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Monday, April 15, 2024
@theMuseum: NOTL’s house of history is bursting at the seams
Sarah Kaufman, managing director and curator of the NOTL Museum, with community engagement co-ordinator Barb Worthy with Worthy’s dog, Louie. The museum has embarked on the Building History, Strengthening Community fundraising campaign for a $10-million expansion that will nearly double the size of the museum from 10,000 to 18,000 square feet. Richard Hutton
An exterior view of how a proposed addition to Memorial Hall would look at an expanded Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum. Richard Hutton
An artist rendering shows uses for the proposed new space at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum. Richard Hutton

This is the first of an ongoing series of stories about the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum as it embarks on a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign for an expansion that will nearly double the size of the facility on Castlereagh Street.

The need for more space at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum was well-known.

The plan was formulated and all that was needed to get a fundraising campaign underway for the museum’s expansion was to begin soliciting donations.

Then, in March 2020, the world stopped.

“We were about to start reaching out to donors and COVID hit,” says Sarah Kaufman, the museum’s managing director.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw non-essential indoor spaces shut down for months, as well as organizations shifting their priorities to health and safety in the face of a potentially fatal disease, those plans were put on hold.

Now, even though COVID is still lurking, the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

With that, the museum’s expansion plans are back on the front burner.

“We’ve sort of been quietly chatting with individuals in town and now we’re thinking we need to communicate that this is happening, why it’s happening and just kind of get the buzz out there about why it’s important,” Kaufman said.

The goal of the museum’s fundraising project, dubbed the Building History, Strengthening Community Campaign, is to raise $5 million to help cover half of the cost of the $10-million expansion project. 

The ambitious plan includes a two-storey addition to the rear of the museum’s Memorial Hall and more basement space for storage.

In total, it will add more than 8,000 square feet of space to the museum, almost doubling its current 10,000 square feet.

Prominent NOTL pharmacist Sean Simpson was brought on board to be the face of the campaign and to raise half of the cost, with the hope of obtaining matching government grants to cover the remainder.

“I think our museum is one of the gems of our community,” Kaufman said. “We hold the community’s collection here. We have history that is nationally and provincially significant.”

While the museum may be smaller than others around the world, it represents something much larger than its size, said Barbara Worthy, the museum’s community engagement co-ordinator.

“That history that you see here and you feel here, learn here, is actually majorly significant to Canada’s development,” she said. “And that includes our Indigenous history and our Black history.”

The museum is home to the Laura Secord collection and boasts a hat belonging to Maj.-Gen. Sir Isaac Brock among its several artifacts.

“We’ve got probably the best War of 1812 collection in Canada here at the museum and we want to showcase it,” Kaufman said.

The museum not only needs additional space not only for its ever-expanding collection, but also space for the museum to run more community programs, she said.

A lot of its children’s events are run outdoors, but when the weather turns bad and the programs are brought inside, it’s a scramble to find room, she said.

With tourism being a big economic driver in NOTL, the museum has its own role to play in this endeavour.

Making improvements will only help it be a contributor to the town’s economic health, said Amy Klassen, the museum’s director of finance and marketing.

It’s the only NOTL historic site open all year, though hours are reduced in winter, she said.

Having year-round hours means the museum continues to attract visitors to town, she said.

The Niagara Icewine Festival, a long-time winter event, is joined by newer offerings for the snowy season, such as the Shaw Festival’s winter productions — including a staging of Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol” and “Brigadoon” — along with outdoor skating at the Wayne Gretzky Estates winery.

All these keep visitors coming to Niagara-on-the-Lake during what was traditionally the offseason for tourism. And, as such, people are no longer confining their NOTL visits to the warmer months.

“It’s important that we are part of that,” Klassen said.

The historic façade of the museum will not change, she added. The addition, to be built behind the main building, will not dramatically affect the overall look of the facility.

“We worked with the municipal heritage committee through the whole process and have our heritage permits and they’re happy with it,” Klassen said.

“The build is purpose-driven. We need to have more space.” 

Worthy, meanwhile, said great care has been taken to preserve the original buildings that comprise the museum, especially Memorial Hall, as it was the first Ontario building constructed specifically as a museum when it was built in 1907.

“It gives it incredible prestige,” she said.

Today, the museum has 53,000 items in its collection and runs 80 annual programs. In total, the museum gets help from some 100 volunteers, who do everything from acting as tour guides to gardening.

Museum leadership hopes the expansion project can be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of the death of museum founder Janet Carnochan. 

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