The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum needs more space, more visitors — especially young ones — and stable funding to ensure both operations and the historic building are sustainable.
Those were some of the many passionate responses to questions raised during an envisioning session held at the museum Friday, as part of a process to create a strategic plan for its future.
The session was led by Rebecca Jones of Dysart & Jones Associates, aided by Daryl Novak, also of D&J and the chair of the NOTL Public Library board.
About 40 people attended, many with connections to the museum or other local cultural organizations.
“The board has to make difficult decisions that will impact on the organization for the next five to 10 years,” said Jones, asking the audience what is important to them about the town.
Answers included the feeling of peace and quiet, its proximity to major centres, the cultural activities offered, the cultural networks, the natural beauty, its uniqueness as the “little gem we have here,” and the history and heritage it represents.
When asked about concerns, audience members spoke of inappropriate development, overwhelming tourism, the threat to museum funding, and that it might be closed.
There was also a fear expressed of reluctance to be open to change, about losing the tender fruit industry to wineries or even cannabis growth, and about how the town would react to climate change and the environment.
The lack of affordable housing was also discussed. “People who work in town can’t afford to live in town,” said one audience member. “That’s an issue.”
“The town is career-ending,” said another, citing a lack of professional job opportunities.
Public transportation and shuttle hours are also issues, especially for those who need to get to work in Old Town or Glendale.
“I’m concerned about the town becoming an amusement park,” said another audience member. “I’d like it to remain a liveable, working town.”
Turning to talk specifically of the museum, Jones asked about what prompted audience members to attend the session.
One response was out of concern for the museum, which is “an under-appreciated gem in the community.”
A common theme among supporters was a lack of understanding or awareness of how much the museum has to offer, and the need for expanded space for more displays and events that would attract a larger group of people.
“Story-telling” came up often as the role and strength of the museum, its ability to protect memories of the past, educate locals and visitors about the town’s history, and “preserve the authenticity of the town.”
If the stories of the community aren’t told, nobody will know them — they need to be shared in a way that’s accessible and understandable, Jones heard.
“The role of the museum is essential in our community, to preserve who we are,” was another comment.
Its role is preserving not only artifacts, but also documents, which represent a continuous history of the town.
It also has a role as a partner to other cultural organizations, which would benefit from working together and helping each other, Jones was told.
Others talked about the museum as a community hub, and a place to hold events that would draw people to it, including children and school groups.
“Entertainment will bring people in, tricking people into learning something. They come to be entertained and can be surreptitiously taught while they’re here,” was one comment.
“Fashion shows instead of clothes behind glass,” was another.
“There are so many compelling physical elements about this site, a heritage property in this world having an eye to the future,” said Coun. Clare Cameron, who was one of three council representatives, along with Couns. Allan Bisback and Erwin Wiens.
There was also discussion about the museum having a larger role in telling the stories of Indigenous history, and fostering dialogue around Indigenous history, which has been cited as one of the reasons for the expansion.
Jones then turned the talk to the barriers that prevent the museum from being all people want it to be. Accessibility was one that was mentioned, as was “the word museum,” which to many conjures visions of old and dusty exhibits, a turn-off especially for the young.
“It’s considered a place to visit when it’s raining,” said one audience member, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
But others, said one lover of museums, “might find it a place of awe and joy. Museums mean different things to different people.”
Lack of space to display current exhibits alongside the “chronological history” of the town so important to visitors was mentioned.
“Locals want new and different, visitors want to get their bearings of where they are in the community.”
A teacher who has taken school groups on museum visits suggested more opportunity for interaction with exhibits would allow them to “come away with a positive experience.”
“There is a missing voice here, of people under 20,” said another. “We have to get them involved.”
The location is a barrier, off the beaten track, said Bisback. “We’ve got to get people off Queen Street to the museum,” he said, adding, “I’m not suggesting we move it.”
Jones asked about “accelerators” that would move the museum forward, which turned the talk to the excellence of the staff and volunteers, the society that supports the museum, the fundraisers, such as polo on the commons, camps for children, walking tours, the tiny museum on wheels now in the works, potential partnerships, preservation of the building, performances that bring people into the building that wouldn’t otherwise be there, the Black History walking tour, and youth outreach.
“Maybe more promotion, more tooting your own horn,” echoed several comments about raising the profile of the museum.
Coun. Erwin Wiens brought a touch of practicality to the discussion, bringing up the need for a “consistent funding model,” so the museum can budget in a manner that’s sustainable, without being a burden on taxpayers. “I would like to be pragmatic, and know that we have funding so that we don’t have the roof falling down on us. You need a consistent model that the museum can rely on. Fundraising should go toward artifacts, not the roof or furnace.”
Ron Dale, former Parks Canada supervisor of historic sites, suggested an increased use of technology, including virtual reality alongside exhibits so visitors, instead of just seeing a spinning wheel in a glass case, “will be able to see someone in period costume using the spinning wheel.”
Having a website that “draws people in from outside Niagara,” that shows more of the collections online, was another suggestion for the future.
The conversation wrapped up with a discussion of the “perplexity” of locals either not knowing about the museum, or not visiting it, and the opportunity, and necessity, with the coming expansion, to change that.