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Janet Reid welcomes the next generation

Submitted on Thursday, August 29, 2019

In 2018, Janet Reid received UofT’s Arbor Award, given to alumni and friends of the university for their tremendous generosity and contribution to the experience of students, faculty, staff and alumni. As the current curator of the Markham Museum and the former manager of museum services at the Textile Museum of Canada, Reid has had many students from the Faculty of Information and other institutions do internships under her supervision. She has given guest lectures, hosted study tour events at the Markham Museum and supported students’ case study assignments. 

When Reid arrived at the Markham Museum just over a decade ago, she was ready to get back into curating after a long stint on the business side of things. The museum – which is a 25-acre space with 20 old buildings and 30,000-plus artifacts  was on the verge of putting shovels in the ground for a new exhibitions building. Change was in the air.  

Markham, northeast of Toronto, is a community which has grown exponentially in recent decades, from 30,000 people in the township area in 1980 to 360,000 today with more than half of the current population of Chinese background. But neither the old nor the new communities were drawn in by the museum, explains Reid, adding that before her arrival, which coincided with a change in leadership, the museum had tried a number of unsuccessful attempts at reinvention, including one failed rebirth as a heritage carnival museum. 

The museum now defines its role as curating the stories of the community. Its mission is to “examine Markham by engaging technologies developed and used by all human cultures to live in the natural world; agriculture and food; engineering; and environmental.” So, for example, the museum, located on the site of a former pottery works, now has its own pottery studio along with exhibits on the topic.  

During its annual Applefest, the museum’s own cider mill demonstrates and produces fresh apple cider for everyone to sample and buy. More food related programming will revolve around newer craft industries and consumption habits. But do not confuse it with your “typical 1960s Ontario pioneer style history museum with staff and volunteers running around making butter and oatmeal cookies,” says Reid. “We’re not doing hokeygeneric history. It’s authentic. And the information is specific, local.” 

Reid held her first jobs in community museums back when she was a student. Much as she enjoyed the work, she knew that jobs weren’t easy to come by so she opted to do her undergrad degree in biochemistry, a field she thought would lead to better employment prospects. But then she watched labs closing down and found she didn’t especially enjoy the work. “I did a lot of soul searching during this period and, I said, I really don’t want to do this so that’s when I applied for the museum studies program,” says Reid. “I knew that you’d never be rich but you could make a living that you’d be happy with.” 

Now, she says, when she talks to students and potential students, she encourages them to consider options like the Faculty’s combined degree program in both museums and information, more specifically archives. “There’s more opportunities and more things you can do,” she says offering up the kind of advice that made her a fitting recipient of an Arbor Award. 

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