Gore Bay Museum garners prestigious Ontario Historical Society award

The Gore Bay Museum was recently recognized by the Ontario Historical Society with the Heritage-Based Museum Award. photo by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

GORE BAY— At its Annual General Meeting in Toronto last weekend, the Ontario Historical Society (OHS) presented its 2014 awards in various categories “to honour individuals and organizations who have contributed significantly to the preservation and promotion of Ontario’s heritage.”

The Gore Bay Museum was recognized with the OHS’ 2014 Russell K. Cooper Living History Site or Heritage-Based Museum Award. Dr. John Carter, former museums advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Culture from the 1980s to his retirement last year, and former member of the OHS board, explained that this honour “is awarded to a living history museum, or a museum that delivers heritage-based programming, showing excellence in programming, ingenious problem solving, or site development.”

Instituted in 1967, the Awards Program now offers 13 awards “to acknowledge the work of outstanding individuals and organizations, and to raise public awareness of Ontario’s history and the people who work to preserve and interpret it.”

Margo Little, co-ordinator of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle, wrote the nomination letter and gathered 25 letters of support , many from outside the community, last November. In her letter to the OHS Awards Committee, Ms. Little nominates the Gore Bay Museum as a deserving recipient of the award “in recognition of the institution’s significant contributions to Northern Ontario cultural preservation and promotion.”

Dr. Carter has been visiting the museum for decades, and noted it is a good example “of how a small community with a small museum can accomplish big things.”  He adds, “Since 1987, Nicole Weppler has been the director of the museum, and it has seen much improvement since those days. Nicole brings things to the community, she involves the community. She has developed the site enormously, and has extended the reach of the programming through the development of another site, the Harbour Centre, also in Gore Bay.”

The citation for the 2014 Russell K. Cooper Living History Site or Heritage-Based Museum Award reads:

“The Awards Committee of The Ontario Historical Society is pleased to present the Russell K. Cooper Living History Site Award for 2014 to the Gore Bay Museum.

For 25 years the Gore Bay Museum has provided excellent creative heritage programming and has developed ingenious problem-solving skills and strategies that have allowed the staff, the volunteers and the board to develop the site. All of this has been accomplished with a drive and vision to collect, preserve, display and educate the public about the unique history and culture of the area.

The sheer number of partnerships and collaborative projects that have grown out of the museum is staggering. In a small community, with a small permanent population, and a large transient seasonal population, the museum has established itself as a community driver and economic incubator.”

The nomination for the Gore Bay Museum was accompanied by over two dozen endorsement letters and testimonials. The letters came from former curators, government officials, and both sitting members and retired. The letters came from First Nations organizations, writers, artists, artisans, poets, businessmen and private individuals.

The endorsement documents were accompanied by pamphlets, brochures, exhibit guides, books, and artwork attesting to the dedication of the staff, volunteers and board of the Gore Bay Museum to provide professional, high quality programming.

While the museum has an outstanding record of successful partnerships in the creative community, the museum’s core purpose has not been forgotten or neglected.

From a seasonal museum with substandard physical plant, limited programming, few public events, low attendance numbers and no professional staff, the Gore Bay Museum has evolved into a facility with temperature controls, accessible galleries and a strong exhibit and educational program for school children and the visiting public. The museum’s success has enabled it to expand and not only provide a gallery for local artists, but also to preserve a building with historic significance to the community and tell more of the history of the area. The museum has become a hub for the creative population of Western Manitoulin Island and richly deserves to receive the Russell K. Cooper Award.”

“You don’t have to be big to be good,” says Dr. Carter. “For its size, the Gore Bay Museum is very successful. It’s not static. Visitors come because there are reasons to come – and that is the amazing smorgasbord of programs available all year round.”

The Gore Bay Museum was the town’s jail, called a lockup then, built in 1879, and the quaint stone house that faces the street as you go up the hill to the museum entrance was the home of the jailer and his family. The lockup section was separated from the home by a thick door, and this part of the museum is perfectly preserved, including the prisoners’ refectory table that never fails to move visitors with its carved surface of prisoners’ names, and the tiny cells with small barred windows placed above head level, too high to look out; here also are settler artifacts and a noteworthy collection of the early photographs of Joseph Wismer. The remainder of the museum is the new addition beautifully designed by architect Brian Garratt and built in 2005, where exhibitions and events are held.

Dr. John Carter plans to present the award to the Gore Bay Museum when he visits the Island in August.