With the cancellation of so many events and regular activities because of the covid pandemic, the Merrickville and District Historical Society is not alone in having to re-organise their calendar for the Summer of 2020.
Traditionally, the Summer months are centred on the Blockhouse. It is their window to the world, a world that comes to the village by road and canal. Students have to be hired, programs prepared, and events like Canalfest provide opportunities to expand into Blockhouse Park. But all that has stopped in 2020.
But the pandemic has provided the Society with a pause for thought, a time to re-evaluate traditional ways and imagine alternatives. While the Blockhouse is a great centre for the Society, and was, in fact, an impor- tant reason why the Society was established originally, it is not the best location for a museum.
Built in 1832 as part of the fortifications defending the Rideau Canal from possible attacks from the southern neighbour, it is without heating, running water, or washrooms. This means that the artefacts and materials located there are subject to severe changes in temperature and air conditions in the course of the year. Although the Society had already been approved for a number of funding grants before the pandemic lockdown, the Society’s Board realised that, even if a re-opening was possible this Summer, it was not practical or desirable.
Society Secretary, Jane Graham, told me that the building is owned by Parks Canada, and leased to the Village of Merrickville-Wolford, who sublet to the Society. There is no real control over maintenance of the Blockhouse by the Society, and on-going discussions within the Society have been taking place regarding alternative ways of making their holdings accessible to the general public.
There were discussions about moving the Society’s holdings out of the Blockhouse, and to create a virtual museum, which would also allow for digital tours and other mobile uses of the artefacts. Much of the Society’s archives are already located in the Community Hall in Burritt’s Rapids.
Are physical museums no longer the best way to preserve and display historical artefacts and materials?
There are 33 heritage designated buildings in Merrickville, as well as others without designation, and perhaps a better approach to local historical activity would be to create a timeline of the Village, develop maps, prepare a digital display showing the gradual development of the streets and houses from the earliest days. Jane considers these options need to be examined during the pause for thought afforded by the pandemic-related closures.
Previously, under other Councils, there was a Museums Board which acted as a liaison between the municipal council and the historical society. That is no longer in existence, but could be really useful if it could be reinstated. Jane and the Board have been involved in on-line meetings with many of the village’s stakeholders, including the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, and residents, in which ideas were discussed about developing an overall plan for the future of the Blockhouse Park. Heritage tourism is already an element in Merrickville’s economy and its Strategic Plan, but its potential has not been fully realised. There is a great deal to think about in planning the future direction of the Village, the Historical Society, and the Blockhouse itself.