become the fine institution it is today.”

The board of directors voted unanimously to name Touchstones’ lower level the Shawn Lamb Archives in honour of her life’s work.

Lamb told the Nelson Daily News the museum’s new location was inspiring. “It put us right in the middle of everything and people would say ‘Wow, that’s your museum?’”

Although Lamb was offered the position of executive director, she declined, preferring to spend her last few working years as archivist and collections manager.

To mark her retirement in 2009, she curated an exhibit consisting of some of her favourite artifacts. Afterward, she continued to volunteer in the archives.

Lamb was named Nelson’s Citizen of the Year in 1994 and in 2009 became the last individual presented with the Freedom of the City, the municipality’s highest honour. Ironically, one of the few tangible perks it comes with is free parking — but Lamb didn’t have a car.

Lamb is survived by six children and numerous grandchildren. She was predeceased in 2014 by her husband of 55 years, Ken. A few years ago, she suffered a series of mini-strokes that brought on aphasia, and since then had relied on family friend and former coworker Marianne Tremblay.

Touchstones is inviting its membership to join Lamb’s family to remember her on Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the museum. Visitors are asked to limit their attendance at the open house to 30 minutes. Health and safety protocols will be in place, with limited capacity. Proof of vaccination and masks are required.