Something’s Happening Here!  A look at our Interpretive Plan Implementation

An artistic rendition of the Introduction Gallery.

In May 2019, the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre unveiled its new Interpretive Plan, a bold new vision for how we tell our community’s stories at the Museum. This plan, which is expected to be implemented over 5-7 years, will see a whole new look and feel to most of our spaces and a new look at the history of the community as told through the artifacts in our collections. You can read the interpretive plan below. We also have a Museum Chat Live! podcast about the Interpretive Plan and you can listen to that here.

Fast forward to today – 2.5 years into the plan – and we’ve come a long way! While COVID-19 lockdowns and shutdowns threw a bit of a wrench in our plans and our timelines, there were some silver linings that helped us to move some projects along quicker than planned.

The Museum’s Interpretive Plan was designed to be implemented in four phases, as making significant changes in one part of the facility causes a bit of a domino effect in other parts of the operations. Phase one was almost completely dedicated to changes and improvements to our visitors’ services spaces and branding and signage.

Photo of the new front desk and wayfinding signage.
Improvements to our lobby and visitors services make it easier to get around the facility.

In the first phase, we improved the traffic flow and wayfinding for those coming to our facility, including moving our information desk to the centre of the lobby for easier access by all visitors of all abilities. This was a welcome change as it also made it much easier for us to welcome our visitors as COVID regulations have changed how we do business. This major change also came with fresh new paint all through the facility as well as improved wayfinding signage overall. The highlight of this being the new building signage on the front of the building and the new sign out by the road.

Phase one also saw the development and roll out of a new Welland Canals video for our visitors and improvements to the lobby to provide a new place to view the video and a bright new temporary exhibit space. We have to send a big shout-out of thanks to Des Corran, one of our Docents and a member of the Museum Advisory Committee, for his financial support of this part of our project!

Photo of the new Welland Canals Gallery.
The new Welland Canals Gallery.

The next part of Phase one of the plan included a new Welland Canals Gallery and corresponding new interpretive signage on the Lock 3 Viewing Platform. The new Welland Canals Gallery has been installed in the area at the back of the lobby, where the former snack bar used to be located. This new exhibit provides our visitors with a look at the four Welland Canals, how the Welland Canals fit within the geography of the Great Lakes, how the Canal works, what kinds of ships can be seen transiting the Canal, and how the Welland Canal contributes to sustainability goals. This can all be viewed with direct access to the real thing, as the door to this gallery leads right out to Lock 3. The always popular Lock 3 model is also located in this space and was given a facelift as part of this gallery development. While this exhibit provides the nuts and bolts of how the Welland Canal works today, it will also be complemented with a new exhibit in our Museum gallery that tells the story of all four Welland Canals and their impact on our community’s history. That exhibit is coming soon!

Photo of the museum gallery under construction.
Opening up the galleries required some major demolition and moving of display cases.

The bulk of the Interpretive Plan’s focus was on the exhibition galleries. To start, the plan recommends a new traffic flow in the gallery. Instead of funneling your way down the corridor to the open gallery at the end of the long hall, the new plan directs visitors into a new gallery to the right of the entry and through enfiladed exhibition spaces to the open galleries. This way, traffic doesn’t get pinched and jammed up right inside the door as was common in the past. In order to bring that vision to reality, some of the spaces needed to be opened up by removing partition walls and moving large display cases. Some exhibits were removed and some of our large objects – such as the two cars and the Welland Canal dump cart – needed to be moved to new homes in the gallery. It’s hard to believe that most of the exhibits that were in the Museum galleries had been there since 1991 when the museum opened in this new space at Lock 3. Thirty years is a long time to keep an exhibit so it was time for some changes.

Diagram showing thematic adjacencies in the new gallery spaces.
Thematic adjacencies showing how stories can be told throughout the galleries.

The Interpretive Plan really challenges us to take our focus from telling a broad story to digging deeper to tell the stories of the people who have made this community over time. That’s not to say that weren’t already telling the stories of people and our community, but this plan is taking that concept further and asks us to really interrogate whether we are telling everyone’s story. As we develop new exhibits in our newly renovated spaces, our job is to make sure we haven’t forgotten those who are often forgotten in history – they were just as instrumental in building this community as the figureheads who stand out.

So, where do we stand today with this phase of our gallery development? Thanks to some COVID shutdowns and an amazing group of talented staff, all the construction-type work in our galleries has been completed – walls have been removed, exhibit cases have been moved and renewed, and the walls have been given a great new paint colour. As mentioned, we have also moved some of the larger objects – the Oldsmobile, the REO car and stained-glass window, and one of the rowing shells – to be more specific. These new locations shine a new light on objects that might have been taken for granted on a previous visit. We’ve moved one of most popular objects – the diving suit – out to the lobby for the time being, where it is once more telling its amazing story of daring and danger!

Photo of staff installing text in the Hold on to your Hats exhibit.
Installing “Hold on to Your Hats” temporary exhibit.

In addition to that, some temporary exhibits have been installed throughout the gallery. These highlight objects in our collection that have not been on display for some time and tell some new stories. They are place holders while we work on the next phases of the plan.

What can we expect in the next phase of the Interpretive Plan? Two new permanent galleries are coming very soon!

The new galleries include a new introductory gallery which will focus on the big themes that are a part of the building of the community of St. Catharines – the socio-political landscape, the physical landscape, and the community/cultural landscape. While these terms seem a bit esoteric, really, this means that the community that is today St. Catharines has been shaped by the people who have made these lands their home over time, the geography that surrounds the community, and the proximity to the United States and the location within the Great Lakes. This introductory gallery will provide visitors with a taste of who we are as a community by looking at iconic objects that represent these big themes.

The introductory gallery will then send visitors into a brand-new Welland Canal Exhibit. This exhibit will focus on the history of the four Welland Canals, the people who built the canals, and how the canals have shaped our community over time. We are excited to be able to provide a new look at this amazing story!

The last phases of the Interpretive Plan will tackle the two largest open spaces in our gallery and will focus on community stories and themes; and will look at improvements to our outdoor Discovery Gallery and the outdoor experience of the site.

As you can see, it is a big plan, but one that is very exciting! We look forward to being able to tell old stories in new ways, tell new stories, and provide a more accessible and engaging experience for all visitors.

We hope to see you all soon at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre!

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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