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Woodland Cultural Centre - an Indigenous museum, library and language centre - is housed in the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, which operated from 1828 to 1970.Supplied

Today’s museums are no longer just collections of art and artifacts. They are community connectors, educators, engines for societal change. They boost tourism but also reshape cultural narratives. They may not even be housed in a permanent physical space. If they are, many are striving to eradicate their carbon footprint. For this year’s International Museum

Day, the International Council of Museums adopted the theme, “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine.” Due to the mass disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic—in which ICOM estimates that about 95 per cent of institutions were forced to shut their doors—recovery is a major concern. But as southern Ontario’s museums cope with the ongoing public-health restrictions, they are also looking past the pandemic to their role in the coming years.

Despite the setback, there’s a note of excitement when you speak to museum directors as they describe both their programming now— most of it, by necessity, virtual—and their plans for the future.

Reflecting communities

In Brampton, PAMA (the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives) is all about holding the mirror up to its communities. As Peel Regional Municipality (which also includes Mississauga and Caledon) grows steadily more diverse, PAMA has worked not only to reflect that, but also to have the communities themselves shape the programming.

“It’s all about engaging with the community and finding out what their stories are,” says Rene Nand, Peel Region’s manager of community and cultural engagement, “and how we can partner with them to deliver those stories, rather than telling them ourselves.”

PAMA has formed a regular partnership with the Sikh Heritage Month Foundation and, more recently, reached out to the region’s Black community leaders for guidance.

“We have a huge Caribbean population in Peel,” Nand says, that didn’t feel its experience was being depicted at PAMA. The result was a virtual exhibition this past winter, When Night Stirred at Sea, featuring contemporary English-speaking Caribbean artists from the islands and the diaspora.

Giving a voice to the marginalized

When it comes to community involvement, the Toronto Ward Museum goes one step further.

The museum captures the experiences of the city’s immigrant and marginalized communities by hiring youth from those communities to record the oral histories of its storytellers. Although it was named after The Ward, the historic inner-city neighbourhood where immigrants settled in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the museum has no bricks-and-mortar home. It makes sense when you consider newcomer populations today are spread widely across the Greater Toronto Area. “Instead of having people come to us, we come to them,” Lupyrypa says. Its Block by Block program, underwritten by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, allows the museum to train 20 young people as researchers/ curators so they can gather material and preserve and present it in multiple media. The current Block by Block project is working in four in-transition neighbourhoods – Agincourt, Victoria Park, Regent Park and Parkdale.

Preserving Indigenous history At the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, however, they’re very much into buildings. The Indigenous museum, library and language resource centre is housed in the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, which operated from 1828 to 1970. Right now, Woodland is midway through a major capital campaign to fully restore the historic building and transform it into an interpretive centre that will shed light on the residential-school experience.

“It’s a dark chapter in Canada’s history but it’s one that we have to ensure gets told,” says the cultural centre’s executive director, Janis Monture. “Our survivors say they don’t want this to ever happen to a child again, anywhere.” The plan is to offer guided tours that would allow visitors to see residential-school life through the eyes of its young victims.

Woodland’s Save the Evidence campaign has raised $12-million so far and needs another $12-million to complete the restoration and create the interpretive centre, which would open to the public in 2024.

Greening the museum

Ontario’s museums are addressing global warming and other environmental issues in ways both big and small. The Royal Ontario Museum, the province’s—and Canada’s— largest museum, has created a climate-change curatorship to help educate its audiences on the crisis threatening the planet. Funded by ROM supporters Allan and Helaine Shiff, the curator role will build on the museum’s current commitment to environmental programming with exhibitions such as Great Whales: Up Close and Personal, opening this summer.

Smaller museums are playing a role, too. PAMA has partnered with Peel’s waste management operations for Trash Talk, an exhibition about recycling, sustainability and possible solutions to the residential waste problem. At the same time, institutions are also trying to reduce their own environmental impact by avoiding plastics, limiting paper use and digitizing written material. “We’re constantly looking at what would be the most efficient and greener way of using our buildings,” Woodland’s Monture says.

Pandemic lessons

The global health crisis pushed many museums into digital programming in a big way. PAMA’s Rand points out the bigger message there is that museums need to deliver their content in different and innovative ways, “from an accessibility point of view but also in terms of preparedness,” she says. “We want to be able to keep going should anything else happen.”

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