Move over, Royal Ontario Museum, with your ancient civilizations and prehistoric creature fossils. Step aside, Canadian Museum of Nature, with… well, more creature fossils. Set aside the dusty artifacts of someone else’s past—local history is where it’s at! Our small but mighty museums here in York Durham Headwaters tell the stories of the people who lived in, worked in, and shaped the communities we call home today. Their artifacts and archives paint a picture of how we as a region collectively came to be. May is Museum Month in YDH, and we want to take a whole 31 days to show off what we’ve got. If you find yourself in York Region in want of fascinating local history, here are some of the wonderful museums waiting for you.
18974 Leslie St., Sharon
This open-air museum, located in the village of Sharon, is home to eight heritage buildings and dwellings, as well as 6,000 artifacts collected as far back as 1918. The Sharon Temple National Historic Site and Museum has been a focal point for life in Sharon and the surrounding township of East Gwillimbury for over a century. Today, it is a National Historic Site, a designation which preserves and protects its architectural significance and its history as one of Canada’s first examples of historic preservation.
Road to Rebellion is Sharon Temple’s current exhibit. Learn about the role of the Children of Peace (a quaker sect which was instrumental in establishing the museum), the Sharon Temple, and the broader community of Sharon during the infamous Rebellion of 1837. The stories of their quest for equality, democracy and responsible government are told in a way that make our predecessors real to us almost two hundred years later. Thanks to the support of the Virtual Museum of Canada, you will be able to explore this exhibit online shortly, too.
If you’re out and about in the community, you’ll want to stop by the East Gwillimbury Public Library, where the Sharon Temple has graciously been allowed to showcase the museum’s unique artifacts and archival documents in display cases. This is a partnership which provides the temple’s seasonal employees with the opportunity to engage in the process of creating their own exhibits—from planning through to implementation—just like the museum does.
Throughout the year, Sharon Temple holds education programs and camps, as well as beloved events that you won’t want to miss. Each summer there is the Heritage Celebration (with local food, music and an historical tour), followed by Canada Day Celebrations in July. In September, there is Illumination (a tradition begun in 1831 in which the building is lit by beeswax candles and filled with music), and finally, and Old-Fashioned Christmas to end the year.
9350 Markham Rd., Markham
The present and the past come together at the Markham Museum. Learn about the history of the City of Markham at this 25-acre attraction, which connects with the community and displays the changes that Markham has experienced over time.
Currently at the museum, there are a number of fascinating exhibits. Markham Moves explores the world of transportation, and teaches children by using activities and play spaces. For those who cannot attend the museum in person, an online version of this exhibit is also available. From the Ground Up showcases amazing archaeological discoveries made on the grounds of the museum itself. What Is Markham explores the changes in the city’s landscape, and the way its people worked, went to school and came together as a community over the past 100 years. You can also take a guided tour of over 30 buildings and structures on the property.
In addition to its exhibits, Markham Museum offers unique family and educational experiences, focusing on the buildings located around the property, exploring technologies such as pottery and metal working, and highlighting the ongoing growth of this fast-paced city. Choose amongst programs for preschoolers and children, teens, families and adults, or check out the museum’s offerings for camps, group and educational programs, and even birthday parties and events.
26557 Civic Centre Rd., Keswick
This heritage showcase was officially opened by Lorenzo Big Canoe, Chief of the Chippewas of Georgina Island. It is a 10-acre site situated on the south shore of gorgeous Lake Simcoe, and is home to numerous historical buildings which interpret the history of Georgina from 1850 to 1920. These buildings include a one-room schoolhouse, a general store, a train station, a blacksmith shop, an apothecary and a backwoods log house. The Georgina Pioneer Village also houses an extensive collection of archival records for the former townships of Georgina and North Gwillimbury, and the Village of Sutton, as well as a number of personal family documents.
Georgina Pioneer Village is a fun and exciting trip back in time, providing visitors with heritage camps, tours, workshops and school visits, among its many activities throughout the season. Like Sharon Temple, there are a number of popular events, including Rise to Rebellion, which is an interactive re-creation of the 1837 rebellion for Grade 7 students in May, Canada Day celebrations, and a Harvest Festival each September (complete with vintage farm equipment, delicious food, children’s crafts, music, yummy apple cider and historical demonstrations). To end the year, the holiday season is celebrated with Old Fashioned Christmas, where the village comes alive with the season as it was in the 19th century.
22 Church St., Aurora
Over a span of 50 years, the Aurora Historical Society has worked hard to develop, preserve and interpret over 16,000 artifacts, objects, photographs, textiles, books and documents—some of which go back as far as 500 BC! Today, the Aurora Museum and Archives showcases the collective stories and experiences of the Town of Aurora with informative and exciting exhibits and programs.
Currently, the museum is offering a number of online exhibits. Town Park: A Community Storybook is supported by the Virtual Museums of Canada, and explores all the ways in which the Town of Aurora has used one tiny plot of land in the centre of town over the past 150 years. This is not just a neighbourhood park; it’s a focal point for the entire community with a compelling history of place. On This Spot: Aurora is an adventure app that you can download and take out into the community to compare today’s landmarks with historic photos.
From the safety of your home, you can watch two documentary films. Swift & Bold: The Queen’s York Rangers was an official selection of the Veterans’ Film Festival 2020, and invites you to discover how deep Aurora’s military roots run. Or, experience the story of how Aurora came to be known as Canada’s Birthday Town by watching a new documentary and exploring an online exhibit.
There are more wonderful museums to explore in York Region. Why not make a day of it by turning your one-stop visit into a full-fledged museum crawl with these other options? Of course, please be sure to check each location for its current status, hours of operations, and COVID-19 guidelines.
21 Renfrew Dr, Markham
134 Main St S, Newmarket
2920 King Rd, King City
15372 Yonge St, Aurora
19 Church St N, Richmond Hill
26061 Woodbine Ave, Keswick
8 Nashville Rd, Kleinburg
8640 Yonge St, Richmond Hill
Story by Katherine Ryalen