An exciting addition to the Muskoka Discovery Centre is offering an entirely new way to tell the story of this entire region.
The $9 million expansion, opening this summer, features a ground-breaking new way of telling Indigenous stories, brings the Eaton family’s classic yacht back to life, and much more.
The facility in Gravenhurst is operated by Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre (MSDC), a non-profit charitable organization that also operates two iconic passenger ships – the Wenonah and the 108-year-old RMS Segwun, the oldest operating passenger steam ship in North America.
MSDC also owns a third ship, the Wanda III, but it hasn’t been operational for many years. The gorgeous 94-foot vessel had been sitting at a dock in Muskoka Bay awaiting restoration for almost 20 years.
“This project started out as a boathouse for Wanda III, and grew from there,” says John Miller, President of the MSDC. “We decided there were so many stories that weren’t being told, and so many opportunities to do exciting work, so we just dug in and started raising funds.”
The 3,000 square-foot expansion features three new exhibits. “Evolving Muskoka: Life on the Edge of the Shield” re-examines the past 250 years of the region’s history, viewing it through a paradox: how disruption, destruction and struggle led to a place renowned for peace, tranquility, and natural beauty.
“It’s a chance to view the history of this region through a different lens,” says Operations Manager/Curator Ann Curley. “The exhibit concludes with a film that traces our history and challenges all of us to do what we can to preserve and sustain this region.”
“Misko-Aki: Confluence of Cultures” is a truly groundbreaking exhibit, a deep dive into the Indigenous presence in Muskoka – in the past and the present day. One of the things that makes this exhibit unique is the involvement of the Indigenous community.
“Indigenous stories have not been well represented in the past, and we wanted to remedy that – it’s a huge gap in the public’s understanding of this region,” says Gary Getson, Chair of the MSDC board. “But we also knew that those stories needed to be told by Indigenous people.”
The MSDC team has spent years working with leaders from local Indigenous communities, building relationships, trust, and a shared understanding. As plans began to develop, historians, curators, language specialists and other experts were also brought in.
Project Director Tim Johnson – a member of the Six Nations of Grand River – served more than ten years as Associate Director of Museum Programs for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
This exhibit, he says, “brings together knowledge and information determined primarily by Indigenous elders, whose peoples inhabited the Muskoka region throughout history and up to the present day.”
The exhibit includes a mix of historic artefacts and modern recreations – many of them commissioned specifically for this project. But it also focuses a great deal on the people who have lived here, past and present.
From steam to green
The third exhibit is the one that started it all: a beautiful boathouse for Wanda III. The ship is lovely to look at, but this is far more than a static exhibit. For the first time in years, Wanda will return to the water with passengers onboard.
“We are just in the final stages of completing sea trials and getting Transport Canada approval, but we anticipate that we will be able to take up to 40 people on intimate cruises of the lakes,” says John.
When Wanda was new, she was the fastest ship on the Muskoka Lakes. Owner Margaret Eaton insisted on it and had her equipped with one of the same steam engines that powered Royal Canadian Navy destroyers. (That took considerable pull in 1915, when Canada was at war, but that was something the widow of department store founder Timothy Eaton obviously possessed.)
That engine is now on display inside the Muskoka Discovery Centre. In its place, the ship has been equipped with state-of-the-art electric power.
More than just a beautiful ship returning to the water, Wanda is now also a display of green technology, John explains.
“Everything we do here is done with an eye to sustainability. We’re on these gorgeous lakes, and we have a responsibility to help preserve and protect them.” Operating in near silence using electric power is an important part of that.
Of course, amid all the excitement of opening, nobody has forgotten about the project that started the MSDC in the first place: passenger cruises aboard gorgeous historic ships.
The Wenonah II and the Segwun are docked majestically across the bay. Segwun sails this season for the first time since 2019, joining her younger sister with both sailing several times each week, giving visitors an unparalleled view of beautiful Muskoka.
“With the expansion to the MDC, we often tell people that some of the most interesting sights in Muskoka are indoors,” John says, adding with a grin: “but the view from the deck of the ships is pretty remarkable as well.”
TEXT A. WAGNER-CHAZALON | PHOTOS SCOTT TURNBULL