Forty years after opening its doors at 259 Scott St., the Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Centre is now more than ever a “vibrant and thriving” part of the community.
An exhibit marking the Fort Frances Museum’s 40th anniversary, and the 120th anniversary of the building which houses it, was opened with a wine-and-cheese reception last Wednesday afternoon.
The building originally was a school built in 1898. In 1927, the Legion moved in and stayed until 1968, when they constructed a new building on Church Street which stands to this day.
From 1968-78, the building was a police station, assessment office, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Then the museum–which had occupied a section of the old public library–moved in and the rest, as they say, is history.
Curator Sherry George said the local museum, over the past 40 years, has accomplished what museums are “ultimately meant to do.”
“It has recorded the history of our community in the thousands of photographs in our vault; it preserves countless artifacts that represent changes in fashions or improvements to technology, and many others that are precious souvenirs of wartime and lives lived,” she told those on hand for the reception.
“All treasures collected over lifetimes that remind us of where we’ve been.
“Altogether, they tell a story of how we came into being, what events shaped us–both good and bad–and of decisions made that contributed to who and what we’ve become today,” George added.
She said Fort Frances sports a museum that is “vibrant and thriving, and it shows in all that we do.”
“Our research materials and library are well-organized, and over 120 years of weekly newspapers and thousands of photographs have been digitized,” George recounted.
“Our summer children’s programming is well-attended, our adult Saturday workshops are full as soon as they’re advertised, and our collection is well-cared for, catalogued, and properly-stored,” she added.
George also stressed the community supports the museum in countless ways.
“We have a strong advisory committee, an active and connected ‘Friends of the Museum’ fundraising group, a strong membership that attends functions and donates generously, and many other volunteers who are here when we need them and work hard on our behalf,” she remarked.
George noted that, thanks to local leaders making good choices for our museum, the 120-year-old building has been well taken care of through a number of renovations with the help of all levels of government.
It was upgraded in 1978 when the newly-incorporated museum took ownership.
Then in 2007, the building was gutted and extensively renovated to make it suitable as a museum facility, including proper storage units, an alarm and security system, heating and ventilation that controls for humidity, LED lighting, and the removal of windows–all necessary to protect and preserve the collection.
“Unlike many museums in Ontario and Manitoba, we meet the standards that are required to properly house a collection,” George said.
“Our building, and ultimately our museum, have served us well,” she added. “More importantly, both are sound and very capable of leading us into the future.”
Local historian Darryl Allan, who was hired as a museum assistant by Mel Steele and later served as curator from 1978-94, also shared some memories at last Wednesday’s reception.
Allan recalled the opening of the museum in July 1, 1978.
“It was a realization of many years of work and dedication by numerous people who were committed to preserving our community’s collected history,” he said.
“It was a real honoured to be entrusted with the culmination of their efforts.”
Allan noted many people worked hard to make dream of Fort Frances having its own museum come true, including Steele, Edna Avis, Fred Whitehead, Dorothy Redford, Irene McKellar, Irvin S. Livingston, and the Fort Frances Lions Club.
A year after the opening, some grant money was made available and the elevator was added to the rear of the building.
Both Fort Frances Little Theatre and the Fort Frances Arts & Crafts Association also occupied the building.
Over time, the museum was gifted with the “Hallett,” which ended up stationed at Point Park, and thanks to the support of the late George Emes, Fort St. Pierre was renovated so seasonal exhibits and programming could be offered.
The lookout tower also was a museum-run site.
Allan noted that while the opinions of town council about the museum have varied over the decades, the museum has received their continued support.
“Every time I enter this building, I am astounded at how far it has come,” he enthused.
“I’ve been in a lot of community museums over the years and this facility is far better in terms of the environmental controls, storage, collection, exhibits, programming, and just the overall facility,” he noted.
Allan said he probably had a dozen different positions during his career with the town but of all of them, working at the museum was the one for which he had a “real passion.”
“It’s hard to believe 40 years have gone by but there’s one thing I think we can all be sure of, and that is that the current staff, the board, and the volunteers have ensured that our past does indeed have a future,” he concluded.
Wednesday’s reception also was an occasion to celebrate the most recent museum renovations.
“Today, we not only celebrate the museum’s 40th and the building’s 120th anniversaries, we also celebrate our latest upgrades to the building: a new roof, an accessible washroom in the foyer, and a brand new ramp that bypasses the stairs out front,” George said.
“Together, these complete our building and ensure everyone in our community can access the exhibits and programming we offer.
“Upgrades do not happen without funding,” George stressed. “As with past renovation projects, we’ve had the great good fortune of being supported once again by Trillium, the provincial government’s funding body, but also by FedNor, its federal equivalent.
“Without this very generous investment, this heritage building would not be in the excellent shape it is in today.”
FedNor representative Jeff O’Brien noted that with a dedicated budget of more than $10.4 million over two years, Fed Nor has supported 160 projects across Northern Ontario through the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program.
“These rehabilitations and improvements to existing community infrastructure assets and facilities across the country were part of the Government of Canada’s co-ordinated approach to mark to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation,” he noted.
“Closer to home, repairs to the Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Centre will protect it from the elements for years to come,” O’Brien added.
“In addition, the improvements now make the facility more accessible, accommodating all visitors regardless of their mobility or abilities and ensuring that all benefit from this cultural centre.”
Mayor Roy Avis was unable to attend the reception but George noted the Avis family has had connections to the museum over the years.
Avis’ mother, Edna, was on the museum board when it was incorporated and strongly advocated for a permanent home for the museum.
In addition, his father, then-mayor Allan Avis, opened the museum in 1978.
The 40th anniversary exhibit will be up until early November, after which time an exhibit on indigenous war veterans will replace it.
The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., with admission being by donation.