By Andrew Stewart, originally published July 21, 2008
Who should take ownership of caring for our heritage?
If you haven’t seen the new natural history galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum, it’s high time you went. However admirable the dinosaurs, the local heroes are the mammals that roamed Toronto during past episodes of climate warming. They include antiques like the charmingly named stag moose that rambled through the open spruce forest of the last ice age. You’ll also find the fossil of a new genus of deer, unearthed during a Bloor subway line extension in the 1970s. The animal was named Torontoceros after the place that was built, 12,000 years later, over its final resting place.
These finds are too rarely celebrated, even known, in this city. It makes me think that Toronto, as a place, somewhat like a museum, needs a curator to look after and promote its things. The city’s entire stock of inherited things – fossils, historic buildings, archaeological sites and other inherited assets — needs some high level attention. I’m not just talking about regular dusting and polishing. Rather, I’m talking about a level of planning that’s required to make sure old things are acknowledged and preserved, to some extent or other, within a proper setting – a designed exhibit, a streetscape or an open space (whether privately owned or public). It’s not good enough to designate buildings, though this is a necessary step. There needs to be public and private support for both restoration and reuse.
A recent example of successful curation (ongoing) is Victoria Memorial Square. The park and its historic assets (which include archaeological components) are being revitalized and re-interpreted after much research, thought and community consultation by the City of Toronto and the Wellington Place Neighbourhood Association.
Another example of a site yet to be curated is the geologically famous north slope of the hollowed-out former industrial Don Valley Brickworks site. During the excavation of clay for brick-making, geological beds were exposed, many of them preserving plants and animals from the past 150,000 years. One of the great promises of the reinvention of the Don Valley Brickworks is interpretation and representation, somehow, of these internationally known geological formations. The bigger curatorial challenge for the city, however, is recognition of the vast extent of these geological beds. They underline the entire city. (They are particularly close to the surface near ravines, including former ravines like the Christie Pits.) How can something this big be monitored, let alone curated?
A final example is the developing Toronto waterfront. Massive changes in the position of the city’s shoreline over the past 150 years makes the idea of recovering a sense of its past more of a challenge. Waterfront Toronto is confronting this problem with its own waterfront archaeological strategy. Individual projects, like Ireland Park at the foot of Bathurst St, address heritage in brilliant and innovative ways.
Andrew Stewart has an interest in the geology and history of Toronto and has worked as a consulting archaeologist in Ontario and Nunavut.