Major facelift underway at the Oil Museum of Canada

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The designer of the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs, Ian Rutherford, stands in the middle of the building, looking out over the working oil fields. Over the years, the wall of windows was covered to protect the exhibits. They'll be revealed in the renovation since new technologies will stop the UV rays from entering and damaging artifacts.

The six month reno will return the building to its roots

A major renovation now underway at the Oil Museum of Canada will renew the unique original architecture of the 60 year-old building.

That according to Andrew Meyer, general manager of cultural services in Lambton and Laurie Webb, the manager of museums with the county.

Construction on the $880,000 renovation began this week and is expected to take until at least June.

The museum has a storied history. Members of the Lambton County Historical Society and a committee working on a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first commercial oil well in Oil Springs first came up with the idea in 1956, Webb says. The group joined forces and came up with a plan.

Soon, a modern new building designed by Ian Rutherford, was under construction for a cost of $100,000. Webb says about $18,000 of that was raised in the community and she told Oil Springs councillors in a recent presentation the village contributed $16,000 to the development of the 10-acre site.

“The committee really wanted a modern facility and curtain wall window for a key feature that overlooked the still operating oil fields,” says Webb. “The fundraising efforts of the time noted that the building was constructed with modern petroleum by products, plastic metal flooring, glazed brick wall, the glass curtain walls, close to historic roots of the industry outside which ultimately resulted in the production of all these items inside.”

Webb says you could stand on one side of the building and see right through it. Over the years partitions and curtains were used to block off the windows because museum curators didn’t want the exhibits to be damaged.

But with new technology, Meyer says the new window walls will be covered with UV protection to reduce the damage of the sun.

“We’re actually looking to move back to a lot of the same ideas, architectural concepts and exhibit ideas that were in play back in 1960. It really was, and it is a progressive museum. And we’re excited about some of the renovation work that’s happening in some of our proposed exhibit renewal plans,” says Meyer.

Webb says the exhibits will be based on the nine important themes the first backers of the museum proposed, such as the geology of oil, how Indigenous people used oil, the 19th century discovery of oil, the international reach of Lambton’s oil drillers, the people who shaped the industry, as well as the history of Oil Springs and the oil boom.

She adds the exhibits will be interactive “including an exciting new virtual reality experience where visitors can put on VR (virtual reality) goggles and be able to dive into the Williams well to explore the underground geology of the area.”

he exhibits will be changed on a regular basis, Webb adds, so people can see many of the 9,000 exhibits the Oil Museum has in storage in the basement.

That basement storage also needs some attention, says Meyer. “Part of the project, we will also be excavating the full perimeter of the building; there has been some water penetration over the years – which happens with failing mortar and brick – and we will be completely waterproofing the basement in order to ensure that the collection remains protected.”

Meyer expected the construction to begin in early February and continue until late June or July. He hopes after that, the museum will be able to show off the changes to the public, perhaps during Black Gold Fest.

It’s not clear how the pandemic will continue to affect gatherings into the summer, but it is not likely the event to reopen the Oil Museum will draw the same crowd as the opening did in 1960.

The grand opening then featured a giant barbecue with 2,000 people in attendance. There were scores of provincial politicians on hand including the Ministers of Highways, and Travel and Publicity. The Lt. Governor was also there to mark the occasion.
Meyer says the people in the crowd “really underscores the importance of this very progressive museum in the middle of the century, to the local community, to the oil industry, to the nation, as a matter of fact, as a National Historic Site.

“It’s that energy and enthusiasm from 1960 that we’re looking to infuse into this project. And certainly, the importance to the community and to the county underscored the need to continue to renew this building.”