Ross Farm Museum


Story: Elisabeth Tower
Photography: Elisabeth Tower
Thursday, March 21, 2019

The little country farm museum that could, would and does.

Centrally located in the rural community of New Ross, a convenient one hour drive from metro Halifax, Ross Farm Museum is one of my favourite museums in Nova Scotia to visit with family. This living history site representing the 1816 settlement of Captain William Ross is a child-friendly, outdoor, heritage, feel good extravaganza. Under the leadership of Director Lisa Wolfe, this farm museum has become an exemplar of best practice in the province and in Canada for its sustainability, environmental stewardship, partnerships and commitment to being an active member of the local community. Its commitment to ethical, innovative and evidence-based practice sets a standard in the museum community, regardless of institutional size. On the cutting edge of museums and community practice, rather than viewing itself as responsible for partnership with the community, Ross Farm Museum understands itself to be a part of the community. This fundamental shift in the way museums think about their role has had a significant impact on the success of Ross Farm Museum. The museum has made difficult and at times controversial choices over the years, for example, the decision not to utilize volunteers because they feel a strong responsibility to be a quality employer and job generator for their rural community.* These decisions serve to make the rest of the museum community re-think their own decisions and priorities and demonstrate that Ross Farm Museum is not afraid to think in new ways while following the best traditions. This is true of everything from their interpretation and their farm practice right through to their strategic planning, and it leads to a truly unique and invigorating visitor experience.

A visit to Ross Farm Museum includes all of the great things you would expect to see at the best living history sites: a working blacksmith shop, stave mill and cooperage; original historic homes and buildings; many animals of mostly heritage breeds: oxen, pigs, chickens, sheep, cats, horse-drawn wagon rides; costumed interpreters; and exhibits of traditional tools and machinery. Ross Farm Museum takes it one step further and not only interprets its time period, but actually lives it. Ross Farm Museum is a working farm using largely traditional practices. While rules have to be bent from time to time (for example, pesticides used in the early 1900's are not used on the farm but also pests and invasive species are present on the farm now that were not then), each decision about conflicts between traditional practice and modern awareness is carefully chosen by expert staff and leadership. It is not sufficient at Ross Farm Museum to be an exceptional interpreter; one must also be exceptionally skilled. Interpreters are expert in the farming practices of the 19th century, the daily lived experience of the women and families on the farm, the trades practiced on the site or the animal husbandry required to keep their animals happy and healthy.

Fill up the water bottle, pack a picnic, and slather on the SPF (especially if, like me, you're gifted with a red-head complexion) because you're going to want to stay all day. There is so much to see and do. You could literally eat fresh bread with rhubarb jelly while snuggling a cat riding a wagon pulled by horses through misty pumpkin patches. This sounds more like fantasy than educational, but you will certainly be learning many things from heritage skills like cooking over an open fire and candle making, to the feasibility of the growing of hops in Nova Scotia, and various aspects of raising heritage breeds. If you have small children, a sturdy stroller suitable for trails or backpack carrier is a must because the site is large with plenty of walking, including some beautiful nature trails. For older children this is a great spot to get outdoors, see farming first-hand and run (or roll) off some energy. There is a great sledding hill in the winter! Some parts of the site are not easily accessible to those with mobility issues, but much of it can be viewed from the wagon tours.

*The museum is considering this practice moving forward to determine if there might be a way to have some flexibility to have expert volunteers for small projects while retaining their commitment to being a strong employer in their community.

Useful things to know about this site:

  1. Ross Farm Museum is a working farm. Traditional seeds, breeds and skills are used in contemporary applications. What you see has integrity; workers actually using traditional equipment in day to day farming at the museum.
  2. Ross Farm Museum rents space in their plaza seasonally on Sundays to the Rural Roots Market http://www.ruralrootsmarket.ca/ which is an arts, crafts and food market committed to food security and sustainable farming and you can find many wonderful treats and treasures right on site when they are open. The rhubarb jelly I mentioned is sometimes available there and it's well worth it! The museum also has its own gift shop and cafe with lots of local arts, crafts and treats.
  3. Sustainability and environmental responsibility are staples of Ross Farm Museum. From sustainable farming practices and wood lots to modern buildings with the newest green heating and cooling technologies, Ross Farm walks the walk.
  4. Ross Farm Museum is NOT a first person interpretation site so you need not worry about having awkward conversations with people pretending they don't know what an airplane or a camera is. Although workers wear costumes from the late 19th/early 20th century and use equipment from this time period on the farm, they will talk to you as themselves situated in the present day about how they continue to use these tools and skills and their relevance to modern life.
  5. This museum is a full day, year round, primarily outdoor experience.
  6. Washrooms are gender neutral single units and a number include change tables and are wheelchair accessible.
  7. While you will certainly see contributions of men and women depicted at the farm don't expect a thorough or critical reflection on gender in the time period. Likewise, there are discussions about the personal relationships family members had with specific indigenous persons but don't expect to find a strong critical interpretation of the ongoing impacts of colonization or the more global relationship between homesteaders/agriculture and indigenous peoples in Nova Scotia/Canada. It is worth noting the museum is aware of these weaknesses and are working on them.
  8. Ross Farm Museum is a part of the Nova Scotia Museum. In Nova Scotia, the provincial museum is a large web of sites,all supporting one another in the telling of Nova Scotia's history. Each site has its own unique character, management, and piece of the story. The sites function largely like independent museum sites from the perspective of the visitor, but behind the scenes they have access to the larger government organization.
  9. Ross Farm Museum has an active roster of special events, workshops and activities all year round. Check out www.rossfarm.novascotia.ca/ or follow them on twitter, instagram or facebook.
About the author

Elisabeth Tower is country girl at heart, having grown up in rural Ontario. An award-winning cultural heritage management professional, a museum evaluator and consultant, Elisabeth's main areas of expertise are in museum education, process design and project management, community development, educational technology and cultural resources management.

Mainly Museums is a crowdsourced blog

we need YOU

Check out our open opportunities: