Pop-Up Goes the Museum

Originally published on Torontoist on August 29, 2014.

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Advertising Card for Massey-Harris Co. Ltd, Head Office Toronto, Canada, 1895. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.

The term “pop-up” conjures images of hip retailers and restaurants occupying temporary storefronts. But the concept is spreading to other fields, too. Among those jumping on the bandwagon is Toronto Museum Services, which is involved in two kinds of pop-up program.

The first, a collaborative effort between Museum Services and Heritage Toronto, will open Saturday in conjunction with the unveiling of a historical plaque commemorating the Massey-Harris plant that once stood at King Street West and Strachan Avenue. The pop-up will feature ephemera related to the plant, which was the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the British Empire.

For Heritage Toronto plaques and markers co-ordinator Kaitlin Wainwright, display items such as anniversary pins and colour advertising cards show what it was like to work for Massey-Harris years ago. “We can learn about a company not only from what it did in the past, but how it remembers and celebrates itself,” she says. “Given that the presentation is taking place where much of the facility stood, it makes sense to bring artifacts to a place where there is a geographical connection.”

The display may prompt visitors with connections to Massey-Harris to share their personal stories. The potential for that kind of public participation and knowledge sharing is the driving force behind the second kind of pop-up program in which Museum Services is involved, which offers visitors the opportunity to display artifacts of their own. As Museum Services defines it, a pop-up museum is “a temporary exhibit created by the people who show up to participate. It works by choosing a theme and location, and inviting people to bring something on the topic to share.” Cities across Europe and the United States have already taken to this concept—the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has posted a video that explains how it works. Interactive events, often held in public spaces, allow institutions to bring out items long unseen by the public. Ilena Aldini-Messina, supervisor of program design and development for Museum Services, says pop-ups foster public engagement with local history and “make it a participatory experience rather than doing an exhibit from a curator’s perspective.”

A pilot pop-up, “Toronto Treasures,” ran at the Market Gallery on June 6. Alongside displays of City-owned artifacts such as subway-related buttons, 15 people set up tables to share their own treasures. Show-and-tell items ranged from decades’-worth of local baseball memorabilia to a jar of marmalade made in Toronto that shaped one woman’s view of the city as an industrial powerhouse during her childhood in Alberta. The experience was educational for the displayers and visitors: a man who brought a scrapbook commemorating a 1978 Blue Jays game where singer Ruth Ann Wallace was booed for singing “O Canada” in French learned that Wallace later married Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

For the upcoming holiday season, there are plans for a toy-centric pop-up. Though a location hasn’t been confirmed, Spadina Museum seems a likely choice, as it houses a large collection of toys. Beyond that, ideas include marking Valentine’s Day and other occasions ripe with objects and stories to share.

Happy Centennial, Royal Ontario Museum!

Originally published on Torontoist on March 19, 2014.

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The News, March 19, 1914.

As with any major building preparing for its grand opening, work on the Royal Ontario Museum went down to the wire. “A corps of charwomen polished, scrubbed, and dusted,” the Star observed the day before the museum greeted its first official visitors, “and unfinished exhibits were being rapidly and accurately fitted into their places.” That there were still unopened boxes in the basement didn’t faze anyone.

One hundred years ago this afternoon, just after 3 p.m., around 1,000 dignitaries attended the ROM’s opening ceremony. It was the culmination of years of planning, and of assembling artifacts drawn from private collections, provincial holdings, and the University of Toronto’s museums.

The museum was a joint partnership between the province and the university, which agreed in 1910 to split the $400,000 construction budget. A sense of the new institution’s direction was outlined by archaeology director Charles Trick Currelly the following year:

From the first the material has been gathered together with definite scientific aim, i.e., to show the development of handicraft in the world. It thus becomes a text book of the development of civilization on its mechanical side, and is in no sense a dilettante collection of pretty things or an accumulation of “curios.” There is not a curiosity in the collection, and practically not an object that is isolated, but each thing fits into a place in a series that has been carefully thought out. There are many gaps, but there is reasonable hope that these will be filled up in the future, so that the visitors to and students in the museum will have a continuous picture of the world’s civilization from the rude Palaeolithic implement found on the Libyan desert or deep in European gravels, right down to modern times.

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Royal Ontario Museum building, circa 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3046.

By the time the museum was ready to open in 1914, its purpose had been refined into three roles:

The collection and exhibition of objects of every kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of Ontario, and thereby to aid in a knowledge of what is able to contribute to science and industry; Collection and exhibition of objects of any kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of the world, and the history of man in all ages; Such other objects as may be authorized by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.

The ROM originally served as an umbrella institution for five museums that operated semi-independently until the 1950s. Its components were dedicated to archaeology, geology, mineralogy, natural history, and palaeontology. Collections that had been housed in various locations on the U of T campus and at the Ontario Provincial Museum at the Toronto Normal School (located on the present site of Ryerson University) were brought under one roof, in a building designed by noted architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson.

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A pair of early ROM acquisitions. Toronto Star, February 14, 1914.

From the start, the ROM was bursting with artifacts. Preview newspaper articles boasted of the 60,000 specimens held by the palaeontology museum, including ancient trilobites found in New Brunswick and fossils discovered in the Don Valley Brick Works. The papers waxed poetic about “the mystic art of the embalmer in ancient Egypt” and offered photos of items described as “Old German instruments of torture.” Officials admitted it would take another year to finish labelling the displays. Among the early exhibit donors was Sir Henry Pellatt of Casa Loma fame, who could perhaps have used his collection of arms and armour to fend off creditors a decade later.

The official opening ceremony began with a speech by Sir Edmund Walker, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, on the development of the museum. He portrayed its gestation as the result of a labour of love by the directors of its component museums. Walker also observed that because North Americans were generally more concerned with material things, our museums took longer to develop than those in Europe.

After remarks from U of T president Robert Falconer, the podium was turned over to the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. It was a busy day for Queen Victoria’s third son, as his dedication of the ROM was sandwiched between a visit to the Boy Scouts’ provincial headquarters and the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates at High Park. Besides praising the museum, the Duke mentioned two dignitaries unable to attend due to illness—his wife (he thanked the guests for their best wishes), and Premier James Pliny Whitney (who was recovering from exhaustion and a heart attack).

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After opening the ROM, the Duke of Connaught spoke at the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates in High Park. Sir Henry Pellatt is standing at the back. Photo taken March 19, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8092.

The audience applauded the Duke’s concluding remarks:

I conclude by expressing my hope and belief that interest in the museum will not be allowed to flag in the future, but that this institution will ever be a pride to the citizens of Toronto, and will keep pace and size with the growth and development of the city.

That evening, more invitees listened to speeches and toured the building. Within days, Currelly reported to Walker a sharp rise in donations. “Men from all over the province have been coming to see me,” Currelly noted, “to say that this was what they have been waiting for all their lives, and that they are anxious to assist in any way that is possible.”

Such growth made future expansions inevitable, beginning with the additions along Queen’s Park opened in 1932-33. The original building now serves as the ROM’s west wing, housing its Asian collection on the main floor.

Additional material from The Museum Makers: The Story of the Royal Ontario Museum by Lovat Dickson (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1986); the December 7, 1910, March 17, 1914, March 19, 1914, and March 20, 1914 editions of the Globe; the March 20, 1914 edition of the Mail and Empire; the February 14, 1914, March 18, 1914, and March 19, 1914 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 20, 1914 edition of theToronto World; and the March 1911 edition of University of Toronto Monthly.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The next day, I wrote an article on renovations to the museum’s exterior.

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The Royal Ontario Museum hopes that you’ll mark its centennial by giving it a little love.

To kick off its new “Love the ROM” fundraising campaign, the museum celebrated its 100th birthday yesterday morning by announcing its plans for the coming year and offering hints of upcoming renovations to its Bloor Street entrance. Dubbed the “Welcome Project,” the plans call for changes to the museum’s lobby and the installation of an “outdoor gallery” running along Bloor Street from Philosopher’s Walk to Queen’s Park.

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The outdoor performance space nestled between the Michael lee-Chin Crystal and Philosophers’ Walk. Image: Hariri Pontarini Architects.

Designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, whose other projects include the Shangri-La Hotel and One Bloor, and landscape architect Claude Cormier, the “outdoor gallery” will include more greenery to make the ROM crystal’s gateway seem less sterile. The renderings feature a performance space west of the front door—a space the museum hopes to use for collaborations with nearby institutions like the Royal Conservatory of Music. We suspect the rows of seating will also provide a place for classes and tour groups to gather before they hop back on their buses. The space will be named after one of the new fundraising campaign’s lead donors, ABC Group of Companies CEO Helga Schmidt and her late husband Michael. Work on the lobby is expected to begin later this year, with the outdoor space following in 2015.

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An overhead, nighttime conceptual rendering of the ROM’s entrance. Image: Hariri Pontarini Architects.

The ROM also announced plans for a new gallery dedicated to early life on the planet, and an event called “ROM Revealed,” scheduled for first weekend of May, that will allow the public to explore the museum’s labs and other behind-the-scenes spaces rarely open to patrons.

 

 

Exhibiting the Human Edge

Originally published on Torontoist on December 4, 2013.

As soon as you enter The AstraZeneca Human Edge at the Ontario Science Centre, you can predict which exhibit kids will run to: the climbing wall on the immediate left. A stand-in for mountaineering, the wall represents the limits of human endurance—the theme of many of the displays, which make their public debut on December 7.

The first new permanent exhibition hall to open at the Science Centre in seven years, The AstraZeneca Human Edge features 80 exhibits that explore the boundaries of our bodies as they develop from conception to death. The exhibits are grouped into five thematic areas, each of which focuses on a different kind of human limitation, such as aging or physical injury.

One of the first stops is a tall cone containing a free-diving simulation. Featuring narration from world-record-holder Mandy-Rae Cruickshank Krack, the chamber combines sound and watery lighting evocative of a deep dive. The effect is stunning—by the time Krack reaches the dark reaches of her 88-metre descent, the pressure of the depths gnaws at your head.

That pressure is relieved by a nearby case filled with oddities and artifacts from the weight-loss industry. You can test the effectiveness of rollers designed to glide away the pounds, listen to exercise records (with full orchestral accompaniment!) from the 1920s, gaze upon boxes of tragically named appetite-suppressant candies, and browse advertisements for slenderizing products parodied by Monty Python.

On a more serious historical note, the corner devoted to diabetes treatment includes a refurbished version of Frederick Banting and Charles Best’s University of Toronto lab. A series of phones offers users historical diagnoses of the disease from the Victorian era to the near future. Sadly, none are narrated by Wilford Brimley. If you were recently informed that you have diabetes, please don’t dial up Sir William Osler for a second opinion.

We tested the “aging machine,” which snaps your photo and projects your future appearance for every decade until you hit 70. The results are alternately amusing and terrifying, depending on how deeply lined your face becomes. You can then share the image of your aged visage on nearby screens, or type in a code that will allow you to download the photos at home.

Elsewhere in the hall, you’ll find the usual assortment of buttons, cross-sections, and dials intended to inform and amuse patrons. It’s likely staff will hear every sperm joke invented if they hang around long enough by the interactive display illustrating how many little swimmers will reach the final conception heats.

During her opening remarks at today’s media preview, Ontario Science Centre CEO Lesley Lewis warned that “it’s not quite finished.” If you’re planning a holiday visit, be warned that several major interactive displays won’t be ready for prime time until late January. Currently marked by tape outlines on the floor, the “Personal Limits” area will include a dance floor that converts your moves into electricity, rowing machines, and a running track that will videotape your gait for all to see. Until that section is functional, the hall can’t help but feel like a work in progress.

The Gardiner Museum Has a Big Head

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2013.

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The Gardiner Museum has developed a big head. A very big head.

It’s so big, it has to sit outside the entrance. Visitors are welcomed by a zebra-striped noggin of glazed ceramic and galvanized steel, created by artist Jun Kaneko in 2002. The untitled piece, unveiled by Kaneko last night, marks the first permanent Canadian installation of the Omaha, Nebraska-based artist’s work.

The piece’s placement feels like a smart move for the Gardiner, in that it brings its collection closer to the sidewalk along Queen’s Park. Illuminated at dusk by the lights on the museum’s grounds, the head makes an impression. It may also become a magnet for goofy tourist photos. We imagine school kids on trips to the Royal Ontario Museum running across the street to snap group shots.

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Following the unveiling, Kaneko narrated a dryly humorous slideshow of the half-century career he’s enjoyed since moving from Japan to the United States in 1963. He outlined the challenges he has faced over the year—challenges that range from discovering the fragility of ceramic art to tackling his first opera set design. His works have been shown in public transit stations in Boston and Detroit. Chicago’s Millennium Park is currently hosting a showcase of his giant ceramic tanukis (Japanese raccoon dogs). Toronto’s Kaneko head follows similar works, crafted from ceramic or bronze, shown in New York City and Philadelphia.

The installation of the head also serves as a prelude to the Gardiner’s 30th-anniversary celebrations next year. Plans for 2014 include a lecture series and renovations to the second-floor porcelain galleries.

Four City Museums to Close?

Originally published on Torontoist on November 14, 2011.

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Councillor Joe Mihevc, interpreters, and community forming a chain around Montgomery’s Inn.

“Our heritage is not for sale. Our heritage is not for closure. Our heritage is not for contracting out and it is not for dismantling piece by piece.”

With these words Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) greeted a crowd of around 200 concerned citizens outside Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke yesterday afternoon. The historic site is among the four City-operated museums rumoured to be on the chopping block when the city budget comes out on November 28. Besides Montgomery’s Inn, the other heritage properties that account for $1 million in cuts are Gibson House, Market Gallery, and the Zion Schoolhouse.

Mihevc organized the Sunday press conference to mobilize public support for the museums. A petition is already online, and the audience was told that they should chat about the affected sites via social media. He announced a plan to request that the city museums division conduct a review to find ways to increase revenue. Mihevc believes that both the community and council need to act as “good stewards” of the city’s historic properties, many of which survived through decades of committed volunteer engagement that could be disrespected and forgotten.

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Michael Redhill speaking at Montgomery’s Inn. 

Among the speakers was writer Michael Redhill, who compared the effect of closing museums to a dementia patient’s loss of memory. “Only a form of dementia would make the loss of the city’s history a fair value for a million dollars. Is your soul worth a mere million? Apparently Toronto’s is.” Redhill proceeded with a thoughtful critique of the Ford administration’s valuing of cost-cutting over the more enduring, if intangible, benefits of preserving heritage sites in which citizens can take pride:

The current municipal government has shown that it is willing to do anything in the name of money, no matter the cost to the city’s soul. The closure of four museums that are also heritage sites is an indication of soul sickness at the municipal level. This inn has stood on this very spot for 180 years while this city council will be gone in three. Torontonians should stand united against short-term fixes that will do permanent damage. These coming budget cuts will effectively ensure the disappearance of four important historical sites, and I think we have to recognize that. They’re not just closing the museum and getting rid of the workers; there will never be the political will to reopen these places once they are closed… Without a history to draw on, citizens will eventually think that there is no city to honour or preserve and that the needs of the present are the only ones that matter. We know what happens to people when they are convinced that their own needs are the only ones that matter. Do we want to live in a city that thinks that way?

Following a series of speakers connected to the affected museums, the audience was asked to form a human chain around Montgomery’s Inn.

Some of Mihevc’s fellow councillors went on Twitter yesterday to refute his claims regarding closures. Executive committee member Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), who proposed in September’s council budget sessions that alternative service models for city museums be examined, stated that “museums are not being sold and will hopefully never be closed. Staff can make budget cut recommendations but Council has final say.” She was backed up by Gary Crawford(Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), who noted, “We should not allow political grandstanding to take us off course.”

When we spoke to Mihevc about these comments earlier today, he noted that he had talked to Robinson and, based on that conversation and further checks with his sources, he is “absolutely right” about the proposed closures. (Robinson did not respond to our request for an interview before publication time.) He mentioned the parallel example of a council vote in September that prevented the elimination of community environment days, which the budget committee appeared to ignore when it proposed last week to reduce the number from 44 to 11. “So it seems the mayor is not paying any heed whatsoever to any of those motions,” says Mihevc.

Whether million-dollar or nickel-and-dime cuts are to be made to Toronto’s museums, intimations made over the past few months that there will be closures are stirring people to defend the value of these institutions. As Redhill mentioned, it’s difficult to imagine these sites will ever reopen if the doors are locked, at least not without extraordinary effort.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The following disclaimer was added shortly after the piece was published:

Shortly after publication, and after emerging from a meeting she’d been in, Councillor Robinson did indeed call us back. She insists that museum closures are not on the budget cut list, and feels that the combination of a front-page article in the Star on Saturday and Mihevc’s statements are needlessly stirring up fear within the heritage community. “I’m not sure why this has resurfaced because council was very clear in its direction to staff to say that this was not a direction we want to go in,” she told us. “Council is willing to look at alternate service delivery models and alternate funding models but we want to keep our museums open.” Robinson, who calls herself “a museum nut,” finds the prospect of closing any heritage site “as bad as closing a library, if not worse.”

For all the negative coverage of potential closures to city heritage museums, Councillor Robinson perceives some positives coming out of this incident. She referred to the fallout from Doug Ford’s dreams of Ferris wheels and monorails: “The silver lining on the waterfront was people started talking about it and it reinvigorated that piece of the city and got some attention focused back on it. There’s always a silver lining.”

Let’s just say that Robinson was furious when she phoned back, as I received an earful about professionalism and such. This incident illustrated the pitfalls of turning around stories in a hurry in order to be first/close to first online.

It was a learning curve.

The press conference itself was a little weird, especially the human chain element. My cynicism about events such as this grew over time (even if my sentiment was with the speakers), as did my pessimistic view of politics in general. None of the museums rumoured to be on the chopping block closed permanently.

Projecting Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on October 27, 2011.

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One of the great misconceptions about Toronto is that its past is boring. The city has seen its fair share of rebellions, grand celebrations, tragedies, ambitious plans, and unrealized dreams that in various ways intersect with our present. Teaching Toronto’s citizens about how the past and present connect is one of the goals of The Toronto Project, a new website that hopes, in the words of its introductory essay, to “explain who we are, and what we will become, by telling the stories of who we have already been.”

For years, community leaders and civic officials have envisioned a museum showcasing Toronto’s history. During David Miller’s administration there was a push to build one, known at different times as Humanitas or the Toronto Museum Project, in the old Canada Malting silos at the foot of Bathurst Street. The recession ended those plans, which evolved into a website that vows to weave “100 artifacts, 100 Torontonians, 100 stories, 100 exhibit ideas.” The Toronto Project organizers don’t see their effort as in competition with the Toronto Museum Project or other local heritage interests; organizers of The Toronto Project are reaching out to institutions and historical associations via public meetings. As the project’s executive director, veteran journalist David Macfarlane told us by email, “because we insist that we are in competition with nobody and link to everything, any territorial resistance quickly disappears.” Sponsors listed on the site, from cultural institutions like the AGO to legal firms, are providing editorial and financial assistance.

The idea for The Toronto Project grew out of conversations between Macfarlane and former Toronto mayor David Crombie. Macfarlane had just written the text for a coffee table book about the city’s past, while Crombie, who serves as the project’s chair, had long advocated a museum. Both concluded that the flexibility of the online world would allow them to, in Macfarlane’s words, “approach history in a more dynamic, interactive way.” During an interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning last week, Macfarlane indicated that he sees the Toronto Project site as an ideal gateway into Toronto’s history for schools and for those who aren’t normally drawn to discovering the city’s heritage.

With the assistance of the Toronto Star, the site’s current focus is collecting stories from Toronto’s diverse communities to build an interactive encyclopedia. “These are, in the main, stories of immigration and settlement,” says Macfarlane, “but by no means exclusively so.” We hope that the remembrances collected will include stories of the warts-and-all variety, which make history livelier and more relatable to contemporary day-to-day struggles than what Toronto Life once referred to as the “People Living in Harmony” school of museums.

Also underway is work on an exhibit highlighting Toronto’s waterfront. That public policy makers sometimes pay dangerously little attention to the area’s historical evolution was painfully evident when the Ford brothers unveiled their derided Ferris wheel and monorail proposals during the summer. The educational value of the Toronto Project’s efforts to contextualize areas of the city, like the waterfront, which have a long history of both good and bad development proposals, could be useful in urging public dialogue that may make voters think about what their elected representatives are really up to.

But will these kinds of discussions ever take place at a physical city museum? When asked where he might envision one being operated, Macfarlane says that “I’ve been spending so much time imagining the city as a museum of itself, it’s actually really hard for me to imagine any single location as a physical museum. That said, I hope there will be one.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Little more emerged from The Toronto Project. The website no longer exists, though there is another site with the same name which apparently launched in 2005. The last time I heard about it was during the press conference for the Toronto Public Library’s acquisition of the Toronto Star’s photo archive.

A video remains on the project’s YouTube page, along with a few notes on Macfarlane’s website. At this point in time, it’s safe to file this one under failed “celebrate Toronto’s history” attempts.

The idea of some form of city museum carried on. I attended a workshop in 2014 for a “Museum of Toronto” which David Crombie was involved in – a post on Active History sums up how that session went. A year later, Myseum emerged, which has programmed many events and exhibitions under its decentralized model (Disclaimer: I’ve been involved in a few of them).

A city staff report released in January 2018 recommended using Old City Hall as a museum site after municipal and provincial courts move out in 2021. On February 1, council voted 35-3 to go ahead with planning. Not surprisingly, the loudest complaint came from a councillor whose family has long been intrenched in the never-thinks-of-wider-public-good/knows-the-cost-of-everything-and-value-of-nothing politics that always seems to entice voters from Etobicoke (a topic I’ll probably rage…erm…provide a thoughtful, well-considered approach to someday).

Recommended reading: for Spacing, John Lorinc suggests how a thoughtful approach would benefit creating the museum.