On The Job With… Madeline Smolarz, Operations Coordinator


I knew this column would be a challenge because each day is different for me in my role as full-time Operations Coordinator at Ruthven Park National Historic Site. In addition to my usual duties, a number of unexpected things always seem to crop up – as they do at most museums – so much so that I’m starting to think I can list “juggling” as a skill on my LinkedIn profile. Our site is small in staff, though we have an talented group of volunteers, and together we have a 1,500-acre property to care for that has everything from wetland to farmland to built heritage to new structures. That’s a lot on the go at once! Come walk with me through a “typical” day to find out what I get up to when there isn’t…

  • a wedding happening,
  • a film crew working (hello, Murdoch Mysteries),
  • a coyote lurking (I’m not kidding),
  • a school group exploring,
  • a bus tour visiting,
  • or anything else out of the ordinary.
Madeline Smolarz Photo 1

My office is located in Ruthven’s “home base,” the Gate House. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

When I get in the door, I check emails, the phone, and our two most important social media accounts: Facebook and Twitter. I most often receive messages about mansion tours, requests for rental information, tickets for special programs, and queries related to the Lower Grand River Land Trust, which owns and operates Ruthven. If our Maintenance Coordinator or any volunteers are on site working, I quickly check in with them after conferring with our CAO to sort out a plan for their day depending on our current priorities. I also take a peek at my personal calendar to see what I have scheduled and the master office calendar to remind myself what else is going on that may or may not be in my purview. The day ahead really starts to take shape at this point in the morning. From May to September, when the summer students arrive, we have a quick chat about what changes will be made to their regular duties to accommodate what is happening on the site on that particular day. It’s good to keep tabs on what everyone is doing so their personal goals are fulfilled and our permanent staff receives the support they need. Remember what I said about juggling duties? It applies to people as well!

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The Thompson Family Mansion is one of the site’s most recognizeable attractions. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz

Throughout the day, I am first up for answering the phone and emails. I may drive into the town of Cayuga to do our banking, pay bills, and send and/or pick up mail on behalf of Ruthven and the Trust. In a way, I’m like command central because I act as the main information conduit for the site when I’m at work. I could have a couple of site viewings too; people who are interested in renting Ruthven’s beautifully restored 1850s Coach House usually like to have a look at our facilities before signing a rental agreement. Another significant responsibility I have is to supervise donations by grounds visitors and the sale of memberships and admission tickets for mansion tours, since the POS machine is located right at my desk in the Gate House at the entrance to the site. Due to this building’s position, I am able to monitor and direct the flow of people coming into and out of the site from my desk. Finally, Ruthven’s digital presence is one of my favourite responsibilities. Most of what you see on our Facebook and Twitter feeds comes from my keyboard, and I manage our website as well.

Madeline Smolarz Photo 3

The charming Coach House once held – you guessed it! – coaches, a tack room, and stables. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz

I hope I’ve given you a decent glimpse into what my daily life is like, without discouraging you from pursuing a similar position! I feel very lucky to have a fast-paced and rewarding job that gives me endless opportunities for professional growth. Find me on Twitter @MadelineSmolarz or connect with me on LinkedIn if you’d like to stay in touch and talk museum operations.


Fanshawe Pioneer Village Gets Hacked


As with most museums in Ontario, my workplace Fanshawe Pioneer Village participates in the local Doors Open event each year. This year, Doors Open for London, Ontario fell on a Saturday and Sunday from September 16th to September 17 th.  The London Heritage Council, who runs our Doors Open program, decided to try something new this year, so they applied for – and received! – a grant to enhance Doors Open by bringing Museum Hack to the city for the weekend.

If you haven’t heard of them already, Museum Hack is a group that leads unconventional tours at some of the United States of America’s most well-known museums.  They don’t work for these organizations, but rather are advocates for them.  They foster an appreciation of museums by offering tours that inspire those who may not normally see going to a museum as their activity of choice to get out and visit, and visit often.

Alison Article Photo 1

Photo Credit: Craig Glover for London Heritage Council

Museum Hack offered a professional development opportunity for emerging museum professionals and offered renegade tours of five museums (Banting House NHSC, The Children’s Museum, Fanshawe Pioneer Village, Museum London, and The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum) in London over the weekend.  To prepare, each Museum Hack representative, or “Hacker,” spent a couple days at their assigned museum to learn about it and develop a distinct, engaging, never-before-seen tour that drew on their interests and the unique history their site could potentially share.

Our Hacker tour guide’s name was Emily, and she was fantastic to work with! Emily really took the time to get to know our site and learn what it is we do. She spent a lot of time exploring, talking to our staff, calling on other Hackers for input, and researching the things we shared with her that really spoke to her passions.

Alison Article Photo 2

Photo Credit: Craig Glover for London Heritage Council

Amongst the craziness of Doors Open I was able to spare an hour or so to go on one of Emily’s tours, and though I know our site well and already have a passion for it, she made me fall in love all over again. Though I continually advocate that my staff help our visitors explore their passions and that staff explore their own passions through projects that they take on, the tour was a wonderful reminder that we also need to use our passions in how we interact with visitors. Working in a museum is a labour of love, so it makes sense that the best way to foster an appreciation of museums is to share that love with our visitors.

Museum Hack has a number of secrets that they share with the organizations that they work with that are strictly hush hush outside of these working relationships, but I want to share with you one of the biggest take-aways for us at the Village: all museums have particular messages they need to communicate, but how we communicate those messages and the ways we explore those messages can differ. You must use the things you’re good at and the things you care about to help make others care too.

Museum Hack photo

Photo Credit: Alison Deplonty

Things I Learned While Searching For A Mentor



Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/mentor-startup-mentoring-2063045/

It took me a little over a year and a half to find a mentor. Some professional development opportunities, like the UK Museums Association AMA accreditation, come with a built-in mentoring scheme. My experience wasn’t as straight forward and took my own initiative to accomplish. For my fellow aspiring mentees (though some of this works for networking in general), here’s what I’ve learned.

Be Brave

After years of saying I wanted a mentor, my journey to finding one happened by accident on the last night of a museums conference in the UK. With my return to Canada quickly approaching, I had spent the majority of the conference hoping to run into a Canadian museum professional. I had had no luck. I was enjoying the wrap party with conference buddies, when I noticed a person walk by whose lanyard stated they were from a national Canadian museum in Ottawa. After some encouragement from my friends, I literally chased after him. I would like to say I was graceful, but I probably wasn’t. However, if I hadn’t had the courage to start a conversation with him, I definitely wouldn’t have received his business card, which helped to start my mentorship search.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For What You Want

Earlier this year I visited Ottawa, and while I was there I arranged to meet the person from the conference. In addition to talking to him about navigating the Canadian museum sector, I also wanted to ask about mentorship.

I am not good at this type of networking. I always feel guilty about asking for help of this kind. I left bringing up mentorship until the last minute, and frankly, I’m surprised I found the courage to ask. I knew this person was probably too busy to mentor me, however I did ask if anyone in their department would be interested in a mentoring relationship.  He, then, invited me to contact him about this possibility if I moved to Ottawa.


Image Credit: http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/d/do-it-now.html

Do It Now and Follow Up

Of all the things I learned from this process, this is what I’ve taken most to heart.

I did move back to Ottawa. However, I kept putting off contacting him. I told myself, I’ll wait until I’m settled, I’ll do it once I’ve started my new job. Again, having to ask for a favour made me squirm.  Two months later, I finally sent the email asking him if he’d talk to his staff about mentoring me. I was too late; I sent the email the day after he had retired.

All was not lost, though! The email I received provided an email address for his successor. It took me another month before I followed up with my request. My persistence paid off this time, and his successor agreed to try and match me to someone in the department.

Define The Relationship

Once this was agreed to, I clarified what I wanted to get out of the mentorship. Outlining my goals and expectations, such as the time commitment, for the mentee-mentor relationship, not only helped to match me to the right person, but also helped me figure out what I wanted from a mentor.


I hope that reading about what I learned and how I learned it helps you find a mentor in the Ontario museum world, whether they’re another EMP who you look up to, or a more established museum professional. The most important thing is to start somewhere!