Jean Sarjeant Looks Back on 20 Years of OMAH

OMAH is featuring members, volunteers, donors, volunteers,and artists on the blog. This post's feature is Jean Sarjeant. She has been a  volunteer and a member of OMAH since the amalgamation of the Orillia Historical Society and the Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery. Jean Sarjeant was a founding member of The Orillia Museum of Art & History and continues to give her time to OMAH as a research volunteer.


OMAH is celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2019. To learn more about the history of OMAH, check out the exhibition OMAH@20, open January 26th- March 31st.


I was one of the instigators of the merger between Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery and The Orillia Historical society.

We got together and decided we need to do something, because my house was getting full of artefacts of people who were passing away and the kids didn’t know what to do with the stuff. I was keeping it in my house until I went and saw Laura Lee who was clerk at city hall and asked her for assistance in finding a place where we could store them. We couldn’t afford to pay storage fees. She knew there was a small room down in the basement of the opera house. One of the biggest collections we had at the time was of Stubley printing.  The room was very small and we filled it up in no time, so we went back to ask for more room. 

She recommended this place, the old Sam Steele building. At the time, the whole upstairs was offices. The Art Gallery had been started on the main floor and it went from there. We did a joined exhibition in 1995 and then another one in 1998. In the meantime we went down to the basement and cleaned it scrubbed it and painted it. It was all coal dust from the old coal furnace. The current day art storage room was a coal bin. The room where the collection is now was where we used to run our children’s programs. There were the old bathrooms in the basement, and they were filthy. We all pitched in to clean it up, with our rubber gloves. One of the more significant acquisitions to the collections was the Chipsham clothing collection. I mean, it’s a major one because it had all her hats, gloves, and purses. Someone found out we were collecting wedding dresses, so we got a lot of those from way back. Once the word got out, people would phone and let us know what they had and if it had to do with Orillia we would take it!

I was chairman during the renovations so I was involved with moving the collection. I worked five days a week, for five years, all on volunteer time. Richard Oatway, our treasurer, made arrangements for storage on Old Barrie road for some of the stuff. We had to leave it there until the building was finished, we had no other choice. We had moved some of it Sue Mulcahy’s office across the street.

We were getting ready for the opening (May 7th, 2005) and the big fire was next door (April 26th, 2005). We were standing outside at 2 in the morning  on the street watching them burn and thinking we were next. The flames were so close, but thanks to Ramara fire department for watering our building. You can still see the scorch marks on our windows.  If they hadn’t done that, we would have gone up in flames. The fire was ten days before the opening. It was pretty hectic. We had to clean up the smoke damage inside, but we opened.  I was in tears when we opened, I still get teary eyed thinking about it. We haven’t looked back since.

It’s been exciting, its been tiring, but we’re still here.  We kept it going, we understood we needed to keep it going, because it was the only place in town who had a collection of any kind.

To learn more about becoming a volunteer with OMAH, click here. If you would like your OMAH story featured on our website, please email