By Robert Mackenzie
Published June 8 2017
Steve Hill has been working in museums since he was 16 years old in Markham Ontario.
“I'd go over to the museum and I kept going back because it was interesting. And the guy that was running it asked me if I wanted a summer job” Hill 58 says as he sits in the Haliburton Highlands Museum where he's worked since 1984.
As a child his father's job caused Hill and his family to move between towns in Southern Ontario but it seemed wherever he lived there were no kids his age. As a result Hill says he grew up surrounded by WWI veterans or “old geezers” as he lovingly calls them. “When you're surrounded by people like that and then you go into the local museum and there are the actual things they're talking about you just start to begin to relate to it even if you didn't live it yourself” he says.
Hill went to Algonquin College in Ottawa for his diploma in museum studies after being promised a permanent job at the Markham museum upon its completion. During his time in college he worked part time at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
So Hill didn't originally envision himself working in Haliburton. After college he went back to Markham but didn't have a job waiting for him as he had originally been told. After a brief stint at the museum in Mooretown Hill found himself in Barrie just finishing his first day on a job documenting a heritage building when he got a call from Haliburton Museum curator and director Ross Carver asking if he was interested in coming up for a job interview.
“I came up for the interview and Mr. Carver and I hit it off right away” Hill says. A few days later he got a call back from Carver saying he got the job. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I thought finally after all these years of part-time here part-time there now I've got something steady.”
Since then Hill has worked on differentiating Haliburton's museum from those of other small towns focusing on connecting locals and their stories to the artefacts and displays. “We try to not just have displays but we try to personalize them with pictures or anecdotes relating to the theme of the exhibit” he says.
“To me the museum is sort of a shrine to the pioneers that broke their back to make the town what it is today. Of course a lot of times certain people don't get fair representation because there's nothing tangible left of them. But ideally what I think is important with our museum is that we try to tie the artifacts in with the local people so those local families are not forgotten” Hill adds.
These local connections are exemplified in the museum’s Dr. E.K. Henderson display. After finding a nameplate from his practice 10 years ago Hill worked leads to find a graduation photo and some biographical information about the doctor. The display now tells the story of how Dr. Henderson wouldn’t stop treating his patients during the flu epidemic until his fingernails turned black and he died of the epidemic himself.
“This is a small display….but now at least to the best of our ability we’ve given him his due” Hill says. “As long as we’re here he’s not going to be forgotten.”
Hill shows that same enthusiasm for every picture and artefact that he’s examined in his time at the museum with the help of his co-workers and “Suzy” his 29-year-old tape measure that he carries in his trouser pocket. (Suzy II I suppose as Hill says that was also the name of his previous tape measure although she didn’t last nearly as long).
And after 42 years Hill still has the same passion for museums as he did listening to the tales of the old geezers growing up.
“I'm not in this for the money. Don't tell council I'd work here for free except I've got to eat and pay my rent” he says.
“There's more to a museum than how many people came to the museum this year. It's important you have visitors come to the museum but you also have to be able to have the opportunity to research the area's history and to repair the artifacts and to take the time to set up decent displays. Otherwise the museum is just another museum.”