The Correctional Service of Canada Museum (also known as Canada’s Penitentiary Museum) has reopened its doors for the season and is already off to a record start.
Curator Dave St. Onge says that 1,532 visitors have been through the museum since May 1, which represents a gain of 14 percent over the same time period last year.
“On our first day, we had 47 visitors, including international folks from the Netherlands, Dominican Republic, Romania and Denmark. So it’s nice to see that we’re having an influence on an international level.”
Dave and his team have been busy preparing for the thousands of guests that visit the museum, which showcases artifacts from across Canada depicting the vast history of federal corrections.
“We’ve been busy over the winter months making some changes to exhibits. We had more than 70,300 visitors last year, and expect to see at least that many again in 2018.”
The museum is housed in the former warden’s residence of Kingston Penitentiary and was built in 1873 using inmate labour.
Visitors go through at their own pace and can ask questions of the staff and volunteers – many of whom have retired after years of service with CSC or the National Parole Board.
“Without our volunteers, the experience would not be the same for the guests - we are constantly getting feedback on how much people enjoy hearing the stories from the volunteers,” says Dave, noting that the museum has been consistently ranked a top attraction in the Kingston, Ontario, area on the popular travel website TripAdvisor.
When asked about the most interesting item in the museum, Dave says many folks are intrigued by the “escape trays” on display – food trays that were used as part of an escape plan by an inmate at Millhaven Institution in 1980.
Guests can get the details about that incident in a room focusing on contraband, which has confiscated items that are not authorized/permitted in a prison, and some inventions that demonstrate the ingenuity of inmates over the years.
Another popular room contains full-scale reconstructions of an early 19th century cell and a modern-day cell, adds Dave.
“One of our goals here, in addition to preserving our history, is to show the evolution of corrections over the decades. A great example of that is the room which contains devices that were used for punishment prior to the 1960s -- before the focus of incarceration evolved from punishment to more of a rehabilitation base. It’s a great way to fulfill our mandate of educating the public about federal corrections.”
Visitation and interest in the museum has grown steadily year after year. The recent spike in popularity can be attributed in large part to the tours of the now-shuttered Kingston Penitentiary (KP), offered by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission (as a separate attraction from the museum).
The best part? Fifty percent of the proceeds from the tours of KP are donated to the local United Way. In collaboration with the museum’s partner - the Friends of the Penitentiary Museum group - additional displays have been added inside KP to enhance the experience for visitors over there.
The museum is open daily from May 1 to October 31, and is located in Kingston, Ontario.