The Bytown Museum is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Gabbi Van Looyen, Centretown News

Bytown Museum celebrates 100th anniversary

By Gabbi Van Looyen

The Bytown Museum’s Oct. 25 birthday bash is about more than its 100th anniversary — it’s also about spreading awareness about upcoming projects, particularly the digitization of its collection.

Grant Vogl, programming manager for the museum, said the event aims to bolster community engagement and donor support.

He said it can be challenging to scrape together enough funding for new projects without the help of local history enthusiasts.

“If I apply for a grant for money for a year or six months . . . it’s just for that period and that project. When it’s over, we apply again and maybe we get it again,” he said. “We’re always looking for more funding.”

Currently, the museum staff receives about half of their funding from the city, but they apply for grants to cover the rest of their operating costs.

Vogl said more support from the public will help to fund projects such as the digitization of the museum’s collection of one-of-a-kind documents, photographs and artifacts, such as the family bible of Bytown founder and Rideau Canal builder Lt.-Col. John By.

This 1885 lithographic print depicts the canal locks and the Commissariat building, shown to the right of the headlocks. It is one of the many artifacts included in the new digitized archive. 
Courtesy of the Bytown Musuem digital archives 

Having the collection available online will open up the museum to a wider audience.

“It means that people who can’t come down to the museum or people who want to see other things we have that can’t be on display— they’ll be able to access those records online for free,” he said.

But, he added, sharing these stories about the city’s past comes with a price tag.

“The bigger museums are usually quite good at (digitizing their collections) because they have the funding and in-house staff that can do that,” Vogl said. “For us, we’re all essentially dependent on project-based funding.”

Bruce Elliott, a Carleton University history professor, said the Bytown Museum is a truly unique institution that deserves the community’s support.

“In a local history museum, much of the significance of the artifact collections relates to their associations with local people and families, and to events in the city’s past.  Not all local history museums understand this,” he said in an email.

Dillan Jones, a museum visitor services officer and keyboardist will be performing his favourite jazz standards with his fellow Bytown Boys at the event. He said in his mind, the stories are reason enough to donate.

“The tales we’re telling . . . really made up the beginning and the foundation of our nation’s capital,” he said.

Vogl said with the museum’s 100-year history in Centretown, it’s the only institution of its kind that focuses on local stories.

“We tell the story of downtown Ottawa, locally and from a national perspective,” he said. “It’s a very important story to tell.”

Jones added that the visibility of the collection is not the only problem the museum faces. Being tucked below Parliament Hill, next to the headlocks of the Rideau Canal, has made the museum itself hard to find.

“We’re really right in the heart of Centretown,” he said. “It’s a shame I find that a lot people . . . who have walked by the locks and the museum have never been inside and don’t know the stories of their own city,” he said.

The museum has been operating out of the Commissariat building next to the canal locks since 1952.

The Bytown Museum was originally located at 70 Nicholas St. in the decommissioned City Registry building. It was purchased in 1917 by the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa as an exhibition space for local artifacts.

By the late 1940s, their collection had outgrown the Registry Office, and the WCHSO purchased the long-abandoned Commissariat in 1951. It is the oldest stone building in Ottawa, having been built in 1827.

Despite the challenges the museum faces, Vogl said the museum does not plan on going anywhere soon.

“We’re not going to stop with 2017. We’re going to stay open for another 100 years or hopefully longer,” he said.

But he added that in order to do that, they will continue to need the community’s support.