By Andrea Terry, originally published September 8, 2011
Heritage sites and museums not only reflect history, they also have their own histories. They are purveyors and products of the past that have been adapted over time based on the perceived needs of citizens. When a house originally owned by a well-known historical figure becomes a museum, its function radically changes. That function is typically shaped by the priorities of the period(s) in which the museum is developed, and this is especially true of Toronto’s Mackenzie House. On 28 August 1861, William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) – Toronto’s first mayor and 1837 Upper Canadian Rebellion leader – died in the bedroom of his Bond Street residence as a result of what was referred to as “brain-softening.” Fast forward a century and a half, and today you’ll find Mackenzie’s house operating as a living history museum. Costumed interpreters lead visitors throughout the house explaining how the restored period rooms reflect what likely would have been in place during the Mackenzie family’s residency.
But how did this come to be the case? Who decided to turn Mackenzie’s house into a museum and why? What lessons were learned in the process? On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death, it is an opportune time to consider the history of Mackenzie’s “last home,” how it came to be a museum, and reflect upon the impact of his life and home on Toronto’s collective memory.
Mackenzie’s house has acted as a private residence, a historic house museum and, ultimately, a living history museum. For most of his life, Mackenzie was a prolific public figure. The Scottish-born newspaper editor was the first mayor of the newly incorporated city of Toronto (1834) and one of the leaders of a group of like-minded radical reformers – all dedicated to governmental reform and the principle of responsible government – who launched what came to be known as the Upper Canadian Rebellion.
Following the rebels’ defeat by government military forces, Mackenzie fled to the United States. In 1848, following the implementation of responsible government, the Crown granted Mackenzie amnesty. Because his extensive political and publishing career had provided little in the way of financial security, Mackenzie returned to Toronto in dire financial straits.
In 1856, his political colleagues, publishing affiliates and friends in the Toronto area organized the William Lyon Mackenzie Homestead fundraising campaign “as a Token of gratitude by the People of Canada, for his unswerving integrity and consistency during a long period of useful Public Life.” They eventually raised enough money to purchase a modest brick row house for the Mackenzie family.
Characteristic of nineteenth-century row houses, Mackenzie’s house was originally joined to houses on either side by common walls. The standardized floor plans included, as is the case in Mackenzie’s house, a main floor with a parlour and dining room, a second floor housing bedrooms, an attic, and a basement. Designed in the Greek Revival style, the exterior of Mackenzie’s house features a tall rectangular façade, a garden front, and a Greek key frieze. Interior details include high ceilings in the parlour and dining room, pocket doors dividing the parlour from the dining room, and a front hall archway decorated with lion-headed corbels. In August 1859, the Mackenzie family moved into the home and, following the patriarch’s death, continued to live there for another decade until it was eventually sold and turned into a boarding house.
In the 1930s, a host of interested parties, including Mackenzie’s grandson, then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, looked to commemorate the upcoming centennial of the Upper Canadian Rebellion. As a result, historic sites associated with William Lyon Mackenzie took on new relevance, and a notable shift occurred in popular views regarding not only Mackenzie but also Canada’s foundational narrative. No longer was he seen strictly as an outspoken, rebellious politician – Mackenzie came to be revered as a national hero, one who fought for a political landscape that made Confederation possible and, ultimately, the Canadian state a reality. Impending threats to demolish Mackenzie’s Toronto residence also seemed to inspire decisive action. By 1936, the adjoining houses had both been destroyed and so printing press proprietor T. Wilber Best, aware of the house’s provenance, bought the site and formed the William Lyon Mackenzie Foundation. It turned the house into a museum furnished to represent the period 1820-60. At the opening reception on May 9, 1950, then-Ontario premier Leslie Frost explained how the house’s restitution reflected Mackenzie’s contribution to the nation, stating:
We are not here today to weigh the merits of the controversial figures of [the 1830s], the zealous reformer, Mackenzie….It matters not now who was right or who was wrong in the controversies of those times. What matters is what they achieved…. [I] dedicate the house and its historic contents as a memorial to the men and women of long ago, all of whom had their part in laying the foundations of our country, and upon whose courage, toleration, vision and experience the Canada of today has been built.
In October 1960, the Foundation presented Mackenzie House to the city so that it might be managed by the Toronto Historical Board, established earlier that same year.
Also in 1960, the Board temporarily closed the house to restore it so that “the story of Mackenzie’s life may be clearly depicted.” Two years later it reopened as a living history museum offering guided tours. Eventually, it was decided that “a particular emphasis be placed on Mackenzie’s publishing and political life,” and so the Board raised funds and constructed a replica nineteenth-century print shop that is appended to the house.
Interpreters bring visitors into the space showing them the various type cases that hold whole sets of different font types, including letters of the alphabet, punctuation, numbers and spaces, and demonstrate how to set the type, ink it, and print it on the 1845 Washington Flatbed Press.
Notably, Mackenzie House was the first historic house museum operated by the City of Toronto. Over the past six decades, museum workers have managed it so that it portrays the life and times of Mackenzie and makes the past meaningful to the Toronto community. Acting as a living history museum, Mackenzie House (along with other city-operated historical sites like it) consistently receives a great many visitors; its enduring popularity encouraged staff to develop other projects that might showcase Toronto’s past as well as its diverse cultural heritage, projects such as the current Toronto Museum Project that aims to articulate the region’s “shared story of social, cultural, and economic diversity.” But how did this happen?
In the early 1970s, museum staff began working to find ways to make the past both accessible and more relevant to Torontonians. They collaborated with various agencies and developed “in partnership” different projects that displayed Toronto’s history of social and cultural diversity, such as the 1979 travelling exhibition program entitled “The Torontonians,” which explored the “multicultural history of Toronto.” Panels describing the achievements of different ethnic groups on 24 double-sided panels were erected at different locations throughout the Toronto region. One setting included the garden area of the Mackenzie House property.
Cultural administrators determined that they needed to sustain the community’s interest in its heritage resources to ensure their long-term survival and relevance. And so, in 1982, then-Toronto Board Chairman Andrew Gregorovich declared, “We can no longer consider the City’s history as the preserve of an elite group of British origin. Our history belongs to all Torontonians of all ethnic groups.” Accordingly, two years later, the Board began reviewing proposals for a civic museum that would “preserve and display the contributions different ethnic groups have made to Toronto.” These proposals eventually inspired the creation of the online Toronto Museum Project website that showcases artifacts from the City of Toronto’s Historical Collection and the memories triggered by these artifacts. People share reminiscences that express what it means to them personally to be a Torontonian. The website also offers exhibition ideas that might be developed further in a “virtual environment or in a physical place.” It is my hope that this project becomes a concrete reality.
In this day and age of technological advancements, products like tablet computers, smart phones, and 3D movies offer access to a wealth of virtual environments. But the development of historic museums, such as Mackenzie House, reveals the importance of conserving the physical past for the present and future generations. Mackenzie House not only makes the past concrete, it also makes the past come alive for visitors. What is more, the museum (and others like it) has encouraged reflection over the course of its existence, inspiring people to consider how to honour and house different histories, memories and stories that are vital features of Toronto’s cultural identity.