Whose communities? Provincial funding support for community museums in Ontario

by Krista Barclay

This International Museum Day (May 18th) is an opportune moment to reflect on the essential community-building, research, and education work that happens at local museums. A closer look at Ontario’s Community Museum Operating Grant (CMOG) program can tell us a lot about how the provincial government approaches the many kinds of communities that make up Ontario. Community museums steward local history through the preservation and interpretation of culturally significant landscapes, heritage buildings, and artifact and archival collections, but they are also hubs for research, learning, community events and services, and much more.

Wellington County Museum and Archives, Fergus ON. Photo by User:Saforrest, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In Canada, community museums are places where residents and visitors of all ages encounter the history of this place. Many scholars have also shown how museums have been a tool of colonialism and sites of trauma and harm for Indigenous peoples. It is no surprise then that museums are specifically mentioned in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Final Report and Calls to Action as well as in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Museums are called to acknowledge their roles in propagating and upholding white supremacist, patriarchal, and colonial structures in Canada. They are also called to support Indigenous sovereignty through repatriation and meaningfully engaging in the work of reconciliation and decolonization, both in their local communities and the field of museology more broadly.

Various levels of government across Canada provide some measure of (usually insufficient) funding for museums. In Ontario, the CMOG program has provided modest operating grants annually to community museums for more than three decades. It is a statutory grant set out by the Ontario Heritage Act and administered by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport using its Standards for Community Museums. Though it is disbursed annually, the program has been closed to new applicants since 2016 and its total funding has not kept pace with inflation for many years.

The list of organizations that receive CMOG funding is not publicly available. I obtained it through a recent Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. My intention is not to critique the organizations that are on the recipient list, but to think about the communities who are not represented. I used this as a window to see what communities’ histories the province privileges over others. For this reason, I do not list the names of individual organizations in this post. The photos here are of museums that are not necessarily on the list, but have impacted me as I have lived, worked, and learned in different communities across the province.

Museum on the Boyne in Alliston, ON. Photo by author, 25 October 2018

On its website, the Ministry claims that the CMOG program “supports museums to drive cultural tourism and tell the stories of Ontario’s diverse communities, past and present.” A total of 166 organizations received CMOG support in the 2022-23 fiscal year. This represents just 25% of the museums in Ontario according to the Ontario Museum Association (OMA), the advocacy organization that represents over 700 museums, galleries, and heritage sites across the province.

Of the 166 CMOG recipients, 97 are focused specifically on the history of a settler municipal or county jurisdiction, while 38 are focused on stewarding or interpreting a settler historic site such as homesteads or military or government buildings. Five of the CMOG recipient organizations are explicitly pioneer museums. Taken together, more than 84% of CMOG recipient organizations are focused specifically on stewarding and interpreting the history of ‘pioneers,’ settler municipalities, and settler historic sites. This yields a very narrow view of ‘diverse communities’ in Ontario.

Of the remaining 26 museums, two steward and interpret Black History, one is focused on the history of a specific immigrant community, and 22 represent a specific industry, topic, or theme (children’s museums, for example). Only one CMOG-funded museum in Ontario is specifically focused on Indigenous history and culture.

This is not to say that the histories and voices of Indigenous peoples, communities of colour, or communities whose identities have been historically marginalized are absent from other communities’ museums. But the lack of even basic provincial operating support for museums that give these communities space to tell their own stories in their own ways is cause for concern. If we acknowledge that museums have historically been spaces where patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist, and heteronormative ways of being have been normalized through the ‘othering’ of different lifeways and communities, then redressing some of that harm requires support for community museums that imagine otherwise.

Manidoo Mazina’igan The Sacred Document Treaty #3 exhibit at The Muse in Kenora, ON. Photo by author, 18 August 2023

Many CMOG-supported organizations have undertaken important work to build relationships with Indigenous nations and make space for Indigenous voices and histories. These conversations absolutely should be happening in settler museum spaces. When a museum’s collecting mandate springs from settler notions of boundary and place such as a homestead property or a neatly drawn municipal border, however, it pre-supposes these units as the starting point for the histories that museum documents and interprets. This, in turn, determines who sees themselves reflected in the museum’s exhibits and programming. It ultimately shapes who feels part of that community.

The CMOG program in its current form limits the diversity of communities that are represented by community museums in Ontario. Both the province and the museum sector have changed rapidly since 2016 when CMOG closed to new applicants; it was just months after the TRC released its Calls to Action. The lack of sustainable operating funding surely impacts current CMOG recipients’ abilities to do the vital work of representing the breadth and diversity of experience within changing communities while also supporting Indigenous self-determination by meaningfully engaging with the Calls to Action and UNDRIP.

Funding for community museums in Canada has been steadily declining for many years. The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage outlines many challenges faced by small museums in its 2018 report on the Canadian museum sector. In Ontario, community museums experienced pandemic closures into 2022 that collapsed visitor engagement numbers and devastated program and events revenue. In its 2024 provincial budget submission, the OMA highlighted the importance of CMOG funding to the survival of community museums and asked that the program be re-opened to new applicants with an additional $10 million in funding. Ontario’s 2024 Budget Building a Better Ontario includes no measures to address the chronic underfunding of community museums.

This International Museum Day, I’ll be reflecting on the museums that have shaped me. I’ll also be thinking about the promise and possibilities of a sustainably funded museum sector that can help us engage in the learning and dialogue needed to meet the challenges of our time. If museums have shaped you too, you might ask your elected representatives how their government supports community museums in your area and seek out community museums you might like to visit or engage with this summer.

Looking for summer road trip ideas? Try Treaty #3 Territory, where you can visit organizations like Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre, The Muse Kenora, Fort Frances Museum, Museum of Atikokan, Dryden Museum, and Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre.


Krista Barclay (she/her) is a settler historian with a background in Ontario’s cultural heritage sector whose research focuses on histories of families, colonialism, and public memory in Canada. She is an Individual member of the Ontario Museum Association (but in no way speaks for the organization) and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, teaching in the Canadian Studies program at University College. Sometimes on Twitter @Krista_Barclay. Get in touch at: Krista.Barclay@utoronto.ca.

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