by Edith Cody-Rice
I sat down for an interview in the office of Michael Rikley-Lancaster on Monday, May 30. The Executive Director and Curator of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum obviously loves his job and is enthusiastic about the accomplishments of his staff and volunteers.
Michael was raised in Chatham Ontario and developed an early interest in museum work when he did a high school co-op placement at the Chatham Kent Museum. He followed up with three years of studies at Fanshaw College in London, Ontario, majoring in fine arts, studio and history. He focused on print making and performance art.
In 1998, Michael moved to Ottawa where he entered the museum studies program at Algonquin College. He was introduced to Almonte in 1999 when he came out to the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum with a teacher who had volunteered to install and curate a fashion exhibition. In Michael’s opinion it was a fabulous exhibition by the artist Jennifer Ryder-Jones. Michael wore a jacket made of chip bags to the opening. He fell in love with the the museum and with Almonte because of its rich mill history and focus on contemporary art.
After completing his education, Michael worked briefly for the National Archives, then moved to the Carp Diefenbunker as assistant to the director while he lined up a job at the Canadian Museums Association. The Candian Museums Association operates a Young Canada Work program that hires students to work in museums and offers international internships. There he stayed for five years until he was offered a job as Curator at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum. That job morphed over the nine years he has been here in Almonte into his current position as Executive Director and Curator of the museum.
Michael’s proudest achievement is the restoration of the portion of the Rosamond Mill that is now the textile museum. The building was in poor shape when it was acquired by the textile museum in the early 1990’s. The masonry on the outside of the building was in very rough shape. Through innovative partnerships and provincial and federal grants Michael arranged the repointing of the masonry, repairs to original doors and windows, insulation, heating and air conditioning in the whole gallery and an accessible ramp and elevator and automatic door openers. The textile museum partnered with the Algonquin College Heritage Masonry program to obtain free labour from students repointing the masonry in return for the opportunity for the students to work on a heritage site. He also partnered with Algonquin College Museum studies program to work on the museum’s permanent exhibition “Fabric of a Small Town”.
Most of the projects at the museum are funded through provincial and federal grants which have totaled $1,200,000 since Michael took over the curatorship. The town of Mississippi Mills provides $43,000 yearly which constitutes about 20% of the museum operational budget and the community at large contributes to smaller projects such as the “adopt a window” program that paid for repairs to the museum windows.
Some of the many major events and activities that make Michael proud of his museum are
- Fibrefest, a festival of that started out with 30 vendors and now has over 100.
- the Bayou Tapestry – a replica in needlepoint of the full tapestry, that has been displayed twice at the museum and attracted over 5000 visitors
- the Japan Exhibition by Japanese artist Reiko Sudo. The artist was very happy with that exhibition and the Japanese ambassador attended the opening to great fanfare. For this exhibition, the museum partnered with the Canadian History Museum and the History Museum’s Alan Elder guest curated the show.
Michael also loves the mill workers’ reunion. As the Rosamond Mill operated until the 1980’s, there are still former employees who remember their work there. Although the project was started with some trepidation, it has become tremendously successful.
Out of the reunion grew the memory project. Volunteer Maureen McVey compiled a list of millworkers and recorded the stories of some fifty of them. When they came to their interviews, many mill workers brought items from their work days and either left them with the museum or indicated an intention to leave them to the museum. Michael is hoping to do a documentary about mill workers’ lives. He points out that the mills and agriculture were the two lynch pins of the economy in Mississippi Mills. The majority of the urban community worked in the 8 mills.
The launch of the digital edition of the Almonte Gazette, the local newspaper that closed in 2007 is one of the most important projects that the museum has undertaken. The Mississippi Mills Library had a database of the Gazette going back to the mid 1800’s but didn’t have the capacity to scan or photograph it. The museum purchased digital recognition software and worked with volunteers to put it into a searchable format. It has become very popular. The project was funded through federal and provincial grants and about 10,000 people per month search the database.
Asked what gives him the greatest satisfaction, Michael cites the fact that most of the strategic plan has been accomplished during his tenure.
Michael is clearly committed to the town, the museum and his volunteers. He plans to live in the vicinity for the foreseeable future and is the 2014 Mississippi Mills Cultural Achievement Award winner.