Cross Paths With Sharon A. Burwell


Sharon A. Burwell: A Lifelong Journey of Curiosity and Creativity


In the world of museums and cultural preservation, there are individuals whose passion and dedication shine brightly, leaving a lasting impact on the way we understand and appreciate history. Sharon A. Burwell is one such luminary figure in the realm of museum curation and preservation. With a career spanning decades, she has not only shaped the landscape of the Mattawa Museum but has also contributed significantly to the broader world of heritage preservation. Her journey is one of relentless curiosity, unyielding dedication, and boundless creativity.

Early Years and the Spark of Curiosity

Sharon A. Burwell’s journey into the world of museums and cultural preservation began in the unassuming town of Mattawa, Ontario. Born and raised in this picturesque town, she was surrounded by the rich history and natural beauty of the area from a young age. Growing up, she often spent her weekends exploring the forests and historical sites that dotted the landscape, developing a deep appreciation for both nature and heritage.

One of her earliest memories is of a visit to the Mattawa Museum, where her fascination with history and culture was ignited. It was within the walls of this small, community-driven institution that Sharon first felt the allure of artifacts and the stories they told. She recalls being captivated by the exhibits that showcased the town’s Indigenous heritage, the fur trade era, and the pioneers who settled in the region. This visit would mark the beginning of a lifelong journey.

Education and Early Career

Fuelled by her newfound passion, Sharon A. Burwell pursued higher education in history and museum studies. She graduated with honors from the University of Toronto, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in History with a focus on Canadian Indigenous history. Her thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and she continued her academic pursuits by obtaining a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the prestigious University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.

During her time in Leicester, she had the opportunity to work with world-renowned experts in museum curation and preservation. These experiences honed her skills and broadened her perspective on the role of museums in society. Sharon’s commitment to preserving the past while engaging with the present became evident as she delved into various aspects of museum management, including collections management, exhibition design, and community outreach.

Returning to Mattawa

After completing her studies, Sharon A. Burwell felt a strong pull to return to her roots in Mattawa. She recognized the untapped potential of the Mattawa Museum as a hub for connecting the community with its rich history. Armed with her academic knowledge and a passion for her hometown, she returned to Mattawa with a vision.

In 1995, Sharon officially joined the Mattawa Museum team as a curator. Her arrival marked a turning point in the museum’s history. With unwavering dedication, she began revitalizing the institution’s exhibits, breathing new life into the artifacts and stories that lay dormant. Her goal was not only to showcase the town’s history but also to foster a sense of pride and belonging among its residents.

A Vision Realized

Under Sharon’s leadership, the Mattawa Museum underwent a remarkable transformation. She curated innovative exhibits that brought history to life, utilizing modern technology and interactive displays to engage visitors of all ages. One of her notable achievements was the “Voices of Mattawa” project, which collected oral histories from the town’s residents and integrated them into the museum’s exhibits. This initiative not only preserved the voices of the past but also celebrated the living history of Mattawa.

Sharon’s dedication to inclusivity and diversity was evident in her efforts to highlight the contributions of Indigenous communities to the region’s history. She worked closely with local Indigenous leaders and artists to create exhibits that honored their heritage and shared their stories. Her commitment to reconciliation and cultural understanding was a driving force behind these initiatives.

Beyond the Museum Walls

Sharon A. Burwell’s impact extended far beyond the walls of the Mattawa Museum. She was a tireless advocate for heritage preservation in the broader community. She collaborated with local schools to develop educational programs that aligned with the curriculum, bringing history to life for students in the region. Her commitment to fostering a love for history in the younger generation was unwavering.

In addition to her work with the museum, Sharon served on the board of the Mattawa Historical Society and played a key role in the preservation of historic sites in the area. Her efforts contributed to the recognition of Mattawa as a designated National Historic Site of Canada in 2002, a milestone that celebrated the town’s role in shaping the nation’s history.

Awards and Recognition

Sharon A. Burwell’s dedication to the preservation of heritage and culture did not go unnoticed. Throughout her career, she received numerous awards and accolades for her contributions to the field. In 2010, she was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming, a prestigious recognition of her innovative work at the Mattawa Museum.

Her commitment to reconciliation and her efforts to amplify Indigenous voices in the museum world led to her receiving the Order of Canada in 2015. This honor celebrated her role as a bridge-builder between communities and her tireless dedication to creating inclusive spaces for cultural dialogue.

Retirement and Legacy

After an illustrious career that spanned over two decades at the helm of the Mattawa Museum, Sharon A. Burwell retired in 2020. Her retirement marked the end of an era, but her legacy continues to thrive. The museum she revitalized remains a vibrant hub of cultural exploration and education, attracting visitors from near and far.

Sharon’s impact on the field of museum studies is immeasurable. Her commitment to community engagement, inclusivity, and innovation has left an indelible mark on the way museums approach their roles in society. Her work continues to inspire museum professionals worldwide to think creatively and inclusively as they curate exhibits and preserve cultural heritage.