2.0 Definitions

The Places, Players and Partnerships

A. The Places

Geographic location and physical complexity have a significant impact on the ways that sites are governed and operated. While there are universal issues and best practices to be shared across all sites, the specifics of location and site size determine certain dynamics in the shared stewardship dynamic that should be considered. Solutions must be customized to meet the needs of the individual site.


Remote sites:

Location results in lower visitation, therefore focus is less on visitor experience but on meaningful community engagement. Communication and relationships with community members is often more easily facilitated due to proximity in daily life.

Rural sites:

Present unique challenges in capacity for growth, often with fewer resources. Community engagement often more easily facilitated, though there can be challenges in recruiting staff/volunteers over time. A rural site may serve many purposes for Its community (place of gathering, food and beverage services, parklands) and must be flexible for this.

Urban sites:

Urban density means dealing with higher volumes of visitors, and greater strains on daily operations/maintenance. There are typically more partnerships/players involved in one site and the forces of development place strains on third party relationships due to the need for advocacy regarding encroachments on landscapes that may be defining site features.



Sites that are large in size or have attached features such as parkland add layers of complexity to the partnership, introducing more players into the conversation and more challenges to deal with, particularly in terms of public access, liabilities, and maintenance. Not necessarily a negative trait and can “open more doors” in terms of growth and partnerships.


More straightforward in terms of management but present own set of challenges in terms of scaling operations to the needs of the community while remaining relevant.

B. The Players

An understanding of perspective is necessary to reading and applying the toolkit findings. The differences between owners, operators, and third parties must be considered in understanding their unique interests, needs, and structures that shape their approach to stewarding each site. While it is important to understand the full range of stewardship roles, recommendations contained in the Toolkit reflect a research focus primarily on publicly owned sites with an interpretive mandate.


As the holder of legal title, the owner is ultimately responsible for the long-term stewardship of a historic site. Based on their own mandate and their response to the value placed on the site by the community, the owner also determines the extent to which the site’s history is actively interpreted. Ownership can occur in many ways, such as acquisition, bequests, donation, and expropriation. Who owns a site (and why) has a determining factor on how a site is managed.
  • Government ownership is the most common model for historic sites open to the public with both an interpretive and non-interpretive focus. Whether federal, provincial/territorial, or municipal, governments are usually the best positioned with access to necessary resources to be stewards of historic sites, but may not be closely or directly connect to the community they serve.
  • Non-profit ownership of historic sites often occurs when community members rally to save an endangered place and tell its story. For non-profit owners whose mandate does not include interpretation, the historic qualities of a site may be important to their identity or brand, such as places of faith. There are also instances where non-profits assume ownership of historic properties for reasons unrelated to cultural heritage, as in land trusts focused on ownership in perpetuity for reasons such as nature conservation or protection of community assets.
  • Commercial ownership of historic sites is less frequent than government or non-profit owned and is often seen in the case of tourism operators. While the historic features may be important to their brand, it is most often secondary to commercial interests and limited interpretation of the site’s history occurs.


The term “operator” represents the party who plays a significant role in overseeing day-to-day operations of the site. Owners rely on secondary operators when they do not have the mandate, expertise, or capacity to operate it themselves. In the case of government-owned sites that are physically removed from the owner, it is often a conscious decision to have a local operator that is better positioned to represent community needs and interest. Secondary operatory typically have more flexibility and a specific set of skills with which to cultivate the site.
Non-profit organizations are sometimes founded with the sole purpose of serving the operational needs of a site, while others are selected as operating partners through a bid process. Historical societies are common operational partners of historic sites. Operators can also include commercial entities who run a site primarily for financial gain.

Third Party:

Third parties represent groups that support operations in addition to the primary operator. They can play a range of critical roles for the stewardship of the site, such as fundraising, advocacy, programming or food and beverage services, and work best when focused on specific goals. These roles can be played by volunteer groups, non-profit organizations, or commercial enterprises – each contributing specialized expertise or services. Third parties often represent community interests, offering a direct connection to local citizens. They can also diversify site offerings and draw in new audiences beyond the traditional historic site visitor demographic.

Navigating Changes in Ownership:

Over time, a partner’s capacity to support a site can change, leading to instabilities in long term sustainability and effective stewardship. Partners should remain open to exploring changes to a partnership if such shifts occur to ensure the historic sites in their care continue to be protected and enjoyed by the public. Such changes might include an operator pursuing ownership, only advisable when appropriate expertise, resources, and sound planning are involved to ensure responsible stewardship. This is not a rationalization for the off-loading of historic sites, or a rash repatriation of operations when difficulties arise, but rather a recognition that successful stewardship relies on each partner fully playing the role they are best positioned to play – and doing so with knowledge of challenges and opportunities that the roles present.

Indigenous Stewardship and Perspectives

Due to the evolving nature of Indigenous historic sites in the current socio-political context, the Toolkit lightly explores best practices in relation to Indigenous perspectives. Many sites are re-examining their relationship with Indigenous heritage, and Indigenous ownership and governance of many cultural sites is in the process of being restored. Emerging models for self determined Indigenous stewardship offer a glimpse into the future of these sites, of which co-ownership and management is part.

C. The Partnerships

Partnerships are formed at historic sites when an owner engages an additional party who is better positioned to address operations, or an aspect of operations. Additional parties bring needed expertise or resources that the owner may not have, approaching operations from a local level. There are many variations in the types of partnerships that exist at historic sites and may not be limited to the typical categories contained within. For the purposes of this Toolkit, discussions of partnerships are targeted toward formal operational partnerships and do not explore ad-hoc, informal community or programming-related partnerships.

Owner with Operator: Interpreted Site

As owners of public sites often manage multiple properties and may not have historic management expertise, it is an effective strategy to engage a heritage focused secondary party. In this arrangement, the operator is granted responsibility and autonomy to varying degrees, according to the specific needs of each owner and site. Owners hold authority over property management, while operators run the site according to their own mandate.

Operators often refer to the site owner for funds, capital upkeep and general strategic direction while pursuing interpretation, programming, and site operations on their own. Owners typically provide some financial support for programming and operations, but operators are expected to supplement their budget through fundraising and revenue generation.


Allows for experts to manage historic interpretation and activation of the site while the public benefit remains within government control to ensure long term sustainability.


Oshawa Museum, Huble Homestead, Joy Kogawa House, Beaubears Island

Owner with Operator: Non-Interpreted Site

Encountered at sites that are publicly owned, when a non-profit or commercial group is the primary operator, and the active historic interpretation of the site is limited. In these cases, historic sites serve an alternative use beyond historic preservation such as social development or hospitality.
When a commercial entity acts as the primary operator, they function more independently financially, and animate the space through a specific service rather than interpretive programming. Owners or third parties may address interpretation as a supplementary feature of the site’s offerings.


Offers a means of animating a historic site through a new lens that may have more relevance to a community’s needs and/or continue meaningful use of a site with public benefit.


Guild Inn Estate, New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation, Easter Seal Camp SaskAbilities

Owner or Owner and Operator with Third Party Community Group(s)

Often seen at large estates, institutional sites such as religious, military, or educational sites, and at park-like historic sites where the public has access to the grounds. Increased public presence in less regulated outdoor areas introduces complexities to maintenance and community use, and third party groups contribute an important additional stewardship presence.

Owners represent public ownership and retain the overarching authority and operation of the site. Partnerships are often in place to enhance the public benefit, including interpretation/programming, commercial concessions such as food services or gift shops, or fundraising for capital improvements. These third parties work collaboratively with the owner and often represent community interests.


When well managed can provide multiple avenues for fundraising, deeply involved local communities, and enhanced educational experiences for the public.


Guild Park, Allan Gardens, Halifax Citadel, The Spire of Sydenham

Owner or Owner and Operator with Third Party Commercial Groups

Third party commercial groups are increasingly being engaged in programming enhancements at historic sites. From Escape Rooms to Axe Throwing and Goat Yoga, the additional variety of offerings that commercial groups bring to the table can make a site a more dynamic place. Typically, third party commercial groups pay a pay per use or pay per attendee rate to the Owner or Operator who is fully operating the site and providing limited access.


Diversifies visitor experience while drawing in new audiences and potentially increasing revenue generation.


Lougheed House, Black Creek Pioneer Village, Diefenbunker

Co-Operated or Co-Owned and Operated

A co-operative model appears in shared use sites typically used for social or arts purposes, where multiple non-profit groups partner to rent a property and reap the economic/community building benefits of sharing resources. Historic sites can be re-envisioned as multi use spaces with a multitude of non-profit and commercial partners as operators. Shared use may not be appropriate for all historic sites, but it can create new opportunities for public engagement.

A co-operative structure is appearing increasingly at Indigenous heritage sites, as Canada’s definitions of ownership are adjusting throughout the process of Reconciliation. In some cases, a municipality, province/territory, or federal government will maintain ownership of the land and engage in co-operative operations with Indigenous groups. Indigenous voices lead interpretation and ensure appropriate operations and usage of Indigenous cultural sites. A variation of this model is in the co-ownership and operation of a site between a government body and Indigenous group. In either approach, responsibilities of maintenance, planning, interpretation, and more are approached collaboratively, but government commits to contributing a certain amount of funds and support.


Expands use of historic sites to benefit multiple parties. Indigenous sites are more effectively cared for when relevant Indigenous groups lead stewardship process, led by needs and interests of community members.


Arts Habitat Edmonton, Yukon First Nation historic sites, Obadjiwan–Fort Témiscamingue National Historic Site