In support of Black History Month, the St. Catharines museum has been offering tours of their ‘Follow the North Star’ exhibit to the public. Concurrently, the museum has been working to make their exhibits more accessible through their year-round Sensory-friendly Sunset program.
The tour explores Black history in St. Catharines preceding the Underground Railroad and colonization, all the way up to the 21st century. The drop-in tours are offered every Thursday and Saturday at 10:00 a.m. at the museum on 1932 Welland Canals Parkway, St. Catharines. Admission is through donation.
“It’s an opportunity for us to engage members of the public with that story of Black history in the community,” said Sara Nixon, public programmer for the St. Catharines museum. “This is our fourth year offering Black History Month tours, and it has been wonderful seeing interest in the tours increase every year. It shows that there is a community need and community interest in learning more about black history and we are happy to be able to offer that for our community.”
Throughout the exhibit, guests can learn more about historical events such as the Emancipation Day picnics that once attracted thousands to Port Dalhousie, the formation of the St. Catharines Orioles — the first all-black hockey team in Ontario — and more.
In addition to the tours, on Saturdays at 11:00 a.m. the museum also offers a screening of the documentary called Risking everything: a story of Niagara freedom seekers which premiered in 2019. The documentary goes into detail about the struggles of slaves on the Underground Railroad and crossing the Niagara River into freedom. It also features an interesting story about the artist who designed the monument in Lewiston, New York to honour that crossing and follows its making and installation. The documentary is approximately 35 minutes long, and like the tour, doesn’t require any registration, as an attempt to keep it as inclusive and accessible as possible.
“The film has had a lot of success so we’re really happy to be able to show it and it has some prominent St. Catharines connections so we’re happy to show it here,” said Nixon.
The museum’s new Sensory-friendly Sunset program is a part of a larger initiative started at the museum as of January 2020, where they are working to create a more inclusive and accessible space for all visitors at the museum.
“Museums are definitely a barrier to people who might have sensory processing sensitivities because there are lots of bright lights, loud noises and big spaces at the museum that we know can be overwhelming,” said Nixon. “Our Sensory-friendly Sunsets is an opportunity for us to create a more sensory-friendly museum environment where we dim the lights and put on calming music and hope that we can create an experience that people who might have sensory sensitivities can feel welcome and able to participate in the museum.”
The activities are mostly tactile, hands-on activities that are self-guided so that the museum is able to meet the needs of any visitors who come for the Sensory-friendly Sunset program. There is also a quiet zone for anyone who needs to calm down and be grounded in case the experience gets too overwhelming or intense.
During the program, the entire facility becomes sensory-friendly, and is offered on the first Tuesday of every month between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. in order to create consistency. Like the tours, it is open to the public, so no registration is necessary and admission is by donation.
According to Nixon, the museum has had a lot of great experiences and feedback from families coming to the event so far, saying that they felt really welcome.
Both the Black History Month tours and the Sensory-friendly Sunsets are an attempt by the museum to foster a sense of community, and make the museum more accessible.
“We are a community museum, so we are always looking for ways to be more inclusive and encourage and invite people of all needs and interests to know that this is their space, that this is their community hub,” said Nixon. “We are working quite hard to be able to offer different opportunities, tools, resources and programing to make sure that everyone feels welcome here. That’s our goal.”
For more information on the St. Catharines museum and the events they offer, individuals can go to www.stcatharines.ca/en/experiencein/MuseumEvents.asp.