Sitting at the east end of Main: A treasure trove

Sitting at the east end of Main: A treasure trove

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My training is in Public History, on taking history to a public audience using museum and archival collections. The scope of Atikokan’s Centennial Museum holdings is impressive, and to me very exciting. I commend the community and in particular the Town of Atikokan for their support and their vision because Atikokan has history in spades!

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The mission of the museum is to collect, preserve and interpret the collection. The collection includes artifacts as magnificent as the Shevlin Clarke locomotive, vintage photographs, a Barren Ground Caribou antler radio-carbon dated to 12,000 years, a hymnal, in German, found at the site of a prisoner of war lumber camp. The stories of each of these artifacts are intriguing.

Preservation means protection from the ravages of moisture and insects. Our facility is monitored with daily humidity and temperature readings (Ontario Museum Standards) and monthly building health and safety inspections.

Interpretation means exhibiting the collection so our visitors may appreciate our history, learn from the artifacts, value the history inherent in each artifact, and understand some of the story that artifact represents.

Take, for example, the Lee-Enfield rifle on display. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald, issued the order to suppress the Red River Rebellion, and those troops, Canada’s North-West Mounted police force, traveled the Dawson Trail. The troops were known to have carried 47 of this type of Lee-Enfield rifle.

A slightly more modern artifact is the Centennial kayak. The Canadian Centennial was an exciting celebration, attracting royalty, heads of state, and ordinary people. In the words of the Centennial Commissioner, the Voyageur Canoe Pageant stirred the hears of all Canadians. Not to put too fine a point on this fact – seven Atikokanites participated in the national event, and one of world’s biggest parties, Expo ’67.

What is happening at the Museum?

We tell our story with an historical timeline beginning with ancient history – the Precambrian Shield, First People’s trade routes, early European exploration and the fur trade, the discovery of iron ore, to mining and the creation of a community that is known and fondly remembered the world over by the many people who have lived here, or visited.

Exhibits are under revision; that means the addition of labels and stories with accurate detail, historically researched (that often means finding people in Atikokan who know stories related to the exhibit), and adding interactive elements. The goal is always increasing an understanding of the past.

The addition of hands-on activities aims to inspire children to engage with the exhibit using their curiosity.

We highlight facts to pique visitor interest, because museums are meant to inspire learning and an appreciation for experience and previous time periods.

We want to encourage the telling of personal stories by seniors – this is history gathering.

We offer tours that range from 20 minutes to an hour. We drop everything to provide tours when visitors arrive. Atikokan is my home and I will make every effort to provide our visitors with positive memories, and remind them to visit again.

Visitors gain an appreciation of the collection with a tour, but exhibitions are value added for visitors and the people of Atikokan. Exhibitions require endless hours of planning and background work, but the end result is worth every sleepless minute.

In the last year there have been two major exhibitions:

Atikokan Painters: Past and Present Ninety-five paintings, from 35 artists, were exhibited, with biographical information collected on every artist. The sheer volume underscores their passion for capturing the beauty of the wilderness that surrounds our community.

A direct result of this exhibition is the group of artists who continued to meet to encourage each other’s work and the presentation of their new work in the Cabin at Heritage Point on Canada Day.

By the seat of your pants! Our history of bush flying in Northwestern Ontario Our second exhibition was a traveling exhibit from Kenora. We included a history gathering project with local pilots. The experiences of these pilots were never before recognized for their significance to the economy of Atikokan. Those histories illustrate the camaradarie among the pilots, the expertise, the training and the vision to create businesses that could only be conducted by flying.

Our newest collection, Flying in Atikokan, are unique stories, stories that could only come from Atikokan.

Both exhibits were well attended by young people to older citizens, and involved community participation. Both collections of history are ongoing.

The Centennial kayak Joe Meany and Gene Tetrault paddled across Canada in 1967
The Centennial kayak Joe Meany and Gene Tetrault paddled across Canada in 1967

The collection

Our Museum is the only centralized place to learn about Atikokan history. Collections of material exist in the Ontario Archives and even Collections Canada, but they are mostly industrial history and government genealogical information.

Our museum is social history – it is about the community, and for the community. Visitors cannot help but feel the heart and soul of this community when they visit the museum.

If this collection was part of a larger collection, say the Museum of Northwestern Ontario, Atikokan would be represented by an occasional exhibit, and likely one aspect of our history at a time.

What does the collection look like from the inside?

I want to stress that a lot of good work has been done to catalogue and preserve the collection in the past 50 years. That work also meets Canadian Museum Operating Standards. The system is almost entirely manual, paper records.

Museum and archival collections do not come in order. They are not tidy. A specific system is used to impose order, the Registry is itself an historical document and is proof of a high standard of care.

This work involves assessment (what does the item add to the collection, to our knowledge of the past). How can they be used to develop an understanding of the past? What stories are associated with them?

Artifacts and archival material are identified, described and stored using acid-free materials.

Ongoing is the creation of digital records. Artifacts are photographed, described using key words. Archival material is digitized and like artifact descriptions are identified referring to a set standard of nomenclature.

Artifacts and archival material are stored according to Ontario Museum Standards, precise professional standards of excellence.

Record keeping is important. Collection management is detailed work that must be ongoing because it enables us to showcase the collection, and offer exhibitions. This time consuming work is done in the background. Very few visitors recognize the hours of work necessary to construct an exhibit or an exhibition.


The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Atikokan Centennial Museum is June 6, 2016.

This is an outstanding achievement for the community. In preparation, I formed a committee of interested citizens to plan a celebration. We’ll take a look back at life in 1966, the donation of the first artifact (the Shevlin-Clarke locomotive), the founding of the collection, and the foresight of the founders.

Coming soon is the 50th Anniversary Museum Calendar, featuring artifacts from the museum suited to each month of the year. In bold colour, and artistically arranged by one of Atikokan’s own photographers, Aaron Matichuk. Stay tuned for the anniversary events of 2016.

Antlers from a Barren-ground Caribou, uncovered during early work at Steep Rock Mines. Charlie Brooks (pictured) was among the men working when the antlers, carbon-dated to the time of the Ice Age (10,000 BCE), were found. PHOTO BY JON NELSON
Antlers from a Barren-ground Caribou, uncovered during early work at Steep Rock Mines. Charlie Brooks (pictured) was among the men working when the antlers, carbon-dated to the time of the Ice Age (10,000 BCE), were found. PHOTO BY JON NELSON

Next exhibit

This fall I am creating a digital exhibit linking our athletic past to the present. My agenda is to collect the history of the arena – compile a time line of the recreational facility and ice sports. This plan extends to the fall of 2016 and the pool, Atikokan’s history of water sports. All of this history, the photographs and in especially the stories, presently reside in the community.

Sitting at the east end of Main Street is a treasure trove. Whether visitors come to the museum for an hour or visit often, my plan is to make that visit memorable.

My intention is to showcase this collection, drawing attention to Atikokan through traditional and social media. My message is simple – we have one of the best community museums in Northwestern Ontario.

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