Bringing the past to the community

By David Ingram
February 27, 2014

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On a high plain in northwest London, tucked away between the Medway River and Snake Creek, sits London’s ‘First Village.’ In the 15th century, about 2,000 Neutral Iroquoians called this area home. Longhouses made of birch bark and spruce provided shelter and a wall of wooden stakes surrounded and fortified the settlement.

Those longhouses and wooden stakes that make up the history of the village are still here today, just waiting to be explored.

“Just being able to see how things have changed over time, or how people have lived, and kind of create that connection to the past … it’s that excitement of discovering things,” said Joan Kanigan, Museum of Ontario Archeology executive director. The museum features more than 13,000 years worth of historical artifacts from early native society and early European settlers.


Established as a collection of aboriginal artifacts donated to Western in 1933, the museum was first housed in a library basement on campus. By the late 1970s, the museum expanded and was incorporated into an independent non-profit charity. Using land previously donated to Western, the museum opened at its current location on Attawandaron Road, off of Wonderland Road, in 1981.

Annual funding of the museum is made up of 10 per cent City of London, 20 per cent Western University and 70 per cent raised independently by the museum.

The museum now sits next to what was once a thriving 15th century Neutral Iroquois settlement. Known as the Lawson Site, after the London family that donated the property, this partially reconstructed village and archeological site is looked after by the museum. The facility is located next door to the Sustainable Archeology program which is a collaborative research facility between McMaster and Western.

The Lawson Site, placed on the Canadian Register of Historic places in 2004, is also used throughout the year for a number of educational programs and community events hosted by the museum. One of these events, the Traditional Powwow and Native Harvest Festival, has taken place every September for the last five years.

The festival showcases various educational workshops and demonstrations with the intention of engaging the community with traditional First Nations culture and history. The museum recruits local First Nations community members to run this event independently.  

“All we do is help facilitate the funds to have it here and the space to have the powwow,” Kanigan said. “In terms of decision making and organizing and everything around the powwow itself, that is done by the local community.”

One of the organizers of the 2013 festival was Dennis Whiteye, 41, a Delaware Ojibwa, who is the men’s program worker in a violence against-women outreach program at AtLosha Native Family Healing Services in downtown London. He has a close relationship with the museum that allows for cooperation between the native and non-native community.

“These celebrations of life, these gatherings, they are based on generosity and the museum has been nothing but generous and sharing in doing those things,” he said.

A commitment to educating the public is also a mandate that the museum promotes. It tailors its educational programs and exhibits to have a more hands-on and experienced-based approach, Kanigan said.

“Because we are very focused on curriculum, it’s not just a fun field trip. It’s very much about developing learning outcomes and ensuring that, when teachers bring their kids to the museum, they are meeting those outcomes in the curriculum,” she said.

An affiliate of Western, the museum works closely with the university to provide a space where students can acquire practical learning or work experience.

Tara Lynn, 21, a fourth-year Geography and Sociology student, participates in a work-study program with the museum that sees her do everything from being a camp counsellor in the summer educational program to promoting the museum over social media.

Lynn hopes to work in the non-profit sector after she graduates, and work-study programs aimed at Western students have allowed her to both gain a bursary for her time, while also learning skills specific to her chosen field.

“I wouldn’t have received this anywhere else and certainly not working in a job like retail,” Lynn said.

In the coming months, the Museum of Ontario Archeology hopes to heavily promote itself to the London community through social media and updating its presence online. How to increase engagement and accessibility of the knowledge the museum has will be a top priority, said Kanigan.

 Kanigan hopes this will raise even further awareness and understanding in the community about Ontario’s archeological heritage and the service the Museum of Ontario Archeology provides.

“And the whole reason we do that is because we want people to develop an appreciation of the diverse cultures within the province,” she said.

“We are a little gem and we’re trying to become a bigger gem.”


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