Six Questions for Tom Riddolls

MacLachlan Woodworking MuseumThe MacLachlan Woodworking Museum has been a part of Kingston’s tourism and educational scene since it was created by Sandy MacLachlan in 1967 as a Centennial project.  The original building, built in 1853, moved from Lanark County to Princess Street and eventually to Grass Creek Park where it resides today.  The museum houses the most extensive collection of woodworking tools in Canada and offers many learning opportunities to the community.  Tours and special events are geared at both families and school groups, and lectures and workshops are offered to adults.

We had the opportunity to speak with Curator, Tom Riddolls to learn more about how the Museum is run, what kinds of exhibits we can expect to see there and what exciting new events are in the works.  Stay tuned over the next few Tuesdays for more interviews like this as we search to find the hidden gems in our city.

1. Tell us about yourself, your background, your education and how and when you came to be the Curator of The MacLachlan Woodworking Museum.

I went through school to be an artist, I went to OCAD in Toronto and NSCAD in Halifax before ending up in Guelph to study media arts and graphic design. In studio art you always take a balance of art history and that became more and more important to me and I ended up finishing my BA with a double major in art history and studio art. I took a year off to study and work in Spain and to generally find myself, and found that I really enjoyed learning about the history of things, but learning about them through the object itself. I ended up focusing on conservation as that is a field very similar to archeology, but instead of digging in a pit in a field, you dig under a microscope in a lab. I graduated from Queen’s in 2005 from the MA program with a specialty in objects. All this time I put myself through university working as a restoration stonemason for 3 years, a carpenter for 2 and even a traditional sailmaker. Whether I knew it or not, I was gathering a bag of traditional skills, that I would rely on later when looking at the physical world and trying to tease out the historical narratives locked in it. I feel you can learn as much about the spaces and things we build around us as you can from the words we write down.

The MacLachlan was an easy fit – it was the history of Kingston through the utilitarian objects used to build our spaces and the things we furnished them with.

2. Who is The Woodworking Museum’s primary clientele – Kingstonians, tourists, schools? How has this changed over the years? In terms of numbers, how did the museum do this year? Better or worse than expected? How do you plan on building on that?

Museums the world over are suffering – we know that, and museum professionals spend a lot of time thinking about why. But this means we are also working very aggressively to appeal to our audiences and grow them. 2012 was a little better than 2011, which was a little better than 2010. And so far, the numbers for 2013 are up about 20% over last year for the same period. But our job is a little easier than most. Very few people knew the museum was even here – even a part of their community. So just getting that word out is having a positive effect, but museum goers are a finicky bunch. They demand quality and I am happy to say that the City of Kingston recognizes the value of cultural spaces and has funded the museum enough to steadily increase the quality of the exhibits and programs over the last 3 years. Something like a museum takes decades to become a cornerstone of the community, when the children that came on a school group want to share that experience with their children. But we seem to be making inroads and a common response from visitors is that the museum is not what they expected and they were very impressed.

Our growth is planned – we are not simply trying to react one day to the next, but have a game plan that will put us where we want to be a decade down the road. Visitors returning in 2013 that last came in 2011 should see a little of that already in place.

Looking at numbers alone, youth that come as part of a summer camp, school tour or day care represent about 50% of the traffic through the door. The rest tend to be adults above the age of 50. A few years ago, people in their 20s and 30s were unheard of, but we are starting to see a little more of that crowd as our marketing and public face is modernized and speaks their language. As a rural site, just as many tourists come to the MWM as Kingstonians. Travellers from Toronto to Montreal are very common and we seem to be a popular stop for daytrippers from across the border.

3. How is your museum funded? Is government funding enough to keep the facility alive and well or are grants, donations and endowments a major factor?

The museum is funded by the City of Kingston for the most part with some support from the federal and provincial governments as well as its own revenue from programming and admissions. These sources of funding are critical to keeping the museum operating at levels such that it can accommodate the large numbers of group visits while allowing for the behind the scenes work to continue to allow the site to grow and develop.

4. If money were no object, how would you use it to make your facility stand out as a premiere tourist destination in Kingston?

Indoor space is our biggest obstacle right now. The demand for programming and activities is greater than we can accommodate and we are hearing from the public that they want us to provide more learning opportunities such as woodworking for youth, and larger demonstrations. The museum sits on nearly 100 acres of parkland and we are growing those areas of programming that make use of this space such as nature based youth activities and large scale outdoor sculptural works. But the meat and potatoes of any museum happens under the roof. And by growing the physical space we could answer a need we are hearing from the community.

5. Some museums are static in that they display artefacts and other historical objects that don’t necessarily change over time – what steps are taken to keep things fresh and keep patrons coming?

The MWM was like many museums that have unfortunately found themselves in that situation and in 2010 most of the exhibit on display had been there for upwards of 19 years. When we opened in 2013 none of that remained. Over three years we have redeveloped all of the exhibits and each new space has a lifespan attached to it. Permanent exhibits now refer to exhibits that last 6 years, Short term exhibits are 2-3 years and often deal with time sensitive subjects such as the war of 1812 and the upcoming Sir John A. commemorations. We also have a large space dedicated to Temporary shows lasting one season only.

6. What’s the most popular exhibit or event that The MacLachlan Woodworking Museum offers? Why do you think that’s the case? Are there any new initiatives, changes or upcoming exhibits that you are particularly looking forward to?

Last year’s WinterLight was a huge success considering it was the first year it was run. Designed to take the place of the very popular PumpkinFest, which we felt had veered too far off the path of the mandate, WinterLight had big shoes to fill. But through adopting some more modern forms of event planning and listening to what the community was telling us we launched an event that we are looking forward to in December of 2013.

Likely the most exciting new initiative we started for 2013 was our Artist in Residence, Shanye Dark. Shayne is an internationally significant sculptor and the city’s first artist in residence. This has introduced a whole new audience to the museum and introduced new content to our regular visitors. Shayne’s work is large and visually stunning and added a very dynamic element to a site most people wrongfully associate with a collection of dusty woodworking tools!

The MacLachlan Woodworking Museum’s hours are:
Apr 2 – May 17
Tue – Fri 12 – 4 pm, Sat 10 am – 5 pm
May 18 – Sept 2
Tues – Sun 10 am – 5 pm (Closed Mondays)
Sept 3 – Dec 1
Tue – Fri 12 – 4 pm, Sat 10 am – 5 pm

You can find them online on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to NapaneeGal for the photo associated with today’s post.

Danielle Lennon

Danielle Lennon is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. She was the Editor, Community Event Coordinator and Contributor at-large (2008-2018). She is otherwise employed as a section violinist with the Kingston Symphony, violin teacher, studio musician and cat lover. Learn more about Danielle...

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