Small-town museums key to small-town success

Penetanguishene Centennial Museum and Archives

Photo: Penetanguishene Centennial Museum and Archives


Tim Mallon

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Feb 16, 2006

For 18 years, my wife and I raised our two sons in the Town of Richmond Hill just north of Toronto. When we moved to the small town of Penetanguishene in February 2004, Richmond Hill had approximately 160,000 residents. And, as is sometimes the danger, much of that small-town charm has been subdued or erased entirely by rapid urban sprawl.

Richmond Hill does not have a local history museum and, as a result, lacks the same rich heritage experience that many smaller communities enjoy. Penetanguishene, on the other hand, has become a successful small town because it has a keen sense of its past. And the Penetanguishene Centennial Museum and Archives has become a focal point for many of the events that bring the town’s 8,500 residents together.

Most Canadians are aware of the larger professional museums and galleries that preserve our national heritage. What is exhibited, however, can often seem distant from our lives. But in small towns, local museums hold the collective memory not of our nation, but of our towns. They preserve the personal history of its residents, many of whom donated the unique items that are on display.

Penetanguishene, on the shore of Georgian Bay, was incorporated in 1875 and is considered the oldest town in Ontario. It has a rich history with three founding cultures: First Nations, French and British. Most of the current residents are descendants of those early pioneers. Our museum’s manager (Pierre L. Moreau) and curator (Nicole Jackson) are ambassadors for the town, promoting and preserving its past while rallying its citizens to celebrate the present to create tomorrow’s history.

While financial support from the three levels of government assists with the acquisition of special exhibits, there are other groups that make small-town museums successful across Ontario. A huge contribution is always made by local families. In our case, the C. Beck Manufacturing Company, operating from 1875 to 1969, had a significant impact on the local and continental lumber industry and the history of the town. The Beck family and company were instrumental in preserving Penetanguishene’s unique history by donating their former general store and lumber office as our town’s first museum. (The company was honoured in September 2005 with a provincial plaque unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust.)

Another key to a successful small town is its volunteer corps. Since 1991, the “Friends of the Museum” have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for our museum and helped run annual community events. As well, our museum’s genealogy centre is one of the best in Ontario, thanks to volunteers.

Numerous clubs and organizations also hold meetings and events at our museum. Special exhibits celebrate our past, while current events such as art exhibits and summer concerts promote local anglophone and francophone artists and musicians.

By supporting small-town museums, you help to preserve and promote the past in a more personal way. It is this personal touch that makes the museum a focal point in the town, and a more substantial touchstone to its unique history.