How Canada 150 is becoming a discussion rather than an anniversary celebration.

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The most important thing to come out of the Canada 150 celebrations may be the critical discussion that’s happening across the country about how we tell Canada’s story.

The City of Vancouver decided to modify the Canada 150 title by adding a plus sign so that it reads Canada 150+ to acknowledge the thousands of years of history that occurred before 1867.   Vancouver’s official web site says “Canada 150+ will be a uniquely Vancouver commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, acknowledging an ancient past and looking toward a future where all communities, nations, and peoples are walking together as a society, stronger than ever before. “

In a recent story called, How Indigenous People are Rebranding Canada 150, MacLean’s Magazine comments “So, far from being another hurrah for Canada, the event is deliberately challenging our collective amnesia.”

University College, the founding College of the University of Toronto, has taken a leading role in the discussion by marking Canada’s 150 with Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: a Story of Resilience” an exhibition that premiered at the University of Toronto Art Centre location and is now travelling across Canada. Doug Ainslie, Principal of University College, writes in this months’ alumni magazine, that Monkman used art and carefully curated historical artifacts to tell the story of Confederation from a queer indigenous perspective. He required us to see what is too often erased in national histories: those who have been subjected to violence, to cultural genocide, to ongoing displacement. In doing so he exemplified what the University can offer during this sesquicentennial year; not further celebration, but historically informed investigations of what it means to be Canadian and where our country is heading.

Last Sunday CBC devoted its national Cross-Country Check-up program to the question: “Should we change the names of streets and monuments that honour contentious figures?”  What followed was a thoughtful discussion about the nature of public celebration and commemoration.

And then there is the disappointing Story of Us broadcast on CBC in early April to celebrate Canada 150. So far both the governments of Quebec and Nova Scotia are asking for apologies, stating that the 10-part series ignores key historical events and feeds into prejudices. Others have called it an anglo centric production that condenses 12,000 years of aboriginal history and 150 years of New France into one hour.

This is all a far cry from 1967 when celebration of 100 years of history was never questioned. Perhaps the celebration of Canada 150 or Canada 150+ is that both the celebration and the 150 years are being questioned.

The Power of Objects in the Great War Attic

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a wonderful WWI project completed a few years ago by City of Toronto Museums in partnership with Historica Canada and York University.   It’s a great example of how museums are increasingly inviting the public in to co-create experiences and share curatorial authority.

Called Toronto’s Great War Attic, the project invited everyday Torontonians to bring their family heirlooms from the Great War to a series of public sessions held at different locations throughout the city. Once there the participants told their stories and showed their heirlooms to museum staff, who in turn shared their expertise of the Great War and the heirlooms.

In many cases the participants had done a lot of detective work to piece together the story on these heirlooms since they had been passed down through generations.

One of the stories is told by a woman who is a nurse. She has the instrument bag from her great aunt who was a nurse in WWI. By using her contemporary nursing knowledge and by examining the antique medical instruments she pieces together an understanding of what nursing was like during the Great War.

She discovers the metal syringe with the needle still secured and contrasts this with the disposal ones used today. She marvels at how difficult the instruments must have been to clean. “How many bodies did these touch? How many people did she help?”

Another participant is a woman who finally opens a box of letters that her parents had stored in their basement and that her grandparents had stored in theirs.  The letters are from Flanders France and are from her great uncle. They had never been opened until she opened them just two years ago.  The letters had arrived in Canada after he was killed.

The best of the stories were made in to short 5-6 minute video. They are simple but moving.

What I find most interesting in watching these videos is the power of the objects— so much more powerful had I seen them in an exhibit about the Great War. The power of the story and the person telling it is what gives these objects so much more resonance. This project is a good example of how museums are sharing their curatorial power with everyday citizens to create better experiences.

Please have a look at the video with this post. What do you think of this method of serving up history?  I think it works because it uses a personal story to make us want to learn the bigger narrative. And it makes us feel part of a bigger community.

What do you think about citizen or non-experts sharing a part of the curatorial voice in museums?



Make Your Mark


Who doesn’t remember making something with paper and scissors and getting glue all over your hands and then peeling off the dried glue?

This childhood memory is the inspiration behind the art project Make Your Mark. I had the opportunity to speak with Meghan Ross over coffee last week at the Annex Common.  She’s the artist behind the project and while we talked Meghan spread a thin film of glue on my middle finder then pulled a hair dryer out of her purse which she carries everywhere so that she can dry the glue. During this process, she asks “What’s your story” and and begins recording though we didn’t do this in the coffee shop since there was too much ambient noise.  Once the glue is dry she covers it with scotch tape and then peels it off. There, on this piece of tape is my unique imprint. It’s the opposite of a criminal finger print, Meghan explains.  “It’s fragile, ethereal. It has no gender, race or class.”

Meghan’s idea, which is scheduled to be a Nuit Blanche installation at Union Station, is to gather the imprints and the stories of people from all over Toronto and to hang them together.  The stories will be presented in audio form. Meghan, along with Gabby Bevilacqua and Joey Jacobson make up the BXLS Collective that created the Make Your Mark proposal and submitted it to the Nuit team. Check out this video made by Gabby.

“With the gentle and widely playful gesture of drying glue on your finger and peeling it off each person can experience the imprint of their unique pattern revealed in front of them,” explains Megan.

“It’s the simplest expression of humanity. It’s taking place in Toronto during Canada 150 but it could also be placed anywhere in the world. It’s about humans having a mark.”

Meghan is a 20-something recent graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design but she speaks with a wisdom beyond her years. Another emerging voice with insight into the issue of identity.

The idea for Make Your Mark came out of Meghan’s graduate thesis titled Elmer’s Guide to Nostalgia.  The Elmer’s of course refers to the ubiquitous Elmer’s glue. It’s a childish habit turned in to a piece of contemporary art.

I took this one last quote from her web site.

“This process, when repeated tens of thousands of times, will collectively compose a representation of the essence of Toronto. Make Your Mark is the embodiment of individual identity in our great city and country. It is a pavilion that can occupy any place, where people will be surrounded by the absolute uniqueness of each citizen. Like the strokes of a brush in a masterful painting, each translucent fingerprint, initialled by the person who made it, will contribute to the creation of an inclusive space filled with light, movement, personal stories, and inspiration.

Looking forward to seeing it. Nuit Blanch is September 30, 2017.

Mapping the Territory: A Youth Perspective on Identity

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Identity, individuality, belonging: These are some of the universal themes of art. And youth bring a particular perspective to these themes that we should always be listening to … like the canary in the coal mine. Their perspectives are harbingers of things to come.

This post is a  bit of a change from my usual heritage-and-public-space posts.  But I want to highlight two projects that interest me because they fuse together traditional ideas of heritage and space creating a unique perspective on the concept of identity.  And they are both projects coming from very young people. So I’ll use the next two posts to highlight each of the projects.

Last weekend I spoke to Ashley Watson, Curator, and Farah Yusuf, Curator-in-Residence for Humber Galleries. We were at North Space, the gallery at Humber College North Campus which was featuring Mapping the Territory.  This is an exhibition developed by Grade 9 Rexdale students from the Pathways to Education programme and mentored by the Department of Unusual Certainties.  The idea was to explore how the virtual space we inhabit relates to the physical, social and economic reality of a community.

Farah and Ashley said they were inspired to create the project by the Myseum Intersections program which invites small galleries and museums to explore the story of Toronto in unique ways.

Students responded to the challenge by creating unique personas based on a variety of themes such as sports, politics, and religion food.

A graphic wheel was developed mapping the attributes of the identities and this wheel is projected onto the wall as part of the exhibit.   The students invented life stories complete with imagined lives, places, fashion, relationships, language and style. The students then brought these fictional identities to life via Facebook posts. One student developed a slang style of speaking to match the persona.


Ashley and Yusuf are effusive about the process and the student insights. None of the students had ever been to a gallery before. They had imagined that an art show would contain paintings on a wall. Instead their own invented identities and storylines were projected on to the gallery’s blank walls. The stories reflect both the students’ aspirations and their personal experience.


The students located their personas globally rather than locally. They visit and live in countries that many Grade 9 students have probably never heard of. One story starts with a character who lives in a poor area of Kenya, is adopted by Somalian pirates, and then meets his half-brother who teaches him to play soccer.


The exhibit is both a documentary and a reflection. The process of developing the identities and their final stories was documented and the footage is shown as part of the exhibit in a pixelated format.

The project is a graphic view of the world these young people carry around in their minds. I felt privileged to get a glimpse of it.