By Ken Kellar
A BRIEFEST GLIMPSE OF HISTORY
If you close your eyes, you can see it.certain set of images and sensations are summoned to mind when one thinks about a museum.
If you listen, you can hear it.
It’s not absolute silence. The walls of this place echo with the voices of the young and old as they weave their way through history. But neither is it cacophony. These halls demand too much respect for noise and chaos.
Couples meander through ancient Greece, stopping before sculptures and artifacts thousands of years old. Parents are tugged at by impatient children as the bones of long extinct dinosaurs loom over them, skeletal echoes of a more primordial earth. Groups of schoolchildren are led in a column by a tour guide, stopping to ogle the intricate designs on early Native American or Japanese crafts.
A kindly curator stands off to the side, ready to tell you the story of this piece hanging from the wall, or that urn in a box where humidity is strictly regulated.
If these are the images that come to mind, you would feel right at home in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum
Stop, watch and listen. The sights you see and the sounds you hear are those of reverence, of awe, for a cultural institution that has been near the heart of Toronto since its very inception in 1912.
But the advent and progression of technology changes everything, and the Royal Ontario Museum is not exempt. A smart phone in every pocket means that information is at every fingertip. A trip to the museum is no longer the only place to view these ancient artifacts, to glean insight into the daily lives of our ancestors hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
This is to say nothing of the ancestors of those who call Toronto home. A provincial, even Canada-wide museum is the ROM, but offers little to make it Toronto’s museum, a place where the history of the City can come to life. One might wonder if there are any museums of Toronto at all.
There are. In fact, there always have been.
If you know where to look, that is.
MUSEUMS OF TORONTO
Born in 2015, the Myseum of Toronto project was initiated by a non-profit organization that is managed by a small group of private citizens. The driving force behind the idea, though, is that the Myseum is not just about Toronto, it is Toronto.
The project aims to turn the city into a living museum by bringing the past to life in new ways. As technology has changed the way we interact with our world, the Myseum project has taken advantage of technology in return. The Myseum project hosts a website where interactive exhibits around the city can be discovered. In its own way, by presenting different locations where Torontonians can learn about the cultures and histories that can be found in their city, the Myseum project harkens back to the earliest days of Toronto and its museums, before the ROM.
“Toronto had little bits of museums,” says Dr. Ross Stagg, speaking about a pre-ROM Toronto.
Dr. Stagg is a professor in the department of history at Ryerson University in Toronto, only a walk of a few short blocks away from the buildings that host the exhibits in the ROM.
“The biggest one was actually here [at Ryerson] when this was originally the Department of Education. Egerton Ryerson created a museum in the education building, and he went around Europe and collected some original material, but a lot of reproductions. That was probably the biggest museum in Toronto, though it wasn’t that big, and when it was dismantled, some of the things went to the ROM, so they formed some of the earliest collection of the ROM.”
Though the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts, that pre-cursor to the ROM located where Ryerson is today, was dismantled, some of the buildings that pre-date both were and have since become museums of their own, small-scale snapshots of life in earlier times.
Take the Mackenzie House in downtown Toronto. Built in the early 1830’s, and predating Canada as a country by more than 30 years, the house eventually became the home of Toronto’s first Mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. If the name rings a bell, it’s likely because this Mackenzie was the grandfather of our tenth Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Potentially only Toronto’s second-most controversial mayor, Mackenzie was instrumental in organizing the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 and spent years in exile in America. Today it stands as a museum dedicated to everyday life in an 1860s Victorian-era Toronto and features a fully-functional printing press from 1845.
As it stands now, Mackenzie House is just one of the 10 historic museums owned and run by the City of Toronto.
According to Dr. Stagg, these historic buildings were preserved to provide a specific service.
“They were designed to preserve a small bit of what life was like to which they’re furnished. These were all attempts so people could physically see things, as to what life was like at that time, just a glimpse in the sense that it’s only one part of a way of life. As opposed to the latest thing where they’re trying to give you little bits of what a particular place was like: pictures, maps maybe, things like that. It’s a new way of trying to get people involved in the history.”
So if there are a handful of museums that can be said to capture a part of the history of Toronto, however small, what is it that made the Royal Ontario Museum so ubiquitous?
“The ROM was on a much larger scale and really gave Torontonians a window on the world,” says Dr. Stagg. “We have that wonderful collection of Chinese artifacts, which was collected quite early on. This was really a provincial city up until close to the Second World War, maybe even after. So this was something that people just didn’t know about, to be able to go and see all of these materials.
“Nowadays, people don’t think twice about it, because you’re exposed to all these things on television and the internet and so on. But back when those things weren’t available, for people to go in and see a tomb and what it looked like, and so this was something totally foreign. All those collections of stuffed birds and so on, which they kind of either put away or tried to put in a more dynamic setting … this was something quite exotic when the ROM started up and started collections of these things.”
A MUSEUM BY ANY OTHER NAME
So the Royal Ontario Museum became a place where the people of Toronto could go and see things that were exotic and new, far removed from the city they lived in.
Much like it was then, the Royal Ontario Museum houses hundreds of artifacts, and a revolving door of travelling exhibits. But that creates a void. If the Royal Ontario Museum does, and some might argue must, devote so much of its space to these other places and times, there is no room for the history of this place, and the times it has seen.
That is where the Myseum project can truly shine, bringing together disparate elements from across the city and uniting them under a common banner of “Toronto’s History: by the people, for the people.”
Not an official slogan, but a generalization of the ideal.
The Myseum project isn’t even the first to embrace the innovation that technology, particularly the internet, can bring to the fields of history.
“That’s an interesting thing, because a number of people are now developing apps, so you go to a site and you basically use the app to get to some information about the site,” Dr. Stagg shares. “That’s the latest thing. There are a number of people doing projects like this in the hopes that this will make it easier to see what it was like. So it might call up a picture of what an area used to look like, back at the turn of the 20th century, things like that. That’s the new way, and plaques are the old way: some people take the time to read them and some people don’t.”
Sadly, Dr Stagg laments: “The museums are not in particularly good shape, because they’ve been so underfunded for quite some time now.”
“We’ve been in a period of austerity for quite some time, and history isn’t valued. It’s at the low end of the scale. Basically governments have cut back really significantly on the amount of money that they devote to history.”
That could change. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet has released the Federal budget for 2016, which has seen a significant increase to the amount of funding dedicated to arts and culture in Canada, which include a number of organizations which oversee heritage museums and historical buildings.
With luck, this money will continue to support history across the country.
Even without significant federal funding, people like those behind the Myseum of Toronto project and developers of historical apps have high hopes and respect for the history they sense around them.
“I think it’s a combination of people who like to try new technology, and people who like to use that new technology to do an old thing a different way. So yes, they are trying to bring people into the history.
“So you can be on a street corner and visualize what it used to be like as opposed to going to a building,”