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Wind of Change at Saskatoon's WDM

By Kathy Morrell

Sketch of indoor Wind Exhibit

Winds of Change is the title of a permanent new exhibit at Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum (WDM). The display features past, present and future: the wind turbines of the period 1920 to 1940 in rural Saskatchewan and wind as a present and future alternate energy resource.

It is a welcoming exhibit. There are interactive components for the kids – buttons to push, wheels to turn and lights that wink on and off. There are the wind turbines of the past – the pull for those fascinated by the history of a time not so long ago. There is an explanation of wind energy for everyone, but school children in particular. There is a video that captures the minute-to-minute operation of the three RAUM wind turbines that stand outside the museum door. This exhibit is for everyone.

The impetus for Winds of Change grew out of strategic planning sessions involving the WDM board and staff with Robert Janes as facilitator. Janes is well-known in the museum world as the former director of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and the author of numerous books and articles probing the role of museums in modern society.

From that discussion came a suggestion: “Why don’t we look at greening the Museum?” There was excitement as everyone considered the possibilities: the bridge from past to present, the issues around future sustainability, the relevance to today’s society.
Two years ago, staff of the WDM Curatorial Centre attended a brown bag lunch at the University of Saskatchewan hosted by RAUM Energy. According to its website, RAUM is a Saskatchewan-based wind energy company focused on developing and manufacturing reliable wind turbines and inverters. Inverters make the power produced by the turbine compatible with household current and appliances. They also allow for tying production of power from the turbine to the power grid.

“In our exhibit, we wanted to present the past, but just as importantly we wanted an illustration of the present and future possibilities of wind,” explained Brian Newman, WDM Exhibits Coordinator. “We wanted our own turbines, equipment designed and produced in Saskatchewan.”

The RAUM turbines fit those criteria. In front of the Saskatoon WDM now stand three turbines. The towers stand 14 metres high, the blades three metres in diameter.

And no, the WDM is not about to meet its power needs from the three turbines that stand sentinel to the Museum’s hopes for the future. (To power the building at peak load would require more than 86 turbines similar to the three on site.) However, the initiative has become a demonstration site for education both past and present and more importantly it points the way to the “intelligent and caring change” Janes describes in his latest book, Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse.

In Winds of Change, the curatorial staff shows an on-going commitment to telling the Saskatchewan story, the past of a province steeped in innovation. The exhibit makes use of artifacts from the WDM collection of more 85,000 objects. The historical alcove, only one of three that make up the exhibit, includes wind turbines from the 1920, 1930s and1940s. Some were made on Saskatchewan farms. Others such as the WINCHARGER were manufactured in the United States. It is estimated that there were 6000 wind turbines in the province at the time. The system was hooked up to a bank of batteries that powered electric lights and the all-important radio, the link to news about grain prices and such entertainment as Fibber McGee and Molly, Lux Radio Theatre and Hockey Night in Canada.
During the 1930s, the number of radios in the province doubled. Zenith offered a special price on a turbine if the purchaser bought a six volt radio. The ploy proved a winning marketing strategy for the time.

Later, farm families acquired other appliances such as toasters, washing machines and the appliance most valued by Saskatchewan women – the electric iron. In the 1950s, most farmers discontinued using wind turbines when the power grid was extended throughout the rural areas of the province.

Video screens in the second alcove show the three RAUM turbines and a weather station outside the Museum. The latter indicates wind speed and directions as well as temperature, humidity, total rainfall and current precipitation. It features an explanation of wind as energy resource. Atop the display stands the figure of a young girl, her skirts billowing in the wind. In her hand she holds a spinning pinwheel – a symbol of the generations to come and the future of Saskatchewan innovation.

Another section of the exhibit features a video entitled Destination Conservation. Wind power can meet only 15 to 20 per cent of the province’s electrical needs. The cheapest and most effective way to decrease reliance on fossil fuels is simply to reduce the community’s use of energy.

In realization of this fact, the WDM has moved to reduction of its energy consumption. The exhibit makes use of LED lights, which use only 10 per cent of the energy of incandescent bulbs. The WDM has installed capacitor banks and variable speed fans to make more efficient use of energy it consumes. In some areas, the motion of people walking by triggers lights. This change means that lighting is turned off when no one is in a particular section of the building. Florescent and halide lights, much more efficient than incandescent lighting, are used where possible. The Museum has installed more insulation in the building and new and better boilers for heating. The WDM continues to seek out other ways to improve its energy efficiency, to live the message of its new exhibit, the Winds of Change.

Five-year-old Cruise and his family visited the WDM one Friday afternoon to explore the new exhibit, Winds of Change.