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Thursday, February 29, 2024
@theMuseum: So many artifacts, so little space
Glenn Smith, a member of the NOTL Museum's collections committee, examines a First World War-era machine gun in the museum's storage area. Richard Hutton
Sarah Kaufman, managing director and curator of the NOTL Museum with items from its collection of items that belonged to Laura Secord. Richard Hutton

This is the third of an ongoing series of stories focused on the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum as it embarks on a fundraising campaign for an expansion that would nearly double the size of the current museum on Castlereagh Street.

Glenn Smith says he knows quite a bit about a lot of things.

He is part of a group of “gnarly old experts in the esoteric antiquities” who make up the collections committee at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.

The committee assesses items community members offer them for their potential historical value.

Some members are experts in topics such as military history, while others are adept at antiques and documents. 

“When we get all of us together, we have a complete brain,” Smith said with a laugh.

His forte, however, is less defined than most of the people on the committee.

“I have always been known as the miscellaneous person,” Smith said. “I know odd things about odd artifacts.” 

So, while others on the committee look at items from antique china and furniture to war memorabilia, Smith’s strengths lie in other places.

“I get the hockey sticks, the coffee cans full of Indian coins,” he said.

And that’s just fine with Sarah Kaufman, the museum’s managing director and curator. She said the museum is fortunate to have such a diverse group of people helping out.

“Not all museums, from my conversations with other museum groups, have the variety that we have here,” she said.

The committee has helped the museum amass a collection of more than 53,000 artifacts. But only a sliver of that can be on display at any given time, Kaufman said.

Complicating matters even more, space is getting tight and the museum needs to expand or find storage space elsewhere.

“(That) can get expensive and can be unnerving for staff because if you have an off-site storage, you’re not exposed to it as much as saying we’re here with our collection,” she said.

Currently, with the artifacts being stored on site, it is easier to make sure all is well with them. 

“We can go up into the collection spaces and volunteers that work with the collection can keep an eye on it,”Kaufman said. “If it’s off-site and something happens, you might not find out about it right away.”

Smith, who at one time worked at the Royal Ontario Museum, knows the struggle.

When he was there, the ROM had almost 500 artifacts on display and more than 110,000 in storage – stuff that “nobody ever saw,” he said.

“Part of it is, you store it for research and things like that,” he said. “Occasionally, it becomes part of a themed exhibit, but largely, a lot of the treasures of the museum are hidden away.”

Presently, artifacts are stored in several areas throughout NOTL’s museum. There’s a room dedicated to documents and photographs, another to furnishings and more.

“You would take that condition report and actually go in and find the artifact to view it and to see if anything has changed from the original condition report or the last time (you checked),” Kaufman said.

Some things staff and volunteers will look for are things such as rust or discolouration, she added.

Being in a heritage building, even with insulation improvements that have been made over the years, humidity can also pose a problem for the collection, Kaufman said.

That will be addressed in the expansion when the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system at the museum – now just residential grade – is upgraded to commercial specifications. 

“That’s the nice thing about this expansion,” Kaufman said. “All of that will be fixed and we’ll be able to monitor it a lot easier through digital systems.”

The museum has embarked on the Building History, Strengthening Community fundraising campaign to help finance an 8,000 square-foot expansion – almost doubling the museum’s current 10,000 square feet of space.

This will add to the facility’s storage and exhibition spaces, as well as provide space to host museum programs for the community.

Through the campaign, the museum hopes to raise $5 million to cover half of the $10-million cost of the project, which will include a two-storey addition to the rear of  Memorial Hall and more basement space for storage. Grants are expected to pay for the balance of the expansion.

Hopes are for the project to be completed by 2026, which is the 100th anniversary of the death of museum founder Janet Carnochan. 

Donations to campaign can be made in person at the museum, at 43 Castlereagh St., during operating hours, 1 to 5 p.m. seven days a week, or online at canadahelps.org/en/charities/niagara-historical-society/.

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