Old City Hall perfect home for new Toronto museum | Toronto Star

Over the past few days, Torontonians have had their first official look at a new City Hall exhibit of a selection of remarkable archeological artifacts found under a parking lot just west of Nathan Phillips Square. The dig, overseen by Infrastructure Ontario...

Old City Hall perfect home for new Toronto museum | Toronto Star

Over the past few days, Torontonians have had their first official look at a new City Hall exhibit of a selection of remarkable archeological artifacts found under a parking lot just west of Nathan Phillips Square. The dig, overseen by Infrastructure Ontario and completed in 2015, unearthed more than half a million artifacts from a working class, immigrant enclave that dates to the mid-19th century.

For the next five years, rotating displays in the foyer of City Hall — the first mark’s the black history of St. John’s Ward — will showcase more of these objects and the stories behind them, stories that will reveal how waves of immigrants and refugees shaped Toronto.

But these items should also serve as a pointed reminder that Toronto’s rich history lacks a container — a museum where residents, students and tourists can learn about how an indigenous meeting place grew to be a global city.

For a few years, we’ll have an opportunity to view a tiny selection of these discoveries, and some artifacts will find a permanent home in a display planned for the new courthouse being built on the parking lot site. But the vast majority will go back into storage, perhaps in the Liberty Village warehouse that currently contains some 150,000 objects from Toronto’s past.

As it happens, a solution to this problem is hiding in plain view, but for the political and civic will to transform an increasingly obvious platform into a reality.

With the courts set to move out of Old City Hall, Toronto has an exceptional opportunity to reclaim a grand and complicated building, and put it to work as a place where Toronto’s stories — and the countless hidden objects that reinforce those tales — can be curated, explained, debated and reinterpreted.

Old City Hall should — indeed must — become the Toronto Museum.

And here’s a second proposal to accompany that one: Toronto can challenge itself to establish Old City Hall as our museum in time for the City’s bicentennial, in 2034. Although that date may seem like a long way off, 17 years isn’t that much in municipal time. Most importantly, it’s a span that would allow us to get it right, as a city museum, especially one destined for a heritage building.

Old City Hall exemplifies much about Toronto’s history: the Romanesque structure, designed by E.J. Lennox, opened in 1899 — late, overbudget and mired in scandal. But its size and architecture expressed the city’s turn-of-the-century ambitions: Toronto’s population was exploding, fuelled by mass immigration, including newcomers who were neither white, Christian nor English-speaking.

The building literally overlooked Toronto’s first arrival city — “The Ward” — and later almost fell victim to the waves of demolition that accompanied the urban renewal visions of the 1950s and 1960s. But citizens groups planted themselves in the way of a plan to knock down all but the clock tower, and Old City Hall lived to see another day.

Torontonians have been arguing about a Toronto museum for at least a generation, but the debate has been mostly abstract because no one could envision a building, much less a capital campaign.

While much of the discussion about a Toronto Museum has featured competing visions of what such an institution should aspire to be, Old City Hall has both the space and the history to provide an appropriately diverse vision of what such a facility can offer. It’s also perfectly located, close to transit, the Eaton’s Centre and of course Nathan Phillips Square, one of Toronto’s most visited places.

So why 17 years? To do the job properly, the City of Toronto needs to either establish an independent non-profit organization to run the museum or negotiate a partnership with an existing cultural institution — a critical governance move that necessarily precedes everything else.

The board of directors of said non-profit would need adequate time to simultaneously fundraise and develop a curatorial vision for this museum — again, tasks that need to be done carefully but expansively.

Last, the City and a Toronto Museum foundation would need to negotiate and execute an ambitious cost-shared capital refurbishment plan to undo decades of crummy courtroom renovations, create an accessible gallery and public spaces with links to the PATH system, and determine which parts of the huge building could be leased out for other complementary uses. The physical refurbishment could be expected to take a decade alone.

Municipal officials last fall conducted a low-key public consultation about the viability of this idea, and, at least from what I’m hearing, many people with an interest in a Toronto museum are now aware of the potential.

As Torontonians drop by City Hall and inspect this temporary exhibit of long-hidden archeological objects, they should ask themselves, as well as members of council, whether it’s time to give our remarkable histories the home they deserve.

John Lorinc is a Toronto journalist and co-editor of The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood. Two of the book’s co-editors, ERA Architect’s Michael McClelland and Tatum Taylor, curated the City Hall exhibit on behalf of Infrastructure Ontario and the City of Toronto.

John Lorinc is a Toronto journalist and co-editor of The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood. Two of the book’s co-editors, ERA Architect’s Michael McClelland and Tatum Taylor, curated the City Hall exhibit on behalf of Infrastructure Ontario and the City of Toronto.

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