Words for the Future, From our Visitor Book

Our Museum Week 2021 programming is wrapping up after another successful year. Despite our doors being closed to the public, we were able to offer virtual Collections Tours and a Kid’s I-Spy Tour for our online community, as well as post fun content to our blog and social media channels.

This year, Museum Week ends with the theme #WordsForTheFutureMW. The words for the future we choose to share today come from our 2019 Visitor Book, where visitors from around the world left their mark and shared their comments about their experience at the St. Catharines Museum. As we enter the summer months of 2021, I was curious to learn what our visitors were saying about the Museum back in Summer 2019. It turns out, there’s a few lessons for the future we can gather from our visitors.

The book itself is relatively ordinary looking, a three-ringed binder with a reddish-brown leather cover. The pages inside are printed in-house, on either off-yellow or off-white coloured page of various weights. Once the lines of each page are filled, the contents are taken out of the binder to be stored as a set and replaced with fresh blank sheets waiting for visitors to take a pen to the line. The book has long been stationed at the entrance of the Museum Gallery, on a stand designed to look like a traditional lift top desk. Each day, either a staff member, or a visitor, would flip to a new page to start a new day of entries.

Lesson #1: Appreciate the Little Things

The Visitor Comments page from July 23, 2019,
when we hosted our first, and hopefully not the last, Christmas in July celebration. Museum Photo.

In a way, it’s strange to look back to this very recent past, to hold a tangible remnant of the “before-times”, and to think about what we were all doing only mere months before life as we knew it would come to a grinding halt. Travelling to a new place? Taking in new sights? Picking up a shared pen and writing on a communal piece of paper without sanitizing first? Such concepts seem both vaguely familiar and utterly foreign. There was so much of everyday life in the summer of 2019 that we took for granted.

The St. Catharines Museum is a destination for each visitor who walks through our doors. Families of all make-ups and ages make a choice to spend time together at our facility. Many of those commenting in our Visitor Book in the Summer of 2019 were visiting with family, signing the page as a collective, like the Steuik Family from British Columbia or the Cootes Family from Norwich, or filling the lines one after another. Often, family members would write similarly intended, single-word comments like “Great!”, “Wow!”, “Fun!”, “Informative!, “Amazing!”, or the very popular, “Interesting!”. A visit to the St. Catharines Museum is a shared, memory-making experience for many families, and I like to think that for each adjective written in the comments, is a particular story, memory, or feeling that compelled each visitor to leave behind their mark in the Visitor Book. These sole words hold meaning to their authors.

In the summer of 2019, some families might have planned a visit here as a daytrip, or as part of a larger vacation, while others locally might have just wanted to get out of the house. According to one comment in the Visitor Book, family in the Greater Toronto Area choose our facility as a meeting place for a family reunion – with family members travelling from a few different locations to gather here.

Visitors enjoying the special exhibitions at our Christmas in July event in Summer 2019 where we celebrated the filming of A Christmas Story here in St. Catharines. Museum Photo.

Museums are special places for sharing quality-time with the people we love. Museums encourage learning, conversation, discovery, and exploration – all experiences that are best when shared. These seemingly little moments matter. Gathering with the people we love to spend quality-time together matters.

As we look to the future, remember that your local museum is a valuable setting for you to appreciate the little things with the ones you love.

Lesson #2: Community Knows No Bounds

As a municipally-run museum sharing the local stories of St. Catharines and the Welland Canal, we are incredibly grateful for the support of the St. Catharines community, and the larger community of Niagara. It wasn’t surprising to see many of our visitor comments coming from St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Thorold, Welland, Grimsby, and throughout Niagara, several noting that they “visit regularly” or “come here often.” It is particularly special to know that so many people feel so familiar and welcome in our space, and that these feelings were felt strongly enough that they were recorded in the Visitor Book. When children like Scarlett from Niagara Falls comment with “I love it HERE”, it conveys to me that they’ve visited before, and enjoy returning.In August 2019, one visitor, Deb, wrote that her “new home is St. Catharines” and thanked us for a “wonderful depiction of my new home.” Local community members see us as an extension of their home, where history is a conduit to form the links and meanings that make us feel a sense of belonging.  

This Visitor Comments page from August 15 & 16, 2019, highlights just how wide a range our visitors travel from. Museum Photo.

The stories shared by the Museum do not only speak to local audiences, and looking at visitors’ hometowns listed in the Visitor Book, it is clear that the community we have created here is so much broader than the boundaries of the City of St. Catharines or the Niagara Region. In the Summer of 2019, our visitors came from across Ontario as well as from Manitoba, Alberta, Quebec, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia. In one declaration of connectedness, Devon and Meg from Sault Ste. Marie wrote ““From one ‘lock city’ to another.” No matter where they are from, each visitor interprets the stories we share in their own unique way, drawing on their own personal experiences to make connections.

Visitors also came from all-over the United States, from as close as New York and Pennsylvania, to as far as Texas and California. In one comment, Marilyn and Jim from Ohio made special note in the Visitor Book that this was their “forth trip here” and that this time, they brought their siblings, adult children, and grandchildren. No matter the distance or borders, we are a meaningful place for many visitors who chose to return here again and again.

In the summer of 2019 alone, our international visitors travelled from Australia, China, Costa Rica, England, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, and many more. That tourists from across the globe make a point to visit us during their travels is a testament to the significance of the Welland Canal and just how impressive it is to watch a ship locking through at Lock 3. Taking in the magnificent view of the Welland Canal from our Viewing Platform is especially powerful for those international visitors who traversed this water transitway as part of their jobs. Peter from Germany wrote, “As a young sailor, I passed the Welland Canal in 1971 with an ocean vessel.” I wonder what it would have felt like for Peter to visit the canal for leisure all these years later, and to learn about his life since that last visit in 1971.

As society begins to reopen, consider how your notions of community has changed over the last fifteen months. What new spaces, whether tangible or virtual, offer you a sense belonging and connectedness? What special places are you yearning to return to?

We hope we are one of those places for you, whether you are local or from far away.

Words for the Future

When I chose to uncover our Visitor Book and read the pages from Summer 2019, I wasn’t expecting to find so many intimate connections and interpret such heartfelt stories. Reading our visitor comments has been a powerful reminder of what the St. Catharines Museum means to our expansive community.

As pandemic restrictions begin to rollback again in Ontario and the vaccination effort continues steadily, we feel hope and cautious optimism that we can one day soon again welcome visitors to our Museum. Looking to the future, we look forward to again being that special place for gathering, time-spending, memory-making, and experience-having for families and loved ones from all over.

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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