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Petition breathes new life into Eva Brook Donly Museum

Norfolk News – Jul 12, 2017 by J.P. Antonacci.

Public support for embattled Simcoe museum’s continued existence spurs council to consider new way forward.

Wesley Wilson spoke on behalf of more than 700 fellow heritage advocates when the post-secondary student stood before council Tuesday evening to plead for the Eva Brook Donly Museum to be given a new lease on life.

Last week, Norfolk County councillors had shown reluctance to reopen the heritage building on Norfolk Street South in Simcoe as a museum. Instead, they passed a motion that would only allow the site to be used as a county archive. The museum’s collection of more than 20,000 local artifacts and artwork would be distributed to other museums in the county or possibly deaccessioned.

Councillors rejected a plan by the county’s heritage and culture department, led by manager Melissa Collver, to turn the museum into the official county archives, with programming and seasonal tours of one gallery highlighting Simcoe history. This option would answer an identified need for centralized archives, properly maintain the museum’s collection and provide a central location for researchers. Staffing was suggested to include an archivist, an assistant curator/administrative assistant and two summer students.

That option, representing an annual commitment of $262,000, proved too rich for councillors’ tastes.

Their vote prompted Wilson, a heritage-minded Dogwood Award winner who this summer is working at the forestry interpretive centre in St. Williams, to start an online petition asking the community to show its support for keeping the Eva Brook Donly Museum open. As of Wednesday morning, the petition had amassed 741 names in six days.

The force of that petition — and Wilson’s impassioned speech asking councillors to ensure that an “architectural gem in the heart of Simcoe” does not “fall into disrepair” — prompted a change of heart around the council table on Tuesday. Led by Coun. Peter Black, council’s representative on the museum board, councillors agreed to strike the proviso that the Donly site only be used as an archive going forward. That change allows staff to explore ways in which the museum could reopen as a county-run facility.

The county assumed control of the Eva Brook Donly Museum and Archives after its former guardians, the Norfolk Historical Society, could no longer afford to continue at the helm.

At last week’s meeting, Black spoke to the “valuable service” the Norfolk Historical Society had provided in maintaining its collection along with the heritage home, which painter Eva Brook Donly bequeathed to the municipality for use as a museum or art gallery. “I think it’s incumbent on us to support the recommendation in the report and bring the Eva Brook Donly Museum into the fold,” Black said.

While he would have preferred council to have supported the plan to hire staff and make the museum an ongoing concern again, Wilson said he appreciated councillors’ vote of confidence Tuesday night.  “I’m glad they did what they did … it provides a future,” he said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not the train.”

Wilson, a United Empire Loyalist descendant whose family traces its roots to Norfolk’s earliest days, said he was “stunned” by how much support his petition inspired for the Simcoe museum. “I was so pleased,” he said. “At one point I got a little teary-eyed thinking we’re actually making a difference. The people of Norfolk actually care.” He noted that the petition’s signatories hailed from throughout the county and beyond, and represented a wide age range. Councillors noticed as well, with several saying they hoped the petition’s momentum could be harnessed to provide the museum with more volunteers.

Coun. Doug Brunton pointed out that he and his colleagues supported preserving the county’s heritage; their issue is the cost of staffing and running the museum.

“This is an incredible historical landmark,” said Mayor Charlie Luke, calling it as important as any of Norfolk’s museums, with a collection that is too significant to be lost.

Coun. Noel Haydt credited the collection for being “awesome,” but also questioned the financial requirement included in Collver’s recommendation. “That’s pretty tough, especially if people aren’t coming out.”

Collver refuted the potential for another museum’s staff to oversee the Eva Brook Donly Museum on top of their present workload in response to a query from Brunton, who bemoaned the fact volunteers seemed to be disappearing.

“The next generation is just not stepping up to the plate,” agreed Coun. Harold Sonnenberg.

Speaking after last week’s meeting, during which council voted against spending significant dollars on the museum, Norfolk Historical Society president Andy Blackwood expressed his disappointment, noting “the original town in this county doesn’t have a museum.” Blackwood also refuted the idea no one was interested in the site, indicating the archives tend to be busy with inquiries from all over North America, and in conjunction with this, if the museum was open, “there would be people coming through the door.”

He also spoke to the volunteer situation within the historical society. “We have volunteers,” Blackwood said. “We just don’t have the money.”

By voting to remove the stipulation that the museum must be used only as an archive, Brunton said county staff now has “more flexibility” to pursue options that could see the building again welcome visitors to learn about local history.

In conjunction with the Norfolk Arts Centre, Wilson wants to see the museum become a “community hub,” much like the county’s other museums are in their home communities. “For Eva Brook, that would be the best outcome — for it to become that community staple,” he said. The museum has traditionally been a destination for school groups to explore their local history, he noted. Its closure would risk turning out “generations of ignorance.”

Wilson admits that revitalizing the Eva Brook Donly site will mean making operational changes to what had become a “stagnant” museum, but he sees this crisis point as a chance for the site to evolve and change. Driving that process, he hopes, will be a supportive council and actively engaged residents.

“With Eva Brook Donly, I think this is that new breath coming in (that) will allow it to flourish,” Wilson said.

~ With files from Jeff Tribe, Norfolk News

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