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The Timms Centre

When the first shovel enters the earth to begin excavation for the new Timms Collections Centre at the University of Alberta, it will carry behind it the weight of more than three quarters of a century and one family’s brokenness.

Construction of the Centre, which is to be built on the northeast corner of 87 Avenue and 112 Street (now a parking lot between Campus Tower and the Fine Arts Building), is scheduled to begin in June 1989. Intended to be a “gateway to campus” the Timms Centre is expected to open in September 1992.

It will meet a long-identified need. For the 80 years of its existence the University has not only taught its students, tackled research problems, and otherwise served the public, it has collected. Books certainly, but also a myriad of natural materials, artwork and artifacts: dinosaur bones, rocks and minerals, ancient coins, paintings, sculptures, historic costumes, documents, photographs, insect specimens, molds, fungi, agricultural machinery, maps — these do not begin to exhaust the amazing variety of objects which have been collected to further the University’s mandate in teaching, research, and public service.

The University’s collections are currently estimated to encompass 17.5 million objects. The 1988 National Museums Survey shows this to be one of the very largest museum collections in Canada — the University museums contain more objects than do all the other museums and galleries in Alberta combined.

In the beginning the collecting at the University was largely haphazard, the accumulation of gifts and materials acquired through the uncoordinated initiatives of individual teachers and researchers. In more recent history the collecting has become more sophisticated, and there is now a separate academic support unit responsible for overseeing the various University collections.

Jim Parker, ’61 BA, ’67 MA, the director of that department (University Archives and Collections), says that “as the size of the collections has grown, the need for proper storage, maintenance and display space has intensified.” A building to serve as a collections centre was proposed as early as 1974, but such a facility never rose to the top in the stiff competition for dollars from the capital budget supplied through the provincial government, explains Mr. Parker.

The Centre now scheduled for construction is the first major campus building to be built outside the regular capital budget process. “This time the University was able to take the initiative — through private support we’re getting a facility to be proud of,” says the director.

That support began with a bequest that has grown to more than $4 million: when Albert Timms died in 1978 he left his estate in trust to the University with the condition that a building be constructed to bear the Timms name. Around this core, funding for the $17.25 million Timms Collections Centre was assembled. To the bequest was added a sizeable donation (designated for a cultural facility) made to the University’s 75th Anniversary Campaign by Canada’s five major chartered banks, and a further $2.5 million was gained in matching grants from Alberta Advanced Education.

The Centre’s chief benefactor, Albert Timms, was born in Ladysmith, B. C. in 1903. The following year he moved with his parents to a homestead near Erskine in central Alberta. There the family farmed and gradually acquired additional land — and the mineral rights to it. Those mineral rights, which eventually came into Albert’s hands, were to prove important, for the family’s holdings overlay rich oil deposits. From these came the rich legacy which Mr. Timms, who had no sons, left to the University to continue the family name.

Perhaps the best metaphor that has been offered for the Timms Centre is that of a phoenix, one that has arisen from the fires of a father’s wrath and his family’s brokenness. When Albert Timms favored the University of Alberta in his will, there was a dark side to this beneficence: in benefitting the University he disinherited his only child, his daughter Ruth, whom he had refused to acknowledge following her marriage (her second marriage) to a man of Japanese-Canadian ancestry.

Ruth Nishioka ( Timms), who earned diplomas in education from the University in the early 1950s, still bears emotional scars from that disaccord, but she has made a peace with the past and is an enthusiastic supporter of the collections centre her father’s gift made possible. She doesn’t pretend that her father’s treatment of her did not hurt (“I’m not going to be a liar and say that it didn’t bother me — you bet it did.”); however, she has been able to transcend that: “The money is going to benefit a lot more people than if he had given it to me — you do have to put that into perspective.”

While the phoenix imagery is metaphorically apt, the Timms Centre as designed by Edmonton architect Barry Johns looks not at all like a bird, mythical or otherwise. Nor does it look like any other building on campus. “Most campus buildings are quite introverted; ours is the reverse,” says the architect.

With its appealing presence reinforced by a transparent quality and a spacious forecourt, the three- storey Centre is designed to beckon the public inside — and on to the University campus. The idea, explains Mr. Johns is that the Timms Centre, in addition to fulfilling its mandate as a teaching centre, will be a “gateway” — a welcoming entrance — to the University. “It’s actually four buildings under one roof,” he says, “one for conservation, one for storage, one for exhibitions, and then one for academic purposes — there’s no other museum in the world with all four.” And underneath all that will be a 500-car underground parkade.

Of particular interest is the exhibition space which comprises four large exhibition galleries accounting for about 1,000 of the Centre’s 10,000 square- metres of floor space. These galleries, following what Mr. Johns describes as a “sweeping trend” in contemporary gallery design, will be lit by daylight. This natural light will be delivered, manipulated and, if necessary, augmented or blocked by a complex lighting system, central to which are the 18-metre high, copper-clad “roof hats” which are the most striking features of the building’s profile.

“Certainly not all of the items in all of the University collections will be moving into the Timms Centre,” says archives and collections director Parker. The major tenants will be the University Archives, the Art Collections, the Ethnographic Collections, and the Historic Costume and Textile Study Collection. “These are the collections which are in need of the best environmental control,” says Mr. Parker.

He is quick to point out, however, that all of the University’s collections will benefit from the Timms Collections Centre: “Not only will it be a base for administering services to all of our collections, but it is fundamental to the design of the Centre that it act as a window to all of the collections.” To this end, the plan for the Centre includes prominent display space which will feature exhibits showcasing the collections scattered throughout the campus.

Even greater access to the scattered collections may be provided through optical disk technology, which Mr. Parker hopes to employ for all of the collections. This technology, now in its prototype stages, provides an efficient means of storing and accessing information and photographs related to museum pieces.

A link is also being established with the Canadian Heritage Information Network, which combines state-of-the-art computer technology and a national telecommunications network. Not only will this make the University’s collections known across the country, but it will allow U of A students and staff easy access to information about other collections.

In addition, in keeping with its public orientation, the building will encompass space for various public services, including a gift shop, working space for the Friends of the University of Alberta Museums, a resource centre, a lounge area, and meeting space. Also available for public use will be a 260 seat auditorium. And easy access to all this will be provided by the underground parking and proximity to the LRT line that is to extend to campus.

Ruth Nishioka admits to having had some initial misgivings when she heard that her father’s money would be used for a museum: she wasn’t sure but that he might have thought it a bit frivolous. But now that she is familiar with all that the Centre will be, she no longer has doubts. “This is more than a museum,” she says. “I think he would be extremely proud of it — I know he would be.”

Published Winter 1988.

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