Toronto’s undiscovered treasures

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Local ethnic displays re-define museums in the ‘90s

By Rebecca Eckler

To many people, museums are little more than dark, dusty places only seen on dreaded school field trips. For some groups have dismissed them as elitist institutions that have the authority to interpret, and also to exclude.

But museums have undergone some radical changes of late. A new type of museum is appearing on the scene — one that works alongside communities, promoting multiculturalism and social diversity.

Since the Second World War, the number of community museums in Ontario has grown from around 40 to 400. Today, smaller community and specialty museums such as The Bata Museum and the Museum for Textiles have created a “new history”; one that focuses on the forgotten audiences in our community. 

Museum for Textiles curator Angela Wood and a dedicated team of 12 individuals have worked tirelessly over the past three years on From BaBa’s Hope Chest, an exhibit that runs until October 15. In the process, Wood has accomplished something that few other curators have been able to do — she has created a solid partnership between a Canadian cultural institution and an ethnic community. The exhibit is a unique display of the costumes and textiles borrowed from the homes of Canadians of Macedonian descent living in the greater Metropolitan Toronto area.

“It really is Toronto’s most undiscovered treasure,” she says. “There are about 100,000 or maybe even more Macedonians in the community. Most came to Canada at the turn of the century. Growing up here, we just became an invisible minority.” 

Wood believes that this type of exhibit represents a new wave of museums that focus on ethnic communities. From BaBa’s Hope Chest is a collaboration between the Museum of Textiles and the Canadian Macedonian Historical society. 

The term “BaBa” means “grandmother” and the items in From BaBa’s Hope Chest are a tribute to the mothers, grandmothers and female relatives from Macedonia who lovingly and painstakingly crafted and proudly wore the costumes on display. The articles include 5,000 square feet of traditional costumes, rugs, springs, and scarves worn by the women and men of Macedonian descent.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” Wood says. “Every piece of fabric has a story to it. When we collected the items from the people and the oral history that went along with it, it was like opening the door to the past for these people.” She adds that so far, response has only been positive.

Culture-specific displays can be a very dangerous foundation for an exhibit, however. Sometimes, museums that try to cater to a specific group create controversy, and questions arise as to who should decide what people want to see.

Part of the problem has been the traditional mandate of museums as being “neutral” displays of the past. No longer do they function solely as a community service, preserving artifacts for eternity.

A report commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Recreation, entitled “Museums and Communities: Collaborating for the Future,” features a 1988 exhibit entitled The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples. The exhibit, shown by the Glenbow Museum, included unique North American Native artifacts to show the beauty and tenacity of cultures extinguished by European settlement. Organized by non-Native anthropologists and museologists who developed the exhibit according to their professional standards, and planned to coincide with the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, it was to provide an international audience and promote the reputation of the museum and the sponsor, Shell Oil Canada.

But the people who the show should have appeased protested the display. The Lubicon Cree of northern Alberta complained that the exhibit did not serve the pressing cultural needs of their community at all. They felt their heritage was threatened by the unsettled land claims with the federal government and the issue of petroleum leases on these lands to Shell Oil. Other Native organizations argued that the use of sacred artifacts in the displays was offensive, and claimed the objects were not meant for public viewing, but for private, religious use. Suddenly, the museum was forced into a public debate about the moral integrity of their work. 

The report also cites the example of an exhibit at the Welland Historical Museum. To celebrate 1000 years of Ukrainian identity, the Museum produced the exhibit with a local Ukrainian group. After several months of interviewing and videotaping, it was obvious that the community consisted of three distinct groups holding different political and religious beliefs. To avoid the appearance of favouritism, the curator limited the show to identifying patterns that were only the common experience of all Ukrainians. 

Despite these incidents, Mary Anne Neville of the Ontario Museum Association says community museums continue to thrive. 

“Museums must create bridges with the host community they come into,” she says. “You have to speak the right language so it’s us and them. The most challenging thing for a curator is to keep pace with the community. Most older museums are based on 19th century knowledge solely on scholastics or academia. (Knowledge can consist of) legends, myths and hunches. You get into all kinds of internal squabbles. If you see (the ethnic community) as an entity, you could be quite wrong or seeming to favour one group over the other.”

It is imperative to remember that no community group is monolithic — there are a variety of points of view in any culture.

Jonathan Walford, curator of The Bata Shoe Museum, was careful when dealing with the various religious aspects of shoes. Before the exhibit started, he sent letters out to representatives of all the various religious groups to read over. “We have an Inuit advisor council for one display. Inuits have a very distinct culture. There may not be a difference in my view, but I’m not an Inuit specialist,” explains Walford. He agrees that the wave of the future is in specialty museums. “They’re incredibly healthy. It’s easier to focus on one aspect of culture and delve into it.In huge museums, there’s danger. Some areas get forgotten about.” 

Because of positive steps being taken by specialty museums such as the Museum for Textiles and The Bata Museum, the history of ethnic communities across Canada is in good hands.

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