Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday July 10, 2021
The legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, is under intense review due to his connection to the creation of Canada’s residential school system for indigenous children. The discovery of bodies in unmarked graves at former institutional sites has ignited sorrow, anger, and pain from a horrible legacy largely ignored and glossed over by settler historical accounts and narratives. The existence of the residential school system spanned more than 100 years from the 1870s to the 1990s and John A. Macdonald, and Egerton Ryerson, are current flash points of anger in their roles as architects of a structure with aims to erase identity, or cultural genocide, against indigenous peoples. Symbols of their legacies including statues in public squares, buildings, streets and other things named in their honour are being removed in adherence to calls for action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Under consideration is the removal of a Macdonald statue that has stood in downtown Hamilton for more than 100 years, a fact that is as much a part of Macdonald’s legacy, as is the debate about its removal. The question really isn’t if it will come down, it’s how it will come down, and where will it end up – in storage, in Hamilton harbour, or, something that isn’t even in consideration, a city of Hamilton history museum, which doesn’t even exist. Among the TRC call to actions is a section on education bringing forth historical truths of colonial racism in Canada and the statue of Macdonald is a stark bronze reminder of that which shouldn’t be hidden from view in storage. Surveys show Canadians are increasingly ignorant of its own history. Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. Hamilton needs a museum.
Finding a home for Hamilton’s history
Hamilton has a long and colourful history but it doesn’t have a dedicated place to display it.
For 172 years, the city has been a roller-coaster of amazing firsts, fascinating characters, bizarre crimes, industrial might and labour strife.
But where do you go to reflect on that history and see memorabilia from bygone days?
There’s a big city of Hamilton warehouse on Burlington St., with more than 8,000 local artifacts. But it’s nearly full and not open to the public.
There are local museums devoted to celebrating more narrow subjects such as Sir Allan MacNab; the Battle of Stoney Creek; infrastructure engineering; Black history; coffee; and vintage flying machines, among others.
You’ll find bits of Hamilton in almost all the museums. But there is no central location devoted exclusively to the city’s history. There is no place to take a visiting relative, or a class of schoolchildren to learn about the story of Hamilton.
In recent months, an effort to correct a similar situation in Toronto has been gaining steam.
In early February, Toronto city council voted 35 to three to turn Old City Hall on Queen St. W., into a museum of Toronto, along with a large public library, wedding chapel, museum gift shop, restaurant and rental space.
A staff report recommended that 25,000 square feet be used for exhibit space and predicted the museum would attract 225,000 visitors a year.
The building currently houses courtrooms and holding cells for the provincial courts. But in 2021, a new court building will open, making Old City Hall available.
A feasibility study found the building would be appropriate for a museum, but retrofitting the inside and heritage restoration work on the building that opened in 1899 could cost a whopping $190 million.
It’s so far unclear where the funding would come from. But Toronto councillor Josh Matlow, who brought forward the idea, believes a combination of government support, private donations and fundraising could pull the money together. City staff are studying funding options.
Matlow said he got the idea while visiting Chicago’s museum some years ago as a tourist.
“I got to know its story, I got to know its quirks, and idiosyncrasies. There were so many crazy stories … and horrible disasters like the Chicago fire. I learned about Chicago’s architecture and the people who designed the city. It was wonderful,” he said.
“When you get to know a city’s story, the good things and the bad, you can fall in love with it. Just like you do with people.”
Hamilton used to have a kind of civic museum at Dundurn Castle until the mid 1960s.
It was called Hamilton’s Attic, and featured a hodgepodge of items such as the city’s first fire engine, numerous paintings and photographs as well as a two-headed calf and a stuffed bird collection donated by a prominent local ornithologist.
A centennial project transformed the museum into a celebration of Sir Alan MacNab, the former premier of the province of Canada who built the sprawling mansion and died penniless.
Years later, Special Collections at the Hamilton Public Library — now called Local History and Archives — emerged to partly fill the void by collecting historical items and to a small extent displaying them.
Margaret Houghton, who retired as archivist at the library section in July 2016, made a special effort to bring in local nostalgia items, everything from old bottles from defunct lines of beer — such as Hamilton Mountain beer — to postcards portraying snapshots from the city, old maps, war medals and posters as well as photographic collections from prominent photographers.
She worked with “pickers,” who would keep an eye on flea markets, antique shows and auctions for interesting Hamilton items.
“A Hamilton Civic Museum should have happened decades ago,” Houghton said. “But the problem has been money and finding a location.”
The lack of a civic museum has meant significant items have either ended up in private hands or found their way to landfill, she said.
One of the most enthusiastic local collectors is Glen Faulman, who works as a Stelco steelworker and is part-owner of This Ain’t Hollywood bar on James St. N.
His Hamilton nostalgia collection of more than 200 items includes a hand-operated 1862 Wanzer Sewing Machine that was made at a factory at James and Vine Sts., and a 19th-century brass cash register made at Hamilton Brass Manufacturing, also on James North.
He’s managed to collect a nearly complete set of trading cards of the 1924-25 Hamilton Tigers hockey team.
“I collect it to try to preserve Hamilton history,” he said. “We totally should have a civic museum. We are the industrial powerhouse of Canada and we should definitely be tooting our own horn.”
Hamilton and Toronto are unique in Ontario by not having civic museums. Virtually every sizable community in the province has one, including Ottawa, Guelph, St. Catharines, Brockville, Oakville and Woodstock.
Dundas has a local history museum that runs as a privately funded non-profit corporation. It recently went through a major upgrade.
Fieldcote in Ancaster — owned by the city of Hamilton — is generally focused on local history from Ancaster.
Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger said a Hamilton civic museum “is a worthy idea — absolutely. But it has just been overtaken by other priorities.”
He noted a lot of heritage resources in recent years have been spent on repairs and maintenance to Auchmar on Hamilton Mountain as well as to the Battle of Stoney Creek Lion Monument parkette.
“There are other things that are on the priority list ahead of that but it is certainly something to start talking about for sure.”
Hamilton councillor Chad Collins says he is putting together a motion to have staff study the feasibility of a Hamilton museum as part of an ongoing strategic plan to “guide the development, sustainability, relevance, value, and ongoing operations of the Hamilton Civic Museums.”
The motion, that he plans to bring forward in a week or so, will also ask staff to cost out the potential capital and operating costs and provide input on the suggestion.
Unlike Toronto, Hamilton doesn’t have an Old City Hall for a civic museum. The historic stone building built on James North in 1888 was demolished in 1961.
However Auchmar, on the Mountain, is vacant. The city-owned building that has been undergoing costly maintenance and restoration work needs a purpose for its future.
The estate was built in 1854 by prominent Hamiltonian Isaac Buchanan, who among other things founded the 13th Battalion (now known as the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry) in 1862 and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce in 1854.
“The Honourable Isaac Buchanan played a vital role in the development of Hamilton therefore it would seem to be appropriate to have a civic museum for Hamilton at Auchmar,” Friends of Auchmar president Diane Dent said.
She said a Hamilton museum could be blended with a previously-put-forward vision by a trust offshoot of the RHLI to turn Auchmar into a regimental museum, among other things.
Hamilton has had a tough history with museums in recent decades.
The federal Marine Discovery Centre on the Bayfront was a flop and the now-closed Canadian Football Hall of Fame had been plagued by poor attendance over the years. The Hall of Fame is transitioning to Tim Hortons Field.
Others will recall the failed attempt to bring the Canadian Music Hall of Fame to Hamilton more than a decade ago also left bad memories.
But attendance at the city’s six civic museums is strong. Last year was a record year with more than 208,000 people visiting the six main museums run by the city.
Graham Crawford — whose HIStory and HERitage multimedia, private mini-museum on James St. N., operated for several years before morphing into the Hamilton Store — said a full-fledged civic museum for Hamilton is a no-brainer.
“I think we absolutely should have one. We’re the 10th largest city in Canada and apparently we’re unstoppable (referring to the city’s marketing slogan). It’s not as though we are some backwater place with nothing to show or interesting history to share. We do.”
He believes the solution is right before our eyes — the former Marine Discovery Centre.
“It’s a big building. Why not use part of it as a Hamilton museum? It doesn’t even have to be a museum in the usual sense. It could be about the past, present and future of Hamilton.”
However, city council recently decided to sell the facility — that Hamilton was given by the federal government in 2015 — and it’s doubtful an entrepreneur would put a business strategy together around a museum.
It’s a building with no signs or windows, the kind of place you could drive by every day and never notice.
And that’s the way they like it in this climate controlled warehouse bunker in the industrial north end of Hamilton. Workers in Nitrile blue gloves — who spend their days, preserving and organizing pieces of city history — aren’t really able to entertain visitors.
In fact, the address is a secret. They’ll say Burlington St., but that’s it. Those few who are given precise co-ordinates and the privilege of a tour are told to keep the specific address to themselves. They don’t want any break-ins.
Recently, the Spectator was given a chance to walk through the 6,200 square foot off-site museum storage facility that houses more than 8,000 pieces of local heritage.
It’s where overflow items for the city’s museums are kept along with many items held for posterity but don’t really fit in with displayed collections.
Most notable when you walk in are the nearly 50 “high density mobile shelving units” that mechanically move back and forth to allow access to specific objects. The units were put in place in 2014 at a cost $385,000 from the city’s future fund.
Right off the main entrance is a quarantine room with a sign that say “Isolation Room For Artifacts Only. Proceed with caution.” All incoming donations are placed in plastic bags and contained to the room for a period of time to make sure they aren’t carrying bugs, mould or something else.
In the middle of the quarantine room is a big bag with a deer head from Dundurn Castle. The problem there is the way they did taxidermy in the old days. They used arsenic. Modern preservers are left with the task of figuring out whether it is safe to have around people.
“We don’t actively collect or ask people for Hamilton things. We’re not mandated to do that now,” says Sonia Mrva, Senior Curator, Heritage Strategies.
When the city is approached about a donation, it goes through a scrutiny process to determine the shape it is in and whether it would add to the collection the city already has, she says.
One of the big problems is the off-site storage facility is nearly full and the $25,000 annual budget doesn’t leave a lot of funds for major restorative work.
As for exhibits, there is everything from the mayor’s former ornate throne from the old City Hall, to boxes of tiny pieces of pottery pulled from archeological digs at Dundurn Castle. There’s a War of 1812 uniform and many, many other military uniforms from the last century.
Most of the stuff is overflow from the city’s museums such as Dundurn Castle and Whitehern. You’ll find tattered furniture and windows from Whitehern. The city is obliged to keep them under the terms of the agreement with the McQuesten family that handed over Whitehern and its contents to the city in 1968.
There are pillars from Auchmar, the city-owned mansion built by Isaac Buchanan that has been undergoing costly restorative work for years. On another shelf you’ll find bronze poles from around the Gore Park Cenotaph that have been replaced.
There’s a huge collection of paintings including one by Group of Seven painter A.J. Cassons of the majestic house owned by the city’s first mayor, Colin Campbell Ferrie.
Gifts to the city such as pieces of art or “keys to the city” find their way to the facility as well.
Chains of office from the suburban municipalities that were amalgamated with Hamilton have ended up there, as have an old pair of skates from former Mayor Vic Copps.
Copps is also represented across town the Local History and Archives section of the Hamilton Public Library. They have a silver hard hat with his name and a lunch bucket.
The section has massive archives of historical photos from the Hamilton Spectator 1955-99, along with collections from portrait photographers such a Hubert Beckett, along with this massive camera that is on display in the hallway. News footage from CHCH is also kept.
There are menus from long-gone Hamilton restaurants like Chicken Roost and the Aero Tavern, matchbooks for local businesses and all kinds of posters and wall hangings from historical events such as Hamilton Centennial in 1946.
The library has been actively digitizing photos and other historical items that can be seen at the library’s website at www.hpl.ca. The city hopes to finish digitizing all of its collection within a few years. (By Mark McNeil, The Hamilton Spectator from March 5, 2018)