History of the Dundas Museum

A museum is more than a building

A museum not only tells stories-it also has its very own story to tell. Our story includes the Dundas residents, who were ahead of their time, in their vision for the purpose-built museum founded in 1956.

Founding a museum: Thinking about the future of the past

Dundas has always been proud of its history. The sheltered valley and waterways have attracted some of Ontario’s earliest settlements, from indigenous First Nations groups, to Loyalist refugees from America. In the 19th century, Dundas also became a regional model of the industrial revolution. The massive factories and mills supplied unique new products to Canada and the world, leaving their mark on the town and on our modern way of life.

In the mid-twentieth century, the town’s residents realized they needed to save their heritage. The historical research of local reporters prompted the following headline in the March 13th, 1941 Dundas Star: “Suggest Local Museum to Safeguard Records.” Around this idea, a diverse band of citizens began to gather. They initiated the writing of the town’s history, began to gather historical records, and founded the Dundas Historical Society in 1945.

Two of the most dedicated collectors were Henry and H. Graham Bertram, a father and son duo of industrial magnates. Their collection of Dundas-related records soon began to spill out of their own company offices. A dedicated space was needed – and only the best would do.

With a donation of land from Della Pirie, and financial support from the Bertrams and an enthusiastic citizenry, the long-awaited museum broke ground in 1955. Officially opening on April 21, 1956, the new Dundas Historical Society Museum was a remarkable building for its time – as one of Ontario’s rare purpose-built museums, the designers used cutting-edge building technology to render it fireproof and climate-controlled. In addition, all of the collections were also protected by display cases donated by the Royal Ontario Museum.

The inimitable Olive Newcombe was the museum’s first curator.

Onwards and upwards: Expansions and additions

The present museum complex is the result of several additions and expansions to the 1956 structure. In 1974, Dundas’ first designated heritage building, the 1848 Doctor’s Office, was moved onto the museum grounds. In 1975, the museum purchased the Pirie House, its 1873 next-door neighbour, in anticipation of future growth.

Due to healthy development in the collections and use, the museum building itself has expanded twice, firstly in 1963 in order to add an extra gallery and some storage space. The most recent renovation in 2012-2013 has transformed and completely integrated both the original museum and the Pirie House. The result is a fully accessible multi-purpose facility, that can accommodate and host both educational and community functions.

We believe the current museum honours the foresight and intention of its founders. You can find out more about their stories at the museum and as a matter of fact, many of their own family papers and possessions are now a part of the museum’s collections!

Key dates in our history

1941 Dundas Star article suggests the idea of a community museum
1945 Dundas Historical Society is founded
1954 Della Pirie donates garden land – on which to build a museum
1955 Dundas Historical Society Museum breaks ground
1956 Museum opens to the public
1962 Museum is incorporated as a charitable non-profit organization
1963 A second gallery and storage area are added
1974 The 1848 Doctor’s Office is moved from King Street to the museum grounds
1975 Pirie House is purchased by the museum in anticipation of future growth
2006 50th Anniversary permanent exhibition Cradled in the Valley: Stories of Dundas opens
2006 The museum becomes known as the Dundas Museum & Archives
2011 The Ontario Trillium Foundation and Dundas Lioness Club support the installation of high-tech movable shelving, enabling further growth in collections
2012 Major renovation and integration project breaks ground
2013 Reconceived Dundas Museum & Archives opens to the public