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A lifelong passion for history

Museum manager steps down after 40-year career

Colin Stevens may be retiring at the end of the month, but it's likely he'll dig up some activities to keep him busy.

After six-and-a-half years as the manager of the New Westminster Museum and Archives, Stevens is set to retire. He's enjoyed a 40-year career in the museum field.

"I started out as a student volunteer back in Nova Scotia," he said. "When I was in B.C. going to university, I started a museum with the regiment."

While serving with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in 1972, he noticed "all this old stuff" around the Armouries, gathered it together in one place and started a museum.

"We found things like machine guns in closets. We found a stuffed cougar in the attic," he said. "I found an oil painting of (Victoria Cross recipient) Smokey Smith."

Stevens served in the Reserves, where he attained the rank of Captain and was awarded the Canadian Forces Declaration. He started the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Museum in 1972 and spent 15 years there as the voluntary curator and archivist.

For as long as he can remember, Stevens has been interested in anthropology and history. It may have been piqued by a discovery he made as a child living in London, England.

"I found a lot of trilobites. They are small fossils that look a bit like a horseshoe crab," said Stevens, who was born in Canada. "They were literally outside our front door in a ditch because of the shale there."

When he was about 10, Stevens moved with his family from England to Rome, Italy where more discoveries were to come his way.

"At the end of our street they built a road through an old Roman fort," he recalled. "I filled several bushel baskets full of pot-shards."

While living in Italy, Stevens also discovered an ancient Christian church in the Italian countryside. His father had taken the family on a picnic and Stevens and his younger brother wandered down a country road where they found a church that was believed to have been from the early days of Christianity.

"It was camouflaged. It was built into a hillside," he said. "We found a mural along one wall."

Stevens' father contacted the officials. While the locals knew about the church, it hadn't been officially recorded.

After returning to Canada when he was 11, Stevens lived in a number of provinces with his family, including Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Before graduating from the University of British Columbia, he was already working at museums and historic sites.

"I loved history, I love heritage," he said. "I shifted my focus over to museums."

After graduating from university, Stevens worked at a variety of historical sites and museums, before taking a job at Burnaby Village Museum. He was the curator at that museum for 18 years before coming to work for the City of New Westminster.

"I love museum work, working with collections especially," he said. "I may do some contract work."

Stevens considers his work in New Westminster to be a career highlight in terms of its interesting history and wonderful collections.

He's proud of accomplishments made by the New Westminster Museum and Archives team since 2005, including transferring the city's record to the archives, researching Irving House, brightening up the exhibit gallery, removing the clutter, and doing a complete inventory of the museum's collections.

Stevens notes that it had been thought that the museum had about 9,000 artifacts, but there are actually more than 35,000 items in its collection.

"Because we have done the inventory, we can find things," he said. "We have rediscovered a lot of things, connected the history back to the object."

Stevens leaves the City of New Westminster at a time when planning is underway to relocate the museum to the new multiuse civic centre that will be built on Columbia Street.

Stevens has no specific retirement plans but looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Jeanette, a retired teacher, and to "decompressing" for a bit. With hobbies including geology, military history and photography, there's little doubt Stevens will keep himself busy.

"It's with mixed emotion at this time," he said about retiring. "The reasons are varied. Some family, some work."

Greg Magirescu, the city's manager of arts and cultural services, will be the interim manager of the New Westminster Museum and Archives.