Monday, June 2, 2008

The History of Tomorrow

I've often thought it's criminal that there is nowhere to see Toronto's history. There are a series of plaques around town telling you where things used to be. Every once in a while you'll see a historical board plaque on a sterile glass office building telling you that they knocked down a founding father's birthplace to build it.

The Royal Ontario Museum has shelved a good part of its displays because all that old stuff was getting in the way of finding space for holding corporate fundraisers. There are a few places like Mackenzie House on Bond Street, but you have to look pretty hard to find much in the way of relics of Toronto's history.

So the City has been kicking around the idea of a museum dedicated to our history and artifacts. But of course in this point and click world, you can't just have glass cases full of interesting things from days gone by. The City has been thinking about a "highly interactive" learnatorium where busloads of bored kids can be dragged in to push buttons, or put on a helmet and virtually experience getting typhoid.

The site chosen is the desolate and unworkable foot of Bathurst, where the old Canada Malting silo sits mocking any useful purpose, but are in some twisted universe now considered "historical".

The rub is the City wants someone - anyone - to pay the $100 million they figure it will take to make it useful, with the obligatory mixed housing, restaurant by some obscure chef who makes everything out of moosemeat, fiddleheads and maple syrup, and an observation deck on the top, where on a clear night you will be able to see Hamilton.

The museum is already planning to "emphasize Toronto's multicultural fabric" according to the Toronto Star, which means large, shame-inducing sections on the handful of early minority settlers and virtually nothing devoted to the English, Irish and Scots who made up 99% of the population.

Speaking as if the museum has already passed the many financial and intellectual hurdles, Rita Davies, the city's executive director of culture, says: "It's not a museum that's just rooted in the past."

Say what? A museum not about the past? Let's see what the dictionary says about "museum":

museum, noun
depository for collecting and displaying objects having scientific or historical or artistic value

So Toronto's museum is going to be about the history of the future, and not about the artifacts it is being built for?

Apparently that's right - it is going to be about "looking ahead to the future of cities around the world" according to the Star. And of course Toronto is such a great example of a city with a great future due to its forward-thinking policies, sound fiscal planning and good management.

Here's an idea - how about putting the City's collection of artifacts on-line? Get a couple of summer students to photograph them and put them up on a website so we can enjoy them while the City goes cap in hand to a series of corporations for the right to sell burgers to student groups and searches for a community board that knows nothing about history but comes in all the right social flavours.

That would show a commitment to history.