New wine for old wineskins: The changing role of your local museum

By Ian McKechnie

New wine for old wineskins: The changing role of your local museum
Where Duty Leads Commemorative Dinner.

Another calendar year has dawned and with it has come the inevitable litany of resolutions about doing things differently in 2018.  Old habits, as the saying goes, die hard.

We are partial to “the way things were,” and are slow to fill old wineskins with new wine, lest the old wineskins break and leave a mess in our comfortable world of old habits and supposedly unassailable practices. History, said Henry Ford (1863-1947), is bunk.

New wine for old wineskins: The changing role of your local museum
Columnist Ian McKechnie.

Some of my readers may be perusing this column and wondering why a representative of the local museum should be extolling the virtues of change, and looking with a degree of disdain on doing things the old way.

“Isn’t the museum supposed to be the last great bulwark of tradition?” some might ask.  “Isn’t the museum supposed to be the guardian of our history?”

Yes and yes. But the Olde Gaol Museum is not immune to change. Like so many things in life (and like so many museums across North America), it is evolving to meet the needs of the community it serves.

Once a “rescue mission” to see that the relics of the past were preserved for time immemorial in static displays, the museum now sees itself as a creative hub for telling the stories of our community through conventional museum exhibits ‒ but also through theatre, interactive pop-up displays, and even through facilitating dialogue about social issues.

Change is not new to the museum; in fact, it’s been with us from the beginning.

In 1957, my maternal great-grandfather, Dan McQuarrie (1887-1970), led a consortium of local citizens to establish the Victoria County Historical Society. As the story goes, great-grandpa and others of his generation were deeply concerned about the possibility of pioneer “relics” ‒ venerable Victorian furniture, turn-of-the-century textiles, and ancient agricultural implements ‒ being cast upon the scrapheap as families downsized and left their farms for modern suburban neighbourhoods in the 1950s. (Their concerns were prophetic, in that many old farmsteads in Ontario now exist in the shadows of ever-expanding suburbia.)

The citizens of Lindsay and the former Victoria County responded enthusiastically to the call for artefacts. By 1959, the museum had found a temporary home in the former Canadian Pacific Railway station on Caroline Street, and by 1962 it had moved again ‒ this time, to a purpose-built facility at the westernmost edge of Kent Street, roughly where the LCBO now stands. (See photo, right.)

The collection grew and grew; the amount of available space did not. Ultimately, the historical society decided to vacate its home of over three decades and move into the former county jail, where after several years’ worth of renovations, a new museum opened in the spring of 2011.

A lot has happened over the past seven years in the field of cultural heritage, but “The Olde Gaol” has by and large remained rooted in the traditional world of museums ‒ static displays in a building to which the public is invited to come visit during the summer months.

New wine for old wineskins: The changing role of your local museum
The old jail.

Still, efforts have been made to break out of this mould (or should we say, break out of jail?) and bring museum services into the community. Where Duty Leads: Waving Off The 109th commemorated the centennial of soldiers from Victoria and Haliburton counties departing for the First World War en masse in May 1916.

A commemorative dinner at the Victoria Park Armoury ‒ utilizing the same menu enjoyed at the 109th Battalion banquet a century before ‒ on May 13th 2016 was followed by a parade and re-enactment the following day, which was capped off by a stage show at the Academy Theatre.

Several community groups, ranging from the Legion to the drama students at I.E. Weldon Secondary School, were instrumental in making this event a success. A year later, on May 19th and 20th 2017, the museum developed Our Place In Canada: 150 Years of Food, Song, and Story.

Local citizens were again invited to a special dinner in the Armoury ‒ featuring a three-course meal inspired by the Scottish, Irish, French, English, and Indigenous culinary traditions ‒ and a multifaceted production at the Academy showcasing 150 years of Canadian history as seen through local eyes.

In addition to these major commemorative events, the museum has partnered with Jack Callaghan Public School and Fenelon Township Public School to mark their 50th anniversaries in 2016 and 2017, respectively. It has joined forces with the Kawartha Handweavers and Spinners and other guilds in showcasing their traditional craftwork.

More recently, a service honouring local women who served as nursing sisters during the First World War brought together museum personnel, three local churches, members of the dramatic arts community, and the Ross Memorial Hospital.

Their Votes Counted ‒ a federally-funded pop-up exhibit about the nursing sisters who in 1917 became the first women to vote in a Canadian federal election ‒ came to fruition through not only the cooperation of the Canadian Nurses Association, but also through the work of Lindsay-based branding and design firm, Colour & Code.

What stands out about each of these examples is the power of collaboration. No longer does the museum exist in a vacuum, concerning itself only with promoting “our” collection, and relying only on a small coterie of staff and volunteers to do so. None of the projects cited above would have been possible without actors; caterers; educators; graphic designers; librarians; musicians; preachers; theatre sound and lighting technicians; local businesses; service clubs, and others. As Kathleen McLean, an American authority on emerging museum trends, writes:

New wine for old wineskins: The changing role of your local museum“We need to find ways to bring the museum’s expert knowledge into conversation with the people who attend our museums ‒ people who bring with them their own expert knowledge. And this means letting go of the notion that we, museum professionals, are a class apart from our visitors.”

Besides jettisoning the idea that it alone is responsible for showcasing local history, the museum is encouraging the public to remember that “honouring the past” involves more than hanging portraits of local war heroes on walls, displaying great-aunt Maude’s collection of porcelain plates on shelves, and ensuring that every high Victorian house in town is marked with a plaque.

It is also about telling the stories of those whose stories were unheard and untold, stories which ought to motivate us in the present to become more sensitive to the needs and interests of our friends and neighbours.

With that in mind, your museum is embarking on a major project in 2018 that will focus on the history and heritage of poverty reduction in Lindsay. This is an important story, and we invite you, our friends and neighbours, to help tell it.

Pouring new wine into the museum’s old wineskins won’t be an easy task, but it is a necessary one and will only serve to enrich our community’s cultural heritage.

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