Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Saturday, February 24, 2007

From Penalties to Produce

What would Bill Barilko think? It seems that the new owners of Maple Leaf Gardens, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. (yes, the grocery store people), have plans to turn the hockey shrine into - you guessed it - a grocery store.

Of course, as one might expect, there has been a storm of controversy surrounding the proposal. Heritage properties or buildings with history are always a touchy subject when it comes to preservation, and especially in this case when the building under consideration was once the Mecca of the hockey world. But what should be done with something when it outlives the purpose for which it was built? And what if it is not a public building but owned by a private citizen or corporation? What effect does this have on history?

I am probably in the minority, but I think the owners of the Gardens should be able to use the building the way they see fit. After all, when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment sold the building, they did so under the condition that it could not be used as a hockey arena or sports venue. Essentially then, MLSE created a situation which would inevitably change the course of the building’s history. So, rather than have it sit empty, shouldn’t it take on a new persona and be the basis of a new history?

It would be illogical to suggest that converting a building like the Gardens is selling out to corporate interests and destroying a part of Toronto’s history. The argument really has no validity considering the building was originally created to make money. In fact, the seats were moved closer together to squeeze more patrons in. So far from destroying history, a corporation like Loblaws is merely continuing the tradition of capitalism.

Architecture critic Chris Hume, the first person you might think would be against the proposed change, supports it. Hume points out that the Gardens is not architecturally unique and calls the reno a “fitting end to this dismal, unhappy place.” He is referring to the various monetary and corruption scandals and in later years, child abuse scandals, which have tainted the confines of the arena.

I think Hume makes some valid points. The arena seems to have as many bad memories as good. Why not change the use completely and give the building a chance for a new history?

Yes, the building is iconic and was the site of many memories, but the building itself is not being torn down. It will still be there as part of the history and heritage. Even The Toronto Preservation Board gave the conditional okay for the re-adaptive reuse of building. So it seems the city has given its blessing for a new chapter in the history of Maple Leaf Gardens to be written.

I recently had the chance to hear Elizabeth P. Busby speak. As former head of art conservation at the ROM she has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the art, museum and history worlds. Someone asked what she thought of the new Michael Lee-Chin crystal at the ROM. She said that originally she was unsure but that she had grown to really like the design. She said it was “of our time”.

I think Elizabeth P. Busby has put it brilliantly. Buildings, like history, are reflections of their time. They change and morph and grow based on cultural attitudes and economics. History is not stagnant It is based on the ideas and feelings of the past and interpreted by those in the present. History is created by people.

Building and structures may encourage memories, but the stories attached to them remain long after a building has been torn down, or its original use long forgotten. If Maple Leaf Gardens becomes a grocery store it will just be part of the inevitable historical change, and its impact, the basis for discussion and debate among future historians.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Sister Hates History

My sister hates history. Not just a mild dislike. No. She hates it. This is not something I deduced on my own; she told me. Nor is this a new epiphany in her life. Nope. She’s hated history for a really long time.

For years I have been trying to get to the bottom of this hatred. It disturbs me. How could someone HATE history, especially someone who is my own flesh and blood? After all, History is what I do. I love it. I mean when I was a kid, I steamed labels off of Canada Dry bottles to send away so I could receive a full colour book of The Treasures of Tutankhamun. Uh -Huh. Moving on...

Of course I could have figured it out. This is a woman who, when we were at the Louvre and I was standing in front of Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa ( one of my favourite paintings), said ,“ are you done looking at that thing yet?” She just didn’t appreciate how I could be so enamoured with a painting. Fair Enough. Maybe art is just not her thing.

However, I do find it hard to accept that someone who lived in Paris for a year and in other parts of France for another year can hate history. She did concede once that she does not mind French history. Of course this is only because she loves the language and she feels she must know a little bit about the history and culture of the place to fully appreciate the language, its nuances and references. Exactly I tell her. Think of the appreciation she could have for so many other places and ideas if she embraced history. Nice try she said.

So, I have decided that she will become my guinea pig. ( We had a guinea pig growing up. He was of the long-haired variety. I remember that my mother gave him CPR once. He lasted a little while longer after that. But I digress...) A Public History guinea pig if you will. Or maybe it’s like rehab. Not the Betty Ford kind, more like historical enlightenment. I just know that somewhere deep down in the recesses of her dark, history-hating soul, there is something I can tap into. I am determined to help her find something about history, any era, form or genre of history, that she likes. After all, not only am I a Public Historian, I am a history teacher. In my spare time ( which doesn’t actually exist these days, but when I do have spare time) I read history, I watch history, I visit history. Really, what gives with her? You can see how perplexed I am by this hatred.

Where will I begin...
I am going to use what I have learned this year to help my sister realize that she likes history. I think I may have already started the process. I invited her to the opening of our Invention to Innovation exhibit and she said she liked it. She found some items she was interested in and was quite intrigued. Of course there was also the wine and the cheese - ah, engaging the visitor, step one in historical rehabilitation. So, more trips to museums and interesting exhibits are definitely part of the rehab. I think there may be some opportunities to use film in her treatment as well.

In all seriousness, I think she does like history and just doesn’t realize it. I guess it will be up to me to convince her that history is not a dull and dusty book, but can be active, engaging and alive. It’s going to be intense, but I am up to the challenge. I feel like Dr. maybe that isn’t the best analogy. Stay tuned for the updates.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Invention to Innovation

Interested in the strange and quirky? Or perhaps you are interested in technological advances which have changed the way you live your life? Then check out what my UWO Public History colleagues and I have been working on. Invention to Innovation looks at the evolution of technology from the 19thC to the present. The exhibit runs until August at Museum London so check it out if you are in the area. You can visit the virtual exhibit also created by the Public History class at