Peterborough Museum & Archives


Monday-Friday: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Saturday, Sunday, most Holidays: 12:00 – 5:00 PM

Admission: By Donation

The Peterborough Museum & Archives (PMA) is located on top of Armour Hill, in Ashburnham Memorial Park, adjacent to the Trent-Severn Waterway – situated in a part of the city that locals affectionately call East City. On a nice day, the green space surrounding the PMA is worth exploring on its own. On the grounds of the museum, there is a welcoming play structure for children as well as a heritage-designated pavilion that can provide respite from the sun on a hot, summer day. There are also various walking trails that wind through a forest which wraps itself around Armour Hill. There is plenty of parking in close proximity to the PMA, as well as overflow parking further up the hill towards a look-out which offers beautiful views of the city. If you are looking for other things to see and do during your visit, the Peterborough Lift Lock is a five minute walk from the PMA and is designated as a National Historic Site. For most of its life, the boat lift was considered the highest hydraulic lock system in the world, standing 65 feet tall, as well as the largest structure to be built with unreinforced concrete.

Upon entering the foyer of the PMA, you are greeted by a representative of the museum at their main reception desk. To the right, there are cubbies to leave your belongings – something especially useful for families toting with them everything needed for an afternoon out of the house. To the left, there is a small gift shop that has been curated to include items that mirror whatever the theme of their temporary exhibition is. The selection is varied from boutique and locally produced, to wholesale and affordable. Behind the reception desk there is a slideshow of archival images playing on a loop. The slideshow often provides an opportunity to ask questions about the people and buildings displayed in the archival photographs. Although there are plenty of historical images to be seen in the exhibitions, taking a moment to enjoy conversation with the front desk attendant is a great way to start!

According to Visitor Experience Expert Don, the PMA has changed quite a bit from its originating institution. He explains that it began in 1843 when the Mechanics' Institute was formed – a group who enjoyed studying lectures on history, literature, arts, science and natural history. Personal collections owned by members of the group were shown in shop windows as archaic exhibitions. As more prominent figures entered the fray, and with the blessing of Council, the Town and County of Peterborough Historical Society was formed. Under their guidance, the Victoria Museum was dedicated in 1897, opening at Inverlea (now Inverlea Park) with Catherine Parr Traill as its first honourary Chair. Due to lack of funds required for repairs to the Inverlea building, the museum relocated in 1912 to the Carnegie Library (now the North Wing of City Hall). With a collection that continued to expand, finding physical space to store and exhibit artifacts was an increasing issue. In the early 1960s, the Centennial Committee asked citizens for suggestions for a permanent memorial for Canada's 100th anniversary; the response was clear, the people wanted a museum. In 1967, the Peterborough Centennial Museum was opened. In the late 2000s, the museum rebranded as the Peterborough Museum & Archives – dropping 'Centennial' from the name to avoid confusion regarding what the focus of exhibitions in the museum would be about.

According to the PMA'S website, the museum continued to face storage issues into the 21st century. After completing a renovation to the lobby, entrance and galleries, "…creating additional space was the only solution that would facilitate organizational improvements…" This sparked the beginning of the Museum Renewal Project; starting in 2013, renovation work was completed on the museum's main building, construction of the Curatorial Centre that houses the PMA's Permanent Collection of over 45,000 artifacts, and new exterior cladding on the main building for improved environmental efficiencies. For a facility that was originally constructed in the 1960s, it certainly doesn't feel that way when you walk in - the Renewal Project has done a great job marrying the old with the new.

The galleries

There are two main exhibitions: one is permanent to the PMA, telling a chronological history of Peterborough from before European settlement, through to the Victorian era, as well as a temporary exhibition space that change about four times per year, hosting traveling exhibitions from other museum institutions. The permanent exhibit starts with a territory acknowledgement statement to welcome visitors into a section of gallery themed around the local Indigenous communities that have lived in the area. One of the oldest objects on display can be found here - a projectile point created through lithic reduction used for hunting – dating back 11,000 years!

As I continue through, a prominent theme is immigration – beginning with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian people) who came to the area 4000 years ago and later continued onto New York State. Then came the Anishnaabe (Algonquin people) who were originally from the Lake Superior region. The Peterborough area also had connections to the fur trade, with a trading post located on the north shore of Rice Lake (approximately 20 kilometres south) which helped promote partnerships and alliances between the Europeans and Anishinaabe. As immigration and agriculture developed, the fur trade declined. A shift in focus occurred as European settlers began prioritizing obtaining land rights – with Treaty 20 being signed in 1818 between the Mississauga tribes and the British Crown. Land was surrendered by the Mississaugas in exchange for an annual payment of £740 pounds; although an accord was made, verbal agreements during negotiations that promised First Nations control of waterways was largely ignored; their population was desperately sick, and the money was required to purchase necessities for survival such as food and medicine. Although unjust, Treaty 20 allowed for a new wave of immigration to the area – primarily impoverished Irish tenant farmers who suffered at the end of the Napoleonic Wars from a decrease in the cost of wheat on the market. In 1825 - after Treaty 20 – 2,024 Irish had settled in what would be Peterborough's first major community of residents.

More stories are shared throughout the exhibition that outline the early history of Peterborough once the lumber industry began to grow, and more people came to live in the area. By 1860, Peterborough had changed from an isolated logging town to a service centre for the local agricultural and lumber industries. In 1890, Peterborough was able to lure Edison Electric away from Sherbrooke, Quebec. Its arrival changed the face of the town and ensured its future as a major industrial centre.

The physical environment that Peterborough is situated in is also addressed. Surrounded by lakes and rivers, Peterborough was a natural centre for canoe making. "The Peterborough Canoe" was developed by the Ontario Canoe Company – integrating the best features of the birch bark and dugout canoes. Later, the Peterborough Canoe Company was formed. Peterborough was put on the map as the "Canoe Capital of Canada" and soon, many canoe-making companies emerged. The area also became a tourist hub for all of the recreational activities that could be enjoyed such as visiting beaches, hunting, and fishing.

Other points of interest throughout the exhibition include a series of images taken by the prominent local photographer R.M. Roy. At the PMA is the Balsillie Collection of Roy Studio Images which provides a comprehensive visual history of Peterborough, based on Roy's documentation of prominent local figures, community events, and everyday life. Access to the archives can be achieved my making an appointment with our Archivist. Here, the public has free access to many records that have been retained by the City of Peterborough and members of the community. There are also immersive rooms staged to represent a specific period of time such as the log cabin representing the early shelters of Irish immigrants, as well as a room designed to look like a Victorian parlour. Throughout the exhibition, kids will enjoy various hands-on activities including dress-up clothes, scavenger hunts, stories, puppets, train sets and more.

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Dustin McIlwain