Disclaimer: What follows is an opinion piece. You are free to agree, or disagree, with what I have to say. All I ask is that you at least consider what you read.
Whew, what a week! Things have really ramped up at Deli Gasta now that our roadside signage has been installed, and I’ve barely been able to surface for air. I have lost complete track of how many cappuccinos I’ve cranked out, but I know it has to be a lot. Outside of work, I’ve recently managed to get chased along a narrow footpath by an aggressive highland cow, and witness a sheep give birth on a cliffside ledge somewhere near Kylerrhea. It was equal parts mesmerizing and horrifying.
O.K., enough of that. Now to business.
There was some big news on the Island history front recently, although in my opinion it was news none too surprising: Founders Hall, near the foot of Prince Street in Charlottetown, has been permanently shelved and will no longer be opening its doors. And to be completely honest, I can’t believe it didn’t come to pass much sooner. Touted as a new age, interactive explanation of Confederation, it opened in the old Intercolonial/Prince Edward Island Railway car shop in 2001. $4-million was dropped on what was hoped would be a winning concept capable of generating oodles of revenue. The only thing is, it flopped – it well and truly flopped.
Founders Hall simply never proved a hit; in fact, in its opening season it only managed to draw a paltry 25,000 visitors. That lacklustre admission, coupled with the expenditure of $4-million dollars to get it up and running, quickly earned it the sobriquet of “Flounders Hall”. It was a name that stuck, and rightly so.
From 2001 to 2012, Founders Hall was operated by Tourism Charlottetown Inc. before being taken over by Charlottetown’s Harbour Authority. Following the sesquicentennial celebrations of the Charlottetown Conference in 2014, the its doors were slated to be shut; however, it was kept operational for another year, pulling in a measly 7,000 visitors. Outdated displays lacking in digital technology have been cited as the reason why the site failed to take flight, and while I’m sure that may have played a small part, I consider it a convenient excuse for a venture that was so far off the mark, it was doomed to fail from the get-go.
As a historian, the affair creates a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I hate to see a site dedicated to interpreting the past shut its doors; but on the other hand, I’ll admit that I’m not sad to see it go. Founders Hall was never what the Island needed. I mean, take your pick – the story of Confederation is everywhere around here (PEI). But a whole interpretive centre dedicated to that fact alone? Entirely superfluous as far as I’m concerned.
The big question now concerns the fate of a significant piece of historic real estate suddenly made vacant. According to what I’ve read, the CADC is in talks with a developer about renting the space, a fact that sends more than a few shivers down my spine. Apparently it is something that will draw people to the waterfront, but the fact that no one will say just what that something is makes me more than a little suspicious. More often than not, whenever developers get involved – especially in the past few years – what we end up with are condos. I have had just about all I can take of those, and I know I ain’t the only one.
So what to do?
Frankly, there’s really only one thing for it: the perfect opportunity has presented itself for provincial powers to step forward and finally create Prince Edward Island’s long-awaited provincial museum. The only province in Canada still lacking such an institution, the matter of establishing one museum to tell the Island’s story has been debated for well over a hundred years now. The closest we’ve managed is the current network of seven sites operated by the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation. Scattered about the Island, each one is devoted to interpreting an aspect of the Island’s heritage, the whole of which is complimented by a goodly number of smaller, community museums overseen by the Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island. But as much as I admire and support the work that these organizations do, we are sorely in need of something larger and overarching. All-encompassing is probably a better term.
But as much as I would love to entertain the notion of a provincial museum rising from the ashes of Founders Hall, and positively salivate at the mere thought of it, I’m certainly not going to hang my hat on that hook for fear of getting it bent out of shape. Why? Because I know full well that our provincial government, despite a plethora of past promises to the contrary, will fail to act on it as they’ve been wont to do. So much bureaucratic lip service has been paid to building a provincial museum that I’ve simply stopped listening. It melts your brain, lowers your IQ, and is basically nothing more than a big old slap in the face to those of us who actually give a damn about heritage and culture. Especially when vast sums are budgeted for unnecessary highway realignments, grassy mounds in Borden-Carleton, and trying to turn the Island into some sort of online Las Vegas.
Or maybe I’m just being cynical.
But anyway, who am I to be pontificating on matters beyond my ken? After all, I’m not one of those people blessed or intelligent enough to have worked my way into a position of authority, a position that allows me to control the destiny of situations such as this. Nope, I’m simply one of the many sitting on the sidelines who knows full well what should be done, and knows that it won’t be. Sigh.
Put me in, coach? I’m ready to play…
PEI History Guy
P.S. – If I had to pick a runner-up to a provincial museum, I would be pleased as punch to have my favourite Saturday morning haunt, the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market, relocate to the premises. It has outgrown its present location on Belvedere Avenue, and I think it would make a terrific addition to the city’s core, much as its counterparts do in places like St. John and Halifax. And just imagine the industry that could be generated by having it open during the summer on days when cruise ships put into port?
P.P.S. – The featured image for this post is taken from Meacham’s 1880 Illustrated Historical Atlas of Prince Edward Island and shows the location of Founders Hall as it appeared in 1880. Best I could do so far from home.