From mill to museum

Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, Almonte (Photo courtesy of John T. Fowler, Photography for Education)

Photo: Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, Almonte (Photo courtesy of John T. Fowler, Photography for Education)


Glenda Jones

Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Feb 12, 2009

The big oak door of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte in eastern Ontario swings silently open as it has done for over 100 years. Tucked in a corner of the hallway is a well-worn staircase leading to the upstairs boardroom. The boardroom, however, is not a dusty retreat of old officialdom. The space is now a vibrant and cosy gallery graced with quilted wall hangings by an internationally renowned artist.

Curator Michael Rikley-Lancaster invites the public to explore the museum, encouraging artists to consider the museum a living space worthy of many pursuits. With three areas available for exhibitions – and one a learning centre with looms, spinning wheels, and educational artifacts – Rikley-Lancaster has incorporated showcases, active participation areas, artifacts and theatrical productions into the museum.

The museum’s collection of manufacturing machinery comprises half of a large upstairs gallery. The remainder of the space, with its gleaming white walls and lovely old beams, is a prime exhibition space for large art installations – including painted silks, intricate knitting and embroidery. While visitors learn about the textile trade or admire art, they can also watch a vintage fashion show or enjoy an artist’s reception. The setting lends itself perfectly to intimate entertainment.

While the first-floor Rosamond Gallery has been upgraded, it retains its rugged walls as part of the ambience. This large room has hosted the Bayou Tapestry reproduction exhibition, many quilting shows, textile trade fairs and, most recently, a display of huge scientific sculptures by local artist Juan Geuer. These shows attracted large audiences; several who attended requested the privilege of displaying their own art here. According to Geuer, the space is unique in Canada. It allows art to be displayed in a natural setting where the pieces can shine against a background whose history becomes part of the exhibition.

Recognizing that the museum needs to appeal to all ages, Rikley-Lancaster opened the Rosamond Gallery as a fashion camp last summer. Surrounded by fabric sculptures and paintings, the students were inspired to create their own masterpieces. Furthermore, he organized a group of young people to dress in period costume and conduct historical tours throughout Almonte. These tours proved highly successful, culminating in a visit by Canadian author Sarah Ellis, whose latest book, “Days of Toil and Tears,” was set in Almonte. Her book signing attracted many children to the museum for the first time; they were able to absorb the actual atmosphere of her novel – a unique experience for everyone.

Where once this museum was a repository for old books and dusty relics, it is becoming the centre of artistic endeavour within the community. The building resonates with activity – set against a backdrop of textile exhibits that warm the old building and give it contemporary significance. The museum successfully incorporates history and culture to the enrichment of the whole community.

The Ontario Heritage Trust holds a conservation easement on the mill that houses the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum.