A new online project aims to engage Torontonians with the city's past.
One of the great misconceptions about Toronto is that its past is boring. The city has seen its fair share of rebellions, grand celebrations, tragedies, ambitious plans, and unrealized dreams that in various ways intersect with our present. Teaching Toronto’s citizens about how the past and present connect is one of the goals of The Toronto Project, a new website that hopes, in the words of its introductory essay, to “explain who we are, and what we will become, by telling the stories of who we have already been.”
For years, community leaders and civic officials have envisioned a museum showcasing Toronto’s history. During David Miller’s administration there was a push to build one, known at different times as Humanitas or the Toronto Museum Project, in the old Canada Malting silos at the foot of Bathurst Street. The recession ended those plans, which evolved into a website that vows to weave “100 artifacts, 100 Torontonians, 100 stories, 100 exhibit ideas.” The Toronto Project organizers don’t see their effort as in competition with the Toronto Museum Project or other local heritage interests; organizers of The Toronto Project are reaching out to institutions and historical associations via public meetings. As the project’s executive director, veteran journalist David Macfarlane told us by email, “because we insist that we are in competition with nobody and link to everything, any territorial resistance quickly disappears.” Sponsors listed on the site, from cultural institutions like the AGO to legal firms, are providing editorial and financial assistance.
The idea for The Toronto Project grew out of conversations between Macfarlane and former Toronto mayor David Crombie. Macfarlane had just written the text for a coffee table book about the city’s past, while Crombie, who serves as the project’s chair, had long advocated a museum. Both concluded that the flexibility of the online world would allow them to, in Macfarlane’s words, “approach history in a more dynamic, interactive way.” During an interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning last week, Macfarlane indicated that he sees the Toronto Project site as an ideal gateway into Toronto’s history for schools and for those who aren’t normally drawn to discovering the city’s heritage.
With the assistance of the Toronto Star, the site’s current focus is collecting stories from Toronto’s diverse communities to build an interactive encyclopedia. “These are, in the main, stories of immigration and settlement,” says Macfarlane, “but by no means exclusively so.” We hope that the remembrances collected will include stories of the warts-and-all variety, which make history livelier and more relatable to contemporary day-to-day struggles than what Toronto Life once referred to as the “People Living in Harmony” school of museums.
Also underway is work on an exhibit highlighting Toronto’s waterfront. That public policy makers sometimes pay dangerously little attention to the area’s historical evolution was painfully evident when the Ford brothers unveiled their derided Ferris wheel and monorail proposals during the summer. The educational value of the Toronto Project’s efforts to contextualize areas of the city, like the waterfront, which have a long history of both good and bad development proposals, could be useful in urging public dialogue that may make voters think about what their elected representatives are really up to.
But will these kinds of discussions ever take place at a physical city museum? When asked where he might envision one being operated, Macfarlane says that “I’ve been spending so much time imagining the city as a museum of itself, it’s actually really hard for me to imagine any single location as a physical museum. That said, I hope there will be one.”