“They Are All Individual”: Community Museums and the National Narrative


On November 7, 1957, a group of people passionate about local history came together for the first meeting of the Oshawa and District Historical Society. In less than three years’ time, this group would achieve one of their primary tasks when the Henry House Museum opened to the public on May 21, 1960.

At their first meeting, when Verna Conant (wife of Ontario’s 12th Premier Gordon D. Conant) was elected as the first president, a woman from the Ontario Historical Society spoke to the newfound ODHS. As per newspaper customs of the time, the Oshawa Times-Gazette reported her name as Mrs. Paul Hughes, her actual first name unknown at this time. The Time-Gazette shared highlights from Hughes’ talk, and much of what she presented is still relevant today, almost 60 years later.

“One of the charms of visiting these museums is that they are all individual,” commented Mrs. Hughes, “Each makes a particular contribution, not only its community, but to the country as a whole.”

For the last six years, the Oshawa Museum has been my second home. With its humble beginnings as the Henry House Museum, the OM, under the management of the (now named) Oshawa Historical Society, has seen tremendous growth and today is comprised of three historic houses, all three standing on their original foundations. It is through these houses that the OM brings our community’s history to life; feature exhibitions, our growing permanent collection, and dynamic programming help us do just that.

Henry House Oshawa Museum 2013

Henry House, Oshawa. Credit: Lisa Terech

What Mrs. Hughes emphasizes above is why I love local history museums. Each museum is as unique as the community’s story they are telling. Behind the scenes there is the dedicated staff, passionate about their community, and this is evident with the details in the exhibits. I attempt to visit local history museums on every vacation I take and have yet to be disappointed. It has been especially interesting in this Canada 150 year to see each museum putting their best foot forward and celebrating how their community played its part within the larger national narrative. Perhaps Oshawa was only a village in 1867, a small stop on the way from Toronto to Kingston, but our burgeoning locality has its own contributions to the 150 celebrations. For example, within our collections is a telegram sent to local politician T.N. Gibbs by Sir John A. Macdonald during the first national election, urging him to ‘not be beaten.’ Gibbs was an Oshawa based politician (our first Reeve) and business-owner, and he would go on to serve in Macdonald’s cabinet before being appointed to the Senate. Interestingly, although it could not have been proven at the time, there are strong suspicions of voter impropriety in this Ontario South election of 1867. This telegram speaks on many different layers, of a local personality, to the first election and its connection to a Father of Confederation. It could also speak to early democracy and the importance of fair election practices. Perhaps not all municipalities have telegrams from Macdonald in their holdings, but this OM artefact is an example of what Mrs. Hughes illustrated in 1957: each community has their own stories to tell, stories on a local, provincial, and national level. Visit a community museum and see you can discover.

Spadina House Aug 2012

Spadina House, Toronto. Credit: Lisa Terech


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