Nfld. & Labrador

Museum association 'blindsided' by impending closure of Railway Coastal Museum

News that the City of St. John's would be closing the Railway Coastal Museum came as a shock to the Museum Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, which says there was zero consultation with them — and they have a lot of questions.

'We are gobsmacked' by lack of consultation, says association president

The Railway Coastal Museum in St. John's was opened in 2003. The building was constructed in 1903. (Railway Coastal Museum/Facebook)

News that the City of St. John's would be closing the Railway Coastal Museum came as a shock to the Museum Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, which says there was no consultation with them about the decision — and they have a lot of questions.

Teresita McCarthy, president of MANL, says the group is "gobsmacked."

"I think it's fair to say that the reaction was shock. It took us a couple of days to kind of take it in, because there had been zero consultation and the Railway Coastal Museum is part of our membership, and we felt that we had been blindsided."

In late November, Mayor Danny Breen said the city will close the museum on Water Street in an effort to narrow the gap on its fiscal deficit this year and balance next year's budget.

"When we go through the budget this year, we're looking for efficiencies," Breen told reporters Thursday. "We've been looking at the Railway Coastal Museum for the past number of years. Efforts have been made to increase the number of visitors there. They've been unsuccessful."

The Railway Coastal Museum opened its doors in 2003 under the umbrella of the Johnson Family Foundation, which later turned it over to the City of St. John's. Breen said the museum saw around 8,600 visitors in 2019, down from more than 13,000 in 2015.

There are so, so, so many questions.- Teresita McCarthy

In a media release Tuesday, MANL listed a series of questions it has about how the decision was made, including when the museum was handed over to the city and what the governance structure of the museum actually is.

McCarthy said the Railway Coastal Museum is a registered not-for-profit, as well as a registered company, meaning it has to have a board of directors. It is also a National History Site of Canada, constructed in 1903.

"The board, to my knowledge, has not met in close to two years, so if you're a registered charity, you're duly bound to meet several times a year. And why the governing board has not met certainly is very suspect, if I might say," she told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

"We don't know when the City of St. John's took ownership of the museum, but over and above all of that, over and above the fact that it's a charity, over and above the fact that it's a registered company, you gotta ask yourself the other question: what's going to happen to the artifacts? Where is the collection going? Where are the exhibits going?"

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen says closing the museum was a tough but cost-effective decision for the city. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

According to Breen, the former board of directors approached the city in 2018 about taking over day-to-day operations, with the city appointing a new board consisting of city staff and a council member.

The museum has 40 themed exhibits, a virtual museum, artwork and displays highlighting the history of the railway beds in Newfoundland and Labrador.

McCarthy also said the museum is also listed on Trip Advisor, a popular travel destination website, as the 25th most popular thing to do in the capital city.

The city said attendance at the museum isn't high, and the building will be reused — but McCarthy has questions about that, too.

The first train from the Reid Newfoundland Railway Co. station departed on June 1, 1903. (Railway Coastal Museum/Facebook)

"It is an incredible building. There is so much history, such a legacy in that building, it is well utilized, and in 2018, there was 10,526 people who visited that museum," she said.

"And you might say, 'Well, Teresita, that's not a lot of people.' Well I'm telling you that in Newfoundland and Labrador there are many museums who would envy those numbers.… Our capital city has oodles of things to do, and for people to want to go to that museum, it means that it's current, it means that it's popular, it means that it has a message that people want to hear."

Artifacts, history are 'irreplaceable'

The city said last month the museum's closure will save $200,000 in 2021.

In 2018, McCarthy said, the museum brought in a little over $356,000 in revenue, with $200,000 of that coming in from rent. But, she said, the CN Pensioners and Archive were removed from the building — MANL is asking who made that decision — meaning that revenue was lost.

"So who decided on that?" McCarthy said.

In addition, McCarthy wonders what will happen to the historical artifacts and exhibits that are in the building.

"It's not like if you bought my home tomorrow and I left you all the furniture, but if you didn't like my couch you could throw it out and buy another one. The things in this museum are irreplaceable," she said.

"They are artifacts. They came from our history. Where are they going? Who is paying to move them? Who is deaccessioning them? There are so, so, so many questions that come into play."

McCarthy said MANL is concerned about where the history of things like the "Newfie Bullet," for example — a defunct passenger train that crossed Newfoundland until the late 1960s — will now be taught.

"The Railway Coastal Museum protects, preserves and presents our railway history and our coastal boat history, so you have to ask yourself the burning question: if they are not celebrating that, if they are not preserving that, if they are not telling that story, who's filling that gap? Where is that history being told, anywhere else in the province, to that extent?" she said.

"And the answer is, nowhere. So they're taking that vital part of our history and just basically closing it off."

Breen said the city is also listening to requests from across the province surrounding the museum's available artifacts as other groups continue to tell the story of the province's railway.

"We're looking through that, and looking at ways that we can use technology to improve how we can reach out to people with the story of the Newfoundland railway."

City aiming to preserve building's history in new uses: Breen

Breen said the museum will remain open until the end of January, and he hopes to announce the new use of the building before the end of the year. He said the city still plans to incorporate the history of the railway and the Johnson family's contributions in whatever comes next.

He added that his office will be contacting the museum association and railway pensioners for their input.

"This is an important heritage building to the city, but it's also one that we need to make sure that is purposed properly for the future development of the city."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Zach Goudie

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