New online database brings together Norfolk’s 350,000 historical artifacts in one place

Fans of venturing down historical rabbit holes should only visit Norfolk County’s online museum collections portal when they have plenty of time to spare.

The new portal, which launched on Feb. 20 to kick off Ontario Heritage Week, assembles images and descriptions of artifacts from the county’s archives and three museums in one publicly accessible place.

Over the coming months, detailed listings for approximately 350,000 objects, photographs, works of art and archival documents will be added to the searchable database.

“We were blown away, when the merge first happened in September after months and months of work, by just how many artifacts we have in the collection when you combine the four sites together,” said James Christison, curator of the Waterford Heritage and Agricultural Museum.

A listing for a signal cannon that dates to 1860, for example, reveals that the gun was dragged from Port Ryerse to Port Dover every July 1 to shoot off the pier toward the United States by an increasingly intoxicated Major Edward Powers Ryerse.

“By the end of the day he would be pretty well inebriated and they would have to load him and the cannon in the back seat of a wagon for the trip home,” reads the description of the cannon, which is in the collection of the Port Dover Harbour Museum.

Visitors can search for specific objects or click “random images” to see thumbnail photos of an assortment of artifacts — from election campaign pamphlets and paintings to milk bottle caps and vintage farm equipment.

“We have tens of thousands of photographs, and you can’t put them all on exhibit. So this is a way for people to access these things that spend most of their time in storage,” said Melissa Collver, Norfolk’s director of heritage and culture.

“We’re very excited that anybody in the world can access our collection.”

Christison said the year-long effort to merge and standardize museum and archival records led to some surprises for the curators. He mentioned a pocket watch belonging to Howard Trusdale of Waterford, whose sister, a First World War nurse named Alice Trusdale, died of meningitis likely contracted on the front lines.

“I took the back off to get the serial number and the actual date of the pocket watch, and inside was engraved ‘From Alice, September 11, 1919.’ Which is a day before Alice died,” Christison said.

“So it was a present from Alice to her brother, and we had no idea.”

The database also includes profiles of famous Norfolk residents throughout history, such as actress Gwen Canfield — who left Simcoe for New York to star in the “Ziegfeld Follies” — and Abigail Becker, dubbed “the heroine of Long Point” for her habit of wading into the waves to save shipwrecked sailors.

The portal goes live a few weeks after Norfolk council approved the hiring of a new, full-time curator for the Delhi museum. Collver hopes exploring the database will inspire more people to make the trip to Norfolk and see the museums and archives for themselves.

“I hope it renews their interest after this long closure due to the pandemic,” she said.

“They’ll become aware of what we have in our collections (and) they’ll want to come visit and learn more.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator