by Ian Shantz | October 2023
Rays of sunshine broke through a canopy of trees in what can only be described as a fairytale stretch of road in Kitchener’s south end.
The setting — lush green forest hugging the driving lanes along Mill Park Drive near the former village of Doon — is that tranquil, that beautiful.
It’s easy to understand why the idyllic surroundings served to inspire landscape painter Homer Watson in his nearby home studio.
To many locals, the name Homer Watson is synonymous with a thoroughfare running between Highway 401 and the edge of downtown Kitchener, perhaps symbolic considering the path paved by the iconic Canadian artist.
“At the turn of the century, he was one of the country’s leading artists. He was our artist before the Group of Seven,” said Homer Watson House & Gallery director and curator Cathy Masterson.
Purchased by Watson when he married in 1881 — and the place he called home until he died in 1936 — Homer Watson House and Gallery is but one of many treasured museums and galleries found in Waterloo Region.
From castles to Conestoga wagons, a historically significant Toyota Corolla, futuristic digital realms and a collection of Cher’s clothing, the options are as varied as they are significant to the very fabric of the region.
Here are seven museums and galleries worth the price of admission, including a few celebrating major longevity milestones.
Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery
June 19, 1993 was the day the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery opened to the public. Some three decades later, the party is on as organizers gear up for 30th-anniversary celebrations.
The gallery located in Uptown Waterloo continues as Canada’s only art gallery exclusively dedicated to exhibiting and collecting contemporary Canadian ceramic, glass, enamel, and stained-glass artworks.
“We have a unique niche,” executive director and chief curator Denis Longchamps said while showing me through the gallery’s temporary robotic clay exhibit exploring new methods in architectural ceramics.
The gallery attracts some 20,000 visitors annually, including yours truly. In 2021 upon moving back to the region with my wife, we visited the gallery for the first time and purchased a stained-glass kaleidoscope piece made by Sault Ste. Marie artist John Cooper, one of hundreds of Canadian-made works displayed and available for purchase on-site.
Three new exhibits are currently open, including one paying direct homage to the gallery’s first 30 years.
25 Caroline St. N. Waterloo
Like its clay-and-glass pal, THEMUSEUM is marking a significant milestone; the downtown Kitchener museum celebrates its 20th year in operation in 2023.
A future-forward concept called EYEPOOL is the centre’s new permanent digital immersive gallery – a 1,000 sq. ft. gallery space outfitted with 14 state-of-the-art projectors. EYEPOOL’s first experience, Impossible Geometrics, explored elements of visual design, interaction and play through 10 unique audiovisual worlds. it’s current exhibit entitled IYINISIWIN is is rooted in Indigenous wisdom, and unveils the profound intelligence, knowledge and wisdom displayed in the natural world.
THEMUSEUM’s four levels of temporary and permanent exhibitions appeal to a range of ages and interests. During a recent visit, for instance, I tried lying on a bed of nails – and lived to tell about it.
10 King St. W., Kitchener
Waterloo Region Museums (Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum, Schneider Haus, McDougall Cottage)
The colourful exterior walls that greet visitors upon arrival at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum tell a story and they’re only one small part of the property, making this museum a must-do for locals and visitors alike.
The museum bearing the name of Waterloo Region’s longest-serving regional chair opened more than a decade ago and is the largest community museum in the province. The main gallery covers “15,000 years of human history,” according to a staffer, with countless pieces dedicated to heritage specific to the region, while the second gallery showcases local and traveling exhibits from around the world.
From the “you just never know what you’ll see” files, a 1989 Toyota Corolla on display is the eighth Corolla manufactured at the automaker’s Cambridge plant and the first from that plant to be sold to the public.
My wannabe future home, the Waterloo Region Hall of Fame, can be found on the second floor of the museum and pays tribute to some of the area’s most influential people. There’s also a war memorial that offers a virtual list of the names of those from Waterloo County/Region who gave their lives for their country.
Other region-operated sites include Doon Heritage Village, sharing property with the Ken Seiling museum and set to re-open to the public in 2025, the 1858-built McDougall Cottage in Cambridge and the Schneider Haus National Historic Site in Kitchener.
10 Huron Rd, Kitchener (Ken Seiling museum)
466 Queen St. S. (Scheider Haus)
466 Grand Avenue S. (McDougall Cottage)
Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery
The Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery has certainly outgrown its humble beginnings – it started in a bicycle shed behind Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute.
From those early days – the gallery also was later housed in a church meeting hall — it has grown to become the region’s oldest and largest collecting public art gallery.
With a permanent home inside the Centre In The Square since 1980, the gallery today plays an integral role in connecting people through nationally recognized exhibitions and programs.
The gallery’s permanent collection boasts more than 4,300 primarily contemporary works in a variety of media. It’s current exhibits includes Part 2 of SOS: A Story of Survival – a three-part exhibition exploring what survival is, what it looks like and what it means to survive.
101 Queen St. N., Kitchener
A castle built for “the flax and linseed oil king of Canada” is as extravagant as one might expect.
Named after the Scotland birthplace of James Livingston, Castle Kilbride can be found on a well-kept property that also houses township administration offices in the heart of Baden in Wilmot Township.
Visitors can roam the home and peer into prestigious Victorian-era bedrooms and dining rooms while marveling at the intricate detailing and artwork within the mansion. Of particular interest is the variety of murals and paintings done in the Renaissance Revival style known as “trompe l’oeil,” a French term for “trickery of the eye.” This style employs a realistic rendition of objects, creating a three-dimensional effect.
There are special events at the castle throughout the year, including upcoming ghost walks and the ever-popular Christmas at the Castle beginning Nov. 15.
60 Snyder’s Rd. W., Baden
Fashion History Museum
If there’s one museum in the region that’s always in fashion … well, you guessed it, it’s the Fashion History Museum. Located inside the former post office in the Cambridge village of Hespeler, the museum boasts more than 12,000 items related to fashion throughout history, from Ancient Rome to modern designer clothing.
The museum’s mainstay is its 300 Years of Fashion, taking visitors on a visual journey featuring 40 examples of fashion over three centuries.
The Wearing Waterloo exhibition, on display through to Jan. 2024, showcases local-to-the-region fashions from 1973 to today including such names as Tiger Brand, Galt Knitting Co. and Kaufman Rubber Company. At one point in time, museum board chair and co-founder Kenn Norman said, Waterloo was the third-largest region for clothing manufacturing in Canada.
“The Bead Goes On” features eight of Bob Mackie’s designs for Cher and is on display as part of five exhibitions for 2023.
“We’re so diverse,” Norman said of the museum. “It speaks for everybody.”
74 Queen St. E., Cambridge
Homer Watson House & Gallery
Among the many incredible works of legendary Canadian painter Homer Watson on display at the Homer Watson House & Gallery in Kitchener (formerly Doon) is his first painting, created when he was just 15 years old.
‘Swollen Creek’ depicts his younger sister, Phoebe, alongside a young neighbour.
Watson, who had no formal art training, eventually moved away from painting figures and found his true calling in landscape art. His celebrity was solidified some 10 years after starting his art career when he sold his painting The Pioneer Mill to the governor-general of Canada as a gift for Queen Victoria in 1880. The queen acquired a second piece one year later and soon after Watson bought the house that is now Homer Watson House & Gallery and married his sweetheart, Roxanna Bechtel.
The house and gallery are home to an extensive Watson collection and numerous ongoing exhibitions, workshops and events.
1754 Old Mill Rd., Kitchener
We said seven but here’s a great No. 8: Cambridge Art Galleries has been emphasizing “diversity, access, and innovation” since 1977. Part of Idea Exchange (the name of the city’s libraries), you can visit the galleries located at the library’s Queen’s Square and Preston Gallery locations.