Lets accept that history is a moving target and go from there

I have decided to write this blog as Canada enters its 150th birthday year to explore how we think about and express our cultural heritage whether it be through preservation of the built environment, or through public festivals and events,  public spaces, exhibits, videos, books, talks etc.

For example, many of us are participating in the huge outpouring of emotion and commemoration around the  closing of the iconic Honest Eds discount store. This outpouring is not just about a heritage building being lost; it’s about our fear of losing the spirit of what Honest Ed’s represented: A Toronto that is welcoming and accessible. Those are the cultural values that are at stake here. Not surprisingly, the farewell bash hosted by the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is called “A Toronto for Everyone” and this includes  “A Town Hall for All”  featuring stories about the neighbourhood and discussions on homelessness and inclusion.  Through the long process of closing and saying goodbye to this landmark building, we as a community have defined the cultural heritage values that are important about the Mirvish site.

There’s also the unprecedented step taken By Toronto City Council in December of placing a one-year freeze on the demolition of 303 heritage buildings in the King Spadina neighbourhood; Then there was the outrage over the loss of the 110-year-old Beaux Art Bank of Montreal Building at Yonge and Roselawn.   There are intense debates at community meetings and in the media about what constitutes heritage and what its value is. But increasingly, as in the case of Honest Eds, responsibility is shifting from the experts to the community.

There are many voices in the debate. Some  complain that trees have more protection than buildings  while others say  we shouldn’t worry so much about heritage and that the city will grow like a natural ecosystem. Even the celebration of Canada 150 is problematic. First Nations groups and others point out that the last 150 years isn’t cause for celebration for everyone and that the word “commemorate” rather than “celebrate” is more appropriate. Nathan Tidridge, speaking at the 7th Annual Historical Gathering & Cultural Series, hosted last week by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, spoke about the devastating impact Confederation had on the relationship between First Nations and the Crown and how this led to the residential school system.

Heritage museums, especially those operating out of heritage sites are being challenged by funders to prove their relevance to citizens. A relatively new voice in the profession, Frank Vagnone, has written a manifesto called “The Anarchists Guide to the Historic House”. Though many consider it a rant, it is evidence that change is afoot in the world of cultural heritage.

I was at a small conference last May hosted by the Canadian National Committee of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS Canada) and ERA Architects. The conference title was “Bringing Heritage Out of History and In to The City” and this is precisely what it was about.  Together, conference participants explored the role of heritage conservation in social issues and in community sustainability. There were walking tours of Kensington Market, and the empty space under the Gardiner Expressway that is about to be made into an urban park. The question on everyone’s mind was: How does heritage contribute to these important cultural landscapes in the city?  Discussions revolved around how to decide what heritage attributes are significant and who gets to decide.  I came away from that conference thinking that a broader understanding of heritage was needed and that in fact we should think about heritage as a resource rather than an absolute set of heritage attributes or buildings or facts. The discussions of the conference are recorded in the on-line publication, “A Field Guide to Tactical Heritage Urbanism” by ERA Architects in conjunction with (ICOMOS Canada). It suggests some low-cost initiatives by citizens that can “reveal” and “celebrate the multiplicities of experiences and stores that emerge from communities.”

I have great hope that if we accept that history is a bit of moving target and not a set of absolutes, then maybe we can imagine it as a vast resource of ideas that can energize our communities and our cities.

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