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Sarnia lacks museum, and is unlikely to get one

Cathy Dobson Sarnia has a heritage committee that collects old photos and designates important historic buildings so their facades can be preserved.

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia has a heritage committee that collects old photos and designates important historic buildings so their facades can be preserved.

The city has a very active Historical Society that operates a popular website documenting Sarnia’scolourful past in stories and photo galleries.

Rick Smith
Rick Smith

But Sarnia lacks a museum to showcase its accomplishments and is unlikely to ever have one, history buffs say.

“Museums aren’t money-makers and it’s hard to operate one with volunteers,” says Rick Smith, one of 14 heritage committee members.

“There’s no political will in today’s climate for one. The ongoing costs are prohibitive,” he said.

Even if a benefactor were to give the city a building for a museum the day-to-day overhead would discourage Sarnia council from establishing one, agrees Jessie Rabbitt, another committee member.

Jessie Rabbitt
Jessie Rabbitt

“I do think there’s a great interest in the community about our history,” she added. “There’s just no strategy to establish a museum.”

Members of the heritage committee were at City Hall and Lambton Mall recently to mark heritage week with a display of old Sarnia photographs.

A steady stream of people stopped to look at pictures of streetscapes from years gone by, statuesque mansions that have been torn down and hotels and resorts that are long gone.

“We get all sorts of memorabilia given to us,” said chairman Wayne Wager. “We put it in boxes and store it at City Hall. The city really should have a museum. There’s no doubt about it. It’s just never got off the ground.”

Sarnia does have Stones ‘n Bones, a specialty museum that TripAdvisor consistently ranks as the #1 thing to do in the city.

And a small historical museum did open in 2002 on Davis Street for a few years but shut down for lack of resources and dwindling volunteer help.

In 2012, the Sarnia Historical Society reported that it had 2,000 artifacts and nowhere to put them. Everything was boxed and stored in containers for two years, then turned over to the Lambton Heritage Museum in Grand Bend.

That’s where valuable remnants of city’s past continue to sit, stowed away in a municipality an hour away.

In 2015, a small group of volunteers breathed new life into the historical society and launched a website with content and photographs spanning the centuries.

The website ( has proved very popular, says President Ron RealeSmith.  During a typical seven-day stretch in February the site had 4,800 visits.

Building and maintaining a virtual museum requires a lot of volunteer hours but is relatively inexpensive, RealeSmith said.

Establishing a bricks and mortar museum is another thing entirely.

“A museum is not something that can be run or funded by private citizens,” he said. “It is something that the city as a whole needs to want, council approves and money is allotted.

“I don’t know if there is that willpower to have it accomplished … protecting our history is a costly endeavour.”

However, given the traffic volume on the website, RealeSmith said he is convinced Sarnians value their history.

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