Museum Closures, Heritage and Cultivating a Sense of Place in Toronto

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“Places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become… When places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind, to the roving imagination, and where the latter may lead is anybody’s guess.” – Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 107.

Just as I read these words last week, the Toronto Star disclosed municipal plans to close three of the City of Toronto’s ten museums.  Montgomery’s InnGibson House and the Zion School House – museums outside of the downtown core and closely allied with the Etobicoke and North York Historical societies – are on the chopping block due to municipal cutbacks.  This decision builds on the recently announced closure of the Air and Space Museum at Downsview Park, one of a few other museums in the north end of the city.

In an age of austerity, as Sean Kheraj noted last week, all public institutions supporting culture and heritage are vulnerable. But these cuts do not just reflect cutbacks in the culture and heritage sectors. In a city already bereft of recognized historical sites outside of the downtown core, this municipal decision reinforces urban and suburban differences in how Toronto’s past is told. If places have the power to shape our self-perception and how we situate ourselves in the world, as Basso and others have suggested, how has the uneven distribution of historical places influenced the culture and politics of Canada’s largest city? Continue reading “Museum Closures, Heritage and Cultivating a Sense of Place in Toronto”

The Return of the History Wars

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Last week a story in Le Devoir caught my attention.  The headline read: ‘Quebec’s history has been left behind by the universities.’  The article reports on a study lamenting the quality and quantity of history-specific training in Quebec universities.  More importantly – and this is what caught my attention – the spokesperson for one of the study’s sponsors, the Coalition for the History of Quebec, argued that the teaching of political and economic history had been subsumed by an over emphasis on social and culture history.  After reading this critique of Quebec’s university history departments, I realized that the so-called ‘History Wars’ are still alive and well in the Canadian public sphere. Continue reading “The Return of the History Wars”

Hands-on History: Are the archaeologists leading the way to a new mode of public engagement?

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I have a confession.  As much as I love being a historian, I am not a huge fan of spending most of my day sitting at a desk reading.  Some days I am pretty sure that I can feel my fat cells multiplying and the muscle cells slowly decaying.  Most days I long to literally practice active – blood-flowing – history.  About seven ago, I tried to remedy this challenge by becoming involved in archaeology.  After a couple of brief glimpses into an archaeologist’s world, I found myself challenged by the practices of the discipline and increasingly by the way in which the programs of which I was a part engaged the public. Continue reading “Hands-on History: Are the archaeologists leading the way to a new mode of public engagement?”

Historical Preservation in Comparative Perspective

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Last week, two media items caught my attention.  The first story was the discovery of remains from an 18th-century ship found during construction at the World Trade Centre in New York City.  The second was a short debate on CBC’s Metro Morning between Toronto City Councillors Mike Feldman and Adam Vaughan on heritage designation of historic homes. Continue reading “Historical Preservation in Comparative Perspective”

Street History

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Recently, I was stopped at the entrance to the Eaton Centre by a man selling a short pamphlet on Black history.  I bought a copy.  Flipping through the pages, the pamphlet shared short stories about the contributions of key Black individuals, the racism they experienced, and important moments where Canadian and American communities were open to racial and ethnic difference. Continue reading “Street History”