Review: Niagara Falls History Museum

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

Quick Review

I first learned about this museum when planning a visit to Niagara Falls for our nephews who were visiting from Peru.  I wasn’t sure they would be interested in seeing this (I assumed that the falls themselves would be the primary attraction for them) but I certainly wanted to visit and learn more about the area.

Furthermore, the museum would have its grand reopening following an expansion and renovation to reflect the role of Niagara Falls, Ontario in the War of 1812, an event receiving a bit of attention from the Canadian government.  So not only was I interested in the subject, but I was also interested in being one of the first to see this “new” museum.  And I could still smell the fresh paint when I visited.

The focus of the collections of the museum is clear: the history and culture of Niagara Falls, Ontario not the surrounding region. Its permanent exhibitions include:

  • War of 1812 (the area played a central role in the war and, because the Canadian government had set aside funds to observe the 200th anniversary of the war, the museum received funding to strengthen its presentation of that collection)
  • Founding and growth of the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario (with a few mentions of the US city and the surrounding region in Ontario, but very limited mentions)
  • Electricity, because Niagara Falls has housed a major hydroelectric dam, whose electricity served many in the province of Ontario.

Its strengths include the exhibitions on 1812 and the history of the city.  At first glance, both look exhibitions kind of small but, on closer inspection, they pack a lot of story into their small spaces.

The story of the city is primarily told thematically.  But the exhibition provides a brief chronological story of the development of the city: its settlement, its role as a tourist destination, the life and occupations of residents not engaged in tourism, including the tension between tourism and permanent residence in the city. The exhibition includes a collection of tourist memorabilia.  Most significantly, the exhibition answers the questions “how did Niagara Falls develop?” and “what is life like in Niagara Falls for the people who live there year-round?”

The galleries telling the story of the War of 1812 look especially tiny when one first enters them, but it is thorough, has excellent artifacts, and superbly documented.  I especially appreciated the timeline of the war, something that many similar exhibitions avoid presenting but that visitors like me want to see. The exhibition has a good selection of artifacts, with more clothing such as uniforms than I had expected.

Despite the government-sponsored television advertisements promoting the War of 1812 being a patriotic war central to the founding of Canada, the exhibition was far more nuanced and in keeping with most of the accounts published in the American and Canadian news: that this was largely a forgotten war and still not well known by many.  The exhibition should help to change that and to provide visitors with a balanced view of this war.

Although the core of the exhibition is probably geared towards history fanatics like me, it offers some activities for others, especially children.  The exhibition provides visitors with an opportunity to try on the uniforms of each side (including the head gear and musket), which is always good for a smile and a photograph.

And despite the dark subject matter, the exhibition is housed in a light-soaked gallery, which brightens the mood a bit.

Among the weaknesses of the museum was the exhibition on electricity. It is mostly a purchased set of activities from the Franklin Institute (which the musem openly acknowledges).  But other than providing children with an opportunity to touch, pull, and push things, the activities did not seem to promote much learning.  The explanations of the activities were about as basic and clear as they get—I think most visitors past third grade could easily follow them, younger can simply enjoy them.

More significantly, the reason the relevance of the exhibition on electricity is only tangentially hinted at—the falls in Canada are a hydroelectric plant.  As the museum grows, the exhibition designers might address this issue and some content to the explanations of the activities for older visitors. The priority now seems to be children—and that’s probably the right thing in a place that reaches so many families.

Another weakness of the museum is that it is a unilingual English museum.Given the Federal money for the museum and the fact that (a) the city attracts a lot of tourists, including many from Quebec and (b) Ontario is a bilingual province with a large francophone population of its own (indeed, TFO is francophone), this glaring omission is both insensitive and inappropriate.

My guess is that the museum didn’t have funds for translation and space for translated labels would pose an issue given the small size of the exhibitions. But welcoming is a value of museums—this omission of French definitely does not say bienvenue.

The last weakness of the museum is its location.  Although it is just a kilometer or so from the Clifton Hill tourist area, it’s far enough away that most visitors will miss it.  Furthermore, it’s not in the most inviting part of town, full of vacant buildings that looks almost as frightening as the American side of Niagara.

Insights gained at the museum include a broader understanding of the founding of Niagara Falls and the challenges of living in a tourist community; and the history of the War of 1812, including the reasons why the war was fought, the major characters in the war, and some of the reasons that it remains unclear and confusing to people to this day.

Fast Facts about the Museum Type of Museum: History.

Highlights of the Permanent Collection:

  • War of 1812
  • Founding and growth of the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario
  • Electricity,

Special Amenities:

  • Free parking behind the museum.
  • Small gift shop.
  • Small theater showing a film as well as offering other types of educational program 

Issues to Consider When Visiting:

  • Leave about 1 hour to 90 minutes to view the museum.
  • Don’t confuse this with the Niagara Falls Historical Society.  They’re different institutions.
  • The museum is a small hike from the central tourist area of Clifton Hill.
  • The block on which the museum is housed looks a bit frightening, but it’s actually OK.

Website: http://www.niagarafallshistorymuseum.ca/

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