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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
@theMuseum: Volunteers help NOTL museum bring history to life
Richard Merritt has been a volunteer with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum for more than 30 years. Richard Hutton
Rick Meloen became a volunteer with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum in 2011. Richard Hutton

This is the fourth part in an ongoing series of stories to draw attention to 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.

Richard Merritt’s links to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum go back long before he became a volunteer there more than three decades ago.

This was long before he even lived in Niagara.

“I grew up in London, Ont., and one of my great, great aunts lived in Niagara,” Merritt said. “She’d tell me stories (about Niagara) as she fed me milk and cookies. I had an interest in history all of my life.”

And, as it turned out, his great-grandmother, Mary Ada Blake, was associated with the woman who would go on to found the museum – Janet Carnochan.

“(My great-grandmother) was a student (of Carnochan’s),” Merritt said. “Then she was a librarian for 20 years afterwards in the courthouse.”

So, with such a background, it was only fitting that Merritt would develop that keen interest in history.

His passion for the past has resulted in him penning several books, including “On Common Ground: The Ongoing Story of The Commons in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” “The Capital Years: Niagara-on-the-Lake 1792-1796″ and “Training For Armageddon: Niagara Camp in the Great War, 1914-1919.”

All of them are available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop.

And for each and every one of those books, he has counted on the museum as a source of some of the information found within them. 

“When I first came here, there were two buildings,” he said. “I first came here in 1973. There’s been lots of renovations.

The connecting portion between Memorial Hall (built in 1906 as a museum) and the building that was the town’s first high school, built in 1875.

Having someone so well versed in the history of the area on board is a blessing for the museum, said Barbara Worthy, the museum’s community engagement co-ordinator.

But when the museum produced a series of documentaries on such topics as Black history and history of the Chautauqua neighbourhood, it could also be a little anxiety-provoking.

“We were terrified when he watched it in case we made mistakes,” she said with a laugh.

Merritt, meanwhile, said the fact that the town even has a museum, is something that should be cherished, if not celebrated. 

“We’re lucky,” Merritt said, adding that a big city like Toronto doesn’t have one.

“They have some great stuff but it’s all locked away in warehouses.”

While not as long-term as Merritt, Rick Meloen first became involved with the museum during celebrations marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812 just over a decade ago.

It was there he met Sarah Kaufman, the museum’s managing director and curator.

It was Kaufman who brought the idea of the tours to the committee tasked with co-ordinating celebrations that were to mark the war along with the 200 years of peace between Canada and the United States since then.

Meloen was quick to jump on board with the idea.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ I really wanted to do that,” Meloen said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He is well known around NOTL, having worked for decades for the town, most recently as supervisor of public works, before he retired in 2009.

Since then, he has become involved in several initiatives, including the creation of the town’s Heritage Trail, where is the chair of the committee. He also serves on the board of directors for the Friends of Fort George.

And, of course, the historical walking tours, something he continues to do to this day.

As an offshoot of the War of 1812 bicentennial, the tours at the beginning naturally focussed on historical sites in town that tied in with the conflict.

“I still talk quite a bit on the walking tours about the War of 1812 because it did have such a big impact on the town,” Meloen said.

But that is only a part of today’s walking tours, he said, adding that stops on the tours give him a chance to provide a more fulsome history of the town.

“We go through St. Mark’s Cemetery because there’s a lot of interesting people that are interred there,” he said. “So you talk about the history, but that also gives you an opportunity to talk about the churches in the town.”

Then, there are the street names.

“I stop by King and Byron (streets), and I’ll talk about the street names because the street names in town are interesting,” Meloen said. “They change on King Street. It drives tourists crazy.”

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 – that will add to the facility’s storage and exhibition spaces as well as provide space to deliver 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.

Like Merritt, Meloen thinks NOTL is blessed to have a repository of the town’s history.”

“I think the museum for a small town is excellent,” he said. “This is probably, if not the best, one of the best for the size of the community, considering the history here and the significance of the town.”

The campaign to fund the expansion is important as the museum has an important role to play in NOTL’s evolving history.

The campaign is “doing well,” Worthy said. “People are showing their support. We just need to stir up their passion. The town deserves for this museum to be the best that it can be.”

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

hutton@niagaranow.com

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