The sun porch of the Wallace and Area Museum is gently lit by afternoon sunshine, yet with screens for walls and large trees providing shade, the porch remains cool on a July afternoon. Overlooking the vast lawn and the perennials gardens, the porch provides a lovely venue for the museum’s long-running Wednesday afternoon tea.
The new curator stands before the capacity crowd gathered around small tables and explains that the museum (which opened in 1992 in a house built in 1839) is trying to attract more visitors. This tea is the first of four author readings in July; in August, local painters will anchor the teas.
This is Gail’s first season as the new curator and she brings to the museum a lifetime of experience with art galleries across Canada, as well as a deeply personal connection to this particular place: the land on which the museum sits was settled by her ancestor, Peter Graham Tuttle, the youngest son of the United Empire Loyalist, Stephen Tuttle, whose family settled in Wentworth and Wallace.
So despite the fact she had just retired and returned to the area, Gail couldn’t resist the opportunity presented by the museum’s job posting last January, calling it “serendipity and synchronicity”. She’s easing into the role left vacant by the sudden death of long-time curator, David Dewar, in 2015 with only a few small changes. Besides tweaking the teas, her short-term goal is rebranding the museum as a place to learn and to play.
“The whole end goal of a museum is a place of learning,” Gail said, “but with this property, it’s also a place to play because we have walking trails, perennial gardens, barns and outbuildings, the house, the screened porch, and the meeting room. It’s a place for people to enjoy.”
Her long-term goal is discovering how to make the museum more relevant to the needs of the community.
“We have to open the museum up to a broader community so at our flea market and fun day on July 29, we’re launching a Friends of the Museum membership drive.”
In a time when libraries are struggling to remain open, and arts and music programs suffer from flagging support, why bring such ambition to her job at a rural museum?
“Museums matter because they are part of the community,” Gail replied. “The museum itself has the job of preserving artifacts and heritage but the community decides what its value is and what its meaning is. The museum must also serve the needs of the community. It’s a symbiotic relationship. If you don’t serve the needs of the community, you’re just an artifact yourself.”
The first author reading goes over well and Gail is pleased.
“Aren’t the flower arrangements beautiful?” she said as the summer students tidy up. “Ryan does those for us.”
This is Ryan MacInnis’ second summer working at the museum and he discovered a knack for arranging flowers last summer.
“People liked my ideas so I’ve been ‘volun-told’ to be the new flower picker,” he explained with a chuckle. “I like to change them up each week. People notice. People realize we pay attention to details, and that’s better for the museum and the community.”