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Leacock collection 'in disarray' suffering from long-term 'neglect'

'It is a really valuable asset and we shouldn't take it for granted,' said Coun. Jay Fallis; Council has set aside money for a masterplan to help guide facility's future

According to a 10-year-old figure, the contents of the Leacock Museum - the manuscripts, books, paintings, and other unique pieces from Stephen Leacock’s life - have an insured value of over $3.2 million.

But their worth is not quantifiable in just dollars and cents, says Tom Rose, the collections and program supervisor at the national historic site on the shore of Lake Couchiching.

Despite being invaluable, those interesting and authentic historical items have not been well cared for as time has marched on.

In fact, it’s why Rose was hired in December of 2017 - to help restore order to the chaos and to ensure the storied collection is well loved.

This week, Rose provided city councillors with an update that featured some critical concerns and some positive strides forward.

The critical concerns?

A recent assessment by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) noted Swanmore Hall does not have adequate fire suppression protection and the “infiltration of water” into Swanmore Hall and the Leacock Home is a consistent worry.

Solutions are being investigated but are costly and unlikely to happen anytime soon.

However, the third concern noted by CCI - “disarray (of) the collection” - is something staff are trying to tackle.

It’s not easy.

Rose called it “an agent of deterioration we in the field would describe as neglect for a number of years.”

He told council committee there has been “spotty record keeping” and a lack of attention and care to treasured memorabilia.

For example, he showed a slide featuring a painting “found lying on its back with a mouse nest in the corner” and dappled with what looks to be caulking.

He said the cost of restoring the painting would be costly. Worse, “we don’t know what it is or what its value is to the collection, so it’s not easy to say whether or not it’s worth it.”

They also found an old shotgun tucked away in the back of the storage room. It may have belonged to Leacock’s handyman.

However, it is illegal for the musuem to possess the firearm because nobody on staff has a proper licence. As a result, museum staff surrendered the weapon to police.

Amid file folders and tucked into papers are oddities such as sheet music from the 1880s and other interesting items.

“Each piece of paper has to be reviewed, so this has slowed the process,” Rose noted.

However, he showed some before and after pictures that illustrate the progress that has been made.

“So, however it may sound, this is not a bad news story,” said Rose. “While the reorganization project is extensive … there has been some good progress.”

He said it’s vital to continue the work.

“Historic attractions and museums consistently outrank all other types of museums and events when folks are asked to define a cultural activity,” said Rose, who is happy the city put aside money in this year’s budget to complete a masterplan for the museum and property.

“The city is in a unique position as stewards of this stunning historic gem and taking these findings forward into the masterplan will allow us to keep pace culturally with other municipalities," said Rose.

Coun. Jay Fallis said the city needs to step up to revitalize the museum.

“It is a really valuable asset and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” said Fallis, who noted such facilities help “define the city’s rich culture.”

He said he hopes the masterplan helps address “concerns raised about how we ensure Leacock’s story and the Leacock Museum remains a pivotal story in Orillia’s history.”

Coun Pat Hehn agreed.

“This is such an important part of our culture. I am so pleased to see (staff) moving forward,” said Hehn, who talked about her family’s long and loving relationship with Leacock and his home on Brewery Bay.

Hehn’s mom, an alderman, served on the Leacock board and her sister worked as a guide at the property. She encouraged staff to reach out to former guides and others to get a first-hand glimpse into the unique history of the home.

“If we don’t collect those stories they will be lost forever,” said Hehn.