Every now and then, we get to do some new stuff here at the Museum.
As a part of our program offering for our 2016 Open Late series, we are offering guided tours with a ‘Museum Hack’ / ‘Renegade Tours’ flare as a way to share more stories about the artifacts held in our collections. And there are some pretty unusual stories.
We should start with the basics: what is Museum Hack or a Renegade Tour?
The super-smart museum innovators that form the Museum Hack organization form their existence fighting the old, boring, stuffy nature and atmosphere that museums tend (knowingly or not) to operate under. One of the company’s main features is offering alternative tours at some of the largest museum institutions in the United States, including the MoMA, The Met, the Museum of Natural History, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. They use names like “Un-Highlights” and “Badass Bitches Tour of the Met” to spark interest and encourage participation among generation-Buzzfeed.
We figured that we definitely had the stories and resources to be able to participate in this ground-up museum revolution and start to change the nature of museum-going.
For more, you should watch this inspiring TED Talk by Museum Hack founder Nick Gray:
2016 Renegade Tours
Our 2016 Renegade Tours take place during our Open Late series. Here’s the schedule:
June 7: Old Things
July 5: Paper Things
August 9: Red Things
September 6: Expensive Things
June 7: Old Things
In June, I took a small group on our first Renegade Tour to see artifacts and hear stories from St. Catharines earliest days.
I took advantage of the amazing stories of William Hamilton Merritt and family, who were among the early settlers and early Loyalists arriving in St. Catharines in 1796. The idea being that the life and times of WHM represented through various sources and artifacts, was a really neat way to look at the history of our community.
And since you missed the tour, I thought I’d share some of the stories and artifacts with you.
The Grapeshot, c. 1812
Tangibly, the grapeshot is a military relic of another military period. It is a set of smaller artillery shells all tied and fired together, eventually separating in the cannon blast and covering a wide area and inflicting more damage. Very useful for line-to-line field combat.
Intangibly, the grapeshot is a window into the past of our community, beginning with the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Loyalists.
After the American Revolution, Thomas Merritt, who fought under John Graves Simcoe, removed to Canada with his family in 1796 and settled on land at ‘The Twelve’ (now St. Catharines) as a United Empire Loyalist.
William Hamilton Merritt was educated in St. Catharines, Burlington, and in New Brunswick. Upon his return in his late teens, the family farming and milling businesses were doing well. He bought a share in a local general store.
Fast forward to 1812. WHM is now 19 and is basically begged by his father, serving under General Brock, to take a captaincy in the Provincial Dragoons. Already an excellent horseman, WHM takes up leadership of the local militia Dragoon unit. Throughout the war, he is involved in various skirmishes, battles, and mistakes.
And boy – were they some mistakes! On his 21st birthday, he and friends and family were sitting down to birthday dinner on ‘The Twelve’ when a messenger arrives alerting Merritt and company of the impending Battle of Chippawa. They finished their dinner first.
A day after the battle, Merritt, misinformed by a local spy of the movements of American troops, suddenly came upon a unit of Americans marching towards St. Catharines from Queenston. Not realizing how close they were, Merritt rode his men right out in front of them, not realizing his mistake until shots were fired in their direction, at some 50 yards. With haste, they made their retreat but Merritt’s horse fell into a hollow. Just as Merritt was about to abandon his horse and run, the horse was back on it’s feet and away they flew.
My favourite mistake of WHM is on the night of the Battle of Lundy’s lane. He was dispatched to with a message. Upon his return to his unit, he rode up to the American line by accident and was captured. When he didn’t return, another solider was dispatched to find WHM. He also rode up to the Americans and was captured. It was dark, OK?
Portrait of Jedediah Prendergast, c. 1800
Can you guess this man’s occupation? Many on our tour said things like: lawyer, minister/clergyman, politician. In fact, he was one of the first practicing doctors in Niagara, settling first near Decew at the top of the escarpment in 1805.
It is here that Merritt first met his first wife, Catharine Prendergast.
But the Prendergast family left Canada for Mayville, New York at the outbreak of the War of 1812. William and Catharine would not see each other again until William was captured in 1814.
He was held in a POW camp (though ‘held’ and ‘POW’ don’t really fit the description of the mansion they were living in) until the end of the war. Mayville, being quite close, was Merritt’s first stop on his way home, immediately marrying Catharine and returning to ‘The Twelve’ a few weeks later.
Importance of Old Things
While some people may find old objects boring (or even off-putting: I’m sorry, Mr. Prendergast, but you look like you just ate a lemon), I think it’s important to remember that our objects have really neat stories attached to them, and can at the very least be used as a window to explore a wider (and more salacious) part of our community’s past.
The next Renegade Tour will feature the our fantastic collection of written documents, including diaries and letters, which will reveal a lot about the personal drama of some of the city’s most famous characters.
Adrian Petry is a public historian and the Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum.