South Algonquin ecomuseum update

·9 min read

At their Economic Development Committee meeting on March 17, South Algonquin council discussed the progress of the township’s ecomuseum, or living history museum initiative. First proposed by Brock University professor Chris Fullerton back in 2018, it has taken many years to come to fruition. Councillor Bongo Bongo, the chair of the committee provided an update on the ecomuseum followed by a committee discussion on it. They decided to proceed with collecting historical information through a mail out of questionnaires to the township’s seniors and at some point, in the near future, paying someone to conduct any outstanding interviews with township seniors and convening a committee to take the lead on completing the project.

Bongo began the committee discussion by describing the idea behind the living history museum.

“We engage with the community to record and celebrate the history of this township and have these included in an interpretive panel experience on walking trails within the township boundary,” he says.

He felt it would benefit visitors but also the locals living in South Algonquin, and he liked the fact that it focused on digital integration with the trails, which could be a really exciting growing opportunity digitally for the township. He also loved that it tried to incorporate the broad spectrum of history in the township, including Indigenous history.

The report identified four possible ecomuseum trails; Airy, Sabine, Murchison and Lyell and Dickens. Bongo said that the scope of this report was a township wide involvement. There had been a suggestion to start with the Airy trail, but Bongo disagreed, since it already gets a lot of attention. Instead, he suggested starting with one of the other trails.

The ecomuseum model was first developed in the early 1970s in France. It is often referred to as a ‘museum without walls,’ and people are encouraged to go directly to different sites of interest throughout the community and learn about them as they relate to the natural, cultural and economic history of the community.

Professor Chris Fullerton and his students from Brock University brought the concept to South Algonquin. Originally coming to work there on the township’s official plan and strategic plan, once those were completed Fullerton suggested the living history museum initiative, which got a good response from public meetings in early 2018. Holly Hayes, the clerk and treasurer, successfully pushed for funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Rural Economic Development Program for the program’s first couple of years.

Fullerton and one of his most recent students, Janine Lagundzin, were able to procure more funding through Brock University to continue their work. Through this funding, Lagundzin was able to spend the summer of 2020 doing research into how rural communities should ideally go about setting up an living history museum, and she also did a lot of research into South Algonquin’s history.

Fullerton took inspiration for the ecomuseum idea from the town of Gravelbourg Saskatchewan, where he’d worked as an economic development officer, realizing that many aspects of the concept fit into what South Algonquin wanted. In an interview with The Bancroft Times from last fall, he explained why.

“They wanted to preserve its history, its culture, its landscape, its quietness and so on. The living history museum concept entails all of these things and is now widely used across places like Europe, and to a much lesser extent Canada, as a way of promoting a community and encouraging visitors to come see it but without doing so on a mass tourism scale,” he says.

The ecomuseum draft booklet being discussed by the committee on March 17 suggested moving forward with 10 next steps, which Bongo called possibly the most important page of the report. He outlined them for the committee, and they were; finalizing the ecomuseum routes as per land use zoning, completing the life story interviews, finalizing the South Algonquin ecomuseum content, developing signage, creating a committee to bring the initiative forward, developing print and online materials, developing and implementing ecomuseum interpretive and wayfinding signage, developing a website, developing a smartphone app and evaluating community interest in “meet and greets” or volunteers for further attraction development.

Bongo said he thought the whole ecomuseum concept was a great and wonderful idea, but it would be a big project and a lot of work, taking up human resources and financial resources. He recommended starting by forming or using an existing committee to get the whole initiative going, with a director in charge of maintaining its forward thrust. He even put forth deferring it until after the next election in 2022 and letting the next iteration of the township council decide how to proceed.

Councillor Richard Shalla disagreed and said they needed to move on doing the interviews and collecting the historical data sooner rather than later. His rationale being that the very seniors they still need to interview for this project won’t be around forever and even putting it off a year could lead to some of those stories being irrevocably lost.

Hayes said she thought the solution was to pay somebody to do the interviews versus relying on free work from Fullerton and his students. She said that Fullerton had an extensive list of people to contact and was doing the interviews but then COVID-19 hit, and he stopped. He was not willing to resume them until the pandemic passes or everyone in South Algonquin is vaccinated, according to Hayes. Further to this, Fullerton said last fall to The Bancroft Times that while he was aware that the interviews could be done by phone or online, he felt that this type of interview, where seniors were sharing stories about their personal history in South Algonquin, were more conducive to in-person interviews when it is safe to do so.

Shalla suggested passing the work along to the library board and they could collect some of the history by interview, or perhaps coming up with a questionnaire that can be forwarded to seniors in each councillors’ wards and the seniors’ families could work with them to get the answers to the queries from their aged family members. He pointed out that the seniors may be more forthcoming with family than they would with an acquaintance.

Bongo thought those were great ideas but he still felt that a director and a committee would be needed to do this work and bring it to fruition, as staff would not have the time to do this.

Hayes pointed out that Fullerton and his students already had questions and a format set out, and that she could speak with him about coming up with a questionnaire that could be mailed out if that’s what council wanted to do.

Bongo thought that would be the most cost effective and human resources effective way to go forward.

“A lot will go into this and there will be a financial commitment, so the first thing would be to record the history and file it and then there would be a large number of logistical things that council would need to address,” he says.

Mayor Jane Dumas thought that Fullerton and his students did a wonderful job and that they had developed a relationship with the community, but she also thought that there were some people on council who had a history in the community who could also speak to some of these seniors and perhaps elicit more from them as they would be more comfortable speaking with them.

“I think this is a wonderful project and I hear what [Shalla] is saying, we need to get the history from these people who may not be around much longer,” she says.

Dumas also thought that this work should be totally separate from township staff and that someone else should take the lead on it. She acknowledged that it needed to be done but perhaps more as a centennial project, not something that would get done tomorrow.

Bongo agreed with Dumas, and said that while Fullerton and his students were great, perhaps a local person taking the lead would get better results from the township’s seniors.

Bongo then asked Hayes what sort of direction she would like from the committee at that point. She replied that in her view, the project wasn’t going anywhere until someone is hired into a position and starts working on it. She suggested sending a letter to Fullerton and Lagundzin to thank them for their work on the report and if the next step was a mail out questionnaire, they could certainly do that.

“I like that direction. We should do something about it. And I think contacting Fullerton and Lagundzin would be prudent and then we could begin taking matters into our own hands with some mailouts or some social media interaction. Hopefully, that will inspire a community leader to step up and become the director of this project,” he says. “This report will remain with us so it’s a great idea to have on file.”

Bongo commented further on this initiative after the meeting, and maintains that the challenge of this community building and economic development initiative will be to execute it. He is also concerned that the project isn’t feasible without dedicated economic development staff.

“Although council hasn’t officially confirmed, my hunch is that the future of the project will be in the hands of a community member or locally based community. That timeline is a big unknown, however. If we had an economic development staff, it would help keep it moving the project along, but I could see this going on hiatus due to the aforementioned logistical challenges,” he says.

Hayes responded in a March 31 email that she thought the ecomuseum project will be on hold until a new CAO/clerk treasurer is in place.

“There has been no discussion since March 17. I will be putting the council package together today and will have to report on some of them. I think [Fullerton] plans to continue doing interviews once it is safe to do so,” she says. “I doubt anything local will go forward.”

Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Bancroft Times