Heritage sites, including Montgomery's Inn, could pass into history when the city budget is brought down.
“Our heritage is not for sale. Our heritage is not for closure. Our heritage is not for contracting out and it is not for dismantling piece by piece.”
With these words Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) greeted a crowd of around 200 concerned citizens outside Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke yesterday afternoon. The historic site is among the four City-operated museums rumoured to be on the chopping block when the city budget comes out on November 28. Besides Montgomery’s Inn, the other heritage properties that account for $1 million in cuts are Gibson House, Market Gallery, and the Zion Schoolhouse.
Mihevc organized the Sunday press conference to mobilize public support for the museums. A petition is already online, and the audience was told that they should chat about the affected sites via social media. He announced a plan to request that the city museums division conduct a review to find ways to increase revenue. Mihevc believes that both the community and council need to act as “good stewards” of the city’s historic properties, many of which survived through decades of committed volunteer engagement that could be disrespected and forgotten.
Among the speakers was writer Michael Redhill, who compared the effect of closing museums to a dementia patient’s loss of memory. “Only a form of dementia would make the loss of the city’s history a fair value for a million dollars. Is your soul worth a mere million? Apparently Toronto’s is.” Redhill proceeded with a thoughtful critique of the Ford administration’s valuing of cost-cutting over the more enduring, if intangible, benefits of preserving heritage sites in which citizens can take pride:
The current municipal government has shown that it is willing to do anything in the name of money, no matter the cost to the city’s soul. The closure of four museums that are also heritage sites is an indication of soul sickness at the municipal level. This inn has stood on this very spot for 180 years while this city council will be gone in three. Torontonians should stand united against short-term fixes that will do permanent damage. These coming budget cuts will effectively ensure the disappearance of four important historical sites, and I think we have to recognize that. They’re not just closing the museum and getting rid of the workers; there will never be the political will to reopen these places once they are closed… Without a history to draw on, citizens will eventually think that there is no city to honour or preserve and that the needs of the present are the only ones that matter. We know what happens to people when they are convinced that their own needs are the only ones that matter. Do we want to live in a city that thinks that way?
Following a series of speakers connected to the affected museums, the audience was asked to form a human chain around Montgomery’s Inn.
Some of Mihevc’s fellow councillors went on Twitter yesterday to refute his claims regarding closures. Executive committee member Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), who proposed in September’s council budget sessions that alternative service models for city museums be examined, stated that “museums are not being sold and will hopefully never be closed. Staff can make budget cut recommendations but Council has final say.” She was backed up by Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), who noted, “We should not allow political grandstanding to take us off course.”
When we spoke to Mihevc about these comments earlier today, he noted that he had talked to Robinson and, based on that conversation and further checks with his sources, he is “absolutely right” about the proposed closures. (Robinson did not respond to our request for an interview before publication time.) He mentioned the parallel example of a council vote in September that prevented the elimination of community environment days, which the budget committee appeared to ignore when it proposed last week to reduce the number from 44 to 11. “So it seems the mayor is not paying any heed whatsoever to any of those motions,” says Mihevc.
Whether million-dollar or nickel-and-dime cuts are to be made to Toronto’s museums, intimations made over the past few months that there will be closures are stirring people to defend the value of these institutions. As Redhill mentioned, it’s difficult to imagine these sites will ever reopen if the doors are locked, at least not without extraordinary effort.
Shortly after publication, and after emerging from a meeting she’d been in, Councillor Robinson did indeed call us back. She insists that museum closures are not on the budget cut list, and feels that the combination of a front-page article in the Star on Saturday and Mihevc’s statements are needlessly stirring up fear within the heritage community. “I’m not sure why this has resurfaced because council was very clear in its direction to staff to say that this was not a direction we want to go in,” she told us. “Council is willing to look at alternate service delivery models and alternate funding models but we want to keep our museums open.” Robinson, who calls herself “a museum nut,” finds the prospect of closing any heritage site “as bad as closing a library, if not worse.”
For all the negative coverage of potential closures to city heritage museums, Councillor Robinson perceives some positives coming out of this incident. She referred to the fallout from Doug Ford’s dreams of Ferris wheels and monorails: “The silver lining on the waterfront was people started talking about it and it reinvigorated that piece of the city and got some attention focused back on it. There’s always a silver lining.”
Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.