Monday, 5 December 2016




Remember that scene from Alice in Wonderland where Alice drinks from a bottle labeled "drink me" and shrinks down to the size of a peanut? Or how about the crazy antics that resulted from a household experiment gone wrong in the 1990's classic, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? If you've ever imagined what it would feel like to be able to wear a lentil as a hat, use a raisin as a bean bag chair, or hang-glide on a Dorito (Marcel the Shell references intended), look no further than the virtual reality (VR) experience that is being offered this week as part of Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Watch the magic happen at 1:20. Source.

The Gothic boxwood carvings on display at the AGO are intricate sculptures, originally whittled from the wood of evergreen trees (hence, boxwood). Most of the sculptures in the collection date to the 1500's and comprise miniature Christian and Catholic religious paraphernalia, including pocket-sized prayer beads, altarpieces, and rosaries (AGO, 2016). 

The VR experience of Small Wonders debuted at the December edition of AGO First Thursdays, and will run throughout this week, until Sunday December 11th. According to the AGO's website, the Canadian Film Centre's Media LabSeneca College School of Creative Art and Animation, the AGO, and artist Priam Givord have collaborated to produce a VR experience where visitors can actually walk through a prayer bead (!!!). It's basically the real-life manifestation of Alice sipping from that "drink me" bottle, except instead of galavanting through Wonderland, the experiencer literally becomes immersed within the artifacts on display. 

One of the prayer beads in the exhibition. Source.
The inside of the above prayer bead. Amazing: I know. Source.
As a self-professed technophobe and lifelong skeptic, I'm always a bit cautious to put myself in a situation during which my sense of reality might become compromised. The director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson, argues that, "Immersion comes at a's perceptually taxing at times, and it's not something that we can use the way we use other media, for hours and hours and hours a day" (Manjoo, 2016). Surely, not everyone wants to give up being able to see their immediate surroundings to traverse unfamiliar territory. However, for those brave enough to put on a pair of VR goggles and step outside of their comfort zone, VR can be an enthralling experience. VR experiences like Clouds Over Sidra: an experience that takes the participant into a Syrian refugee camp; have the potential to engender empathy in the participant through their immersion within a new reality. In the case of experiencing boxwood miniatures, the AGO's VR experience could possibly imbue participants with a better visualization of the sculptures presented in the exhibition and could incite participants to engage in further learning and research on the artifacts and related topics outside of the gallery space. Check out Small Wonders: The VR Experience for yourselves, and make sure to holler at me with your thoughts about using VR in museums and galleries in the comments!

AGO. (2016). Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures. The Art Gallery of Ontario. Retrieved from 

Manjoo, F. (2016, June 22). Tripping Down a Virtual Reality Rabbit Hole. The New York Times. Retrieved from 

Friday, 2 December 2016




According to John H. Falk there are five different types of museum visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Professional/Hobbyists, Experience Seekers, and Rechargers. These visitor typologies explain why individuals are motivated to visit museums and cultural Institutions.

With the stressful holiday (and exam) period fast approaching I feel like many people fit within the "recharger" category:

“Visitors who are primarily seeking to have a contemplative, spiritual, and/or restorative experience. They see the museum as a refuge from the work-a-day world or as a confirmation of their religious beliefs”.

In order to relax and recharge here are some amazing objects/areas in Museums you should definitely check out for a little rest and relaxation!

1. The Cupola - Canada Aviation and Space Museum

The original cupola is a window on the International Space Station (ISS). This window area provides astronauts with a working space and observatory. Although the Museum only shows visitors a model, this object is still surreal in its depiction of the Earth. The area surrounding the model is semi-isolated and slightly dimmed. There are benches for visitors to sit down and relax, while classical music is played in the background. Visitors have often been caught taking power naps!

Personal Photo - Hayley Mae Jones

2. Pier and Ocean by artists François Morellet and Tadashi Kawamata. - Le Centre Pompidou

Pier and Ocean is an art installation comprising of 38 neon argon lights that are scattered around a room. The lights turn on and off in a set pattern (for a video click here). One of the second year students within the program was lucky enough to have seen the art installation in person:

"The installation limits the number of people that may enter at a time, and I was able to stand by myself for a while to really savour the experience. The lights are timed to gently dim and light to resemble ebbs and flows of the ocean, and the humming sound that the florescent tubes make are meant to make the visitor think of waves. It's also meant to pay homage to Piet Mondrian's series of sketches of the same name. I loved that it served as an interpretation of a familiar idea (the ocean/sea) in a completely foreign medium, while still retaining the "calming" sensation that many experience on the water." - Khristine, Masters of Museum Studies Student

Photo credit: source 
3. The Main Lobby - Aga Khan Museum

The Aga Khan Museum's main building is an architectural feat, incorporating relaxing light into the main lobby. The main lobby has multiple glass windows that allow for soft natural light to flood into the entrance of the building. Although it may seem like an odd place to relax, on a quiet day the main lobby is peaceful enough for some personal rest and relaxation.

Photo credit: source
Some other honourable mentions include: 

The Dream House - New York, USA 
Kadriorg Palace - Tallin, Estonia 

Hope you all enjoyed this post and have relaxing holidays! 

Thursday, 1 December 2016




If you visited the Koffler Gallery and Artscape Youngplace this autumn, you would have come across Yonder. As the introductory panel states, the Yonder exhibition “[explores] themes of intercultural translation, displacement and identity construction" by "[bringing] together a group of Canadian artists from diverse cultural backgrounds whose works examine the immigrant condition.” Through several impressive installations, the artists behind Yonder reveal intimate glimpses into their immigrant experiences and explorations of identity.

Yonder at the Koffler Gallery. Photo credit: Sadie MacDonald

The exhibition takes full advantage of the building’s space, with artworks installed not only within the gallery space but also outside the building, over the ceiling ventilation system, and in the staircases. The artists tell their stories through various media such as photography, video, audio, and sculpture composed of materials like faux fur, vinyl, and human fingernails. Visually and thematically, there is much to engage with in this exhibition.

Yonder begins outside the building with Divya Mehra’s piece There are Greater Tragedies. Looking up at the flag and waiting for an opportune wind displays the words, “MY ARRIVAL IS YOUR UNDOING.” In a sense, the flag heralds Mehra’s works and the exhibition as a whole. Using a printed flag, traditionally a mark of national identity, is a thought-provoking choice here.

Mehra, Divya, (2014), There are Greater Tragedies. Photo sadly not taken during an opportune wind. Photo credit: Sadie MacDonald. 

Mehra’s other pieces in this series are inside the gallery space and feature images of capitalized purple text, disjointed so as to fit within a square canvas space. The visual discomfort is highlighted by the juxtaposition of the words and their designated title in the label. The piece which proclaims “I WILL WORK HARD TO MAKE YOU FEEL COM-FORTABLE” is entitled You Made Me; in this light, the word "made" brings up disconcerting double meanings. Mehra’s work speaks to the pressures of identity politics and assimilation.

This pressure is echoed elsewhere in the gallery by other artists. Brendan Fernandes uses a troubling video in Standing Leg to depict his attempts at conforming his feet to European dancing standards. His piece shows the physical and emotional toll of trying to fit an imposed ideal.

Fernandes, Brendan, (2014), Standing Leg. The video was silent except for Fernandes's pained breathing. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.

The conflicts that arise from leaving and attempting to belong permeate the exhibition. I found the works by Julius Poncelet Manapul and Esmond Lee particularly heartbreaking. Balikbayan Bakla Maya, Manapul’s sculpture, floats lightly in the gallery but is heavy with tense meaning as the artist navigates his identity as a gay Filipino immigrant. This piece uses a variety of materials such as a balikbayan box, gay pornography, and Manapul's own fingernail clippings. Lee exhibits photographs of his family’s new suburban home in Between Us. In these photos, the house, despite its symbolization of success and security, reveals evidence of the family’s discomfort and internal distance within its walls.

Manapul, Julius Poncelet, (2016), Balikbayan Bakla Maya. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald

Difficult themes of disconnect and displacement show up frequently in Yonder, but the artists also explore connection and continuity within their works. Past and Present II by Zinnia Naqvi compares side-by-side photos of immigrant parents in their country of origin next to videos or photos of their children in Canada. The outfits worn by each parent and child are deliberately mirrored, and sometimes only the aged quality of the parent’s photograph indicates which one is the original and which is the replicated pose. However, the change of location demonstrated in the photographs opens a visual dialogue, which is further emphasized by having some family members face each other and by changing the genders of some of the echoed subjects. Naqvi's work is a subdued collection that manages to be both playful and reflective.

Other featured artists whose work is exhibited in Yonder are Sarindar Dhaliwal, Rafael Goldchain, Jérôme Havre, Luis Jacob, Sanaz and Mani Mazinani, José Luis Torres, 2Fik, Blue Republic, Diana Yoo, Jinny Yu, and Z’otz* Collective. Every piece in this exhibition is fascinating, and together they create a poignant narrative of the multifaceted complications that arise from “reaching for a yonder home.” I would love to talk about every installation in this exhibition, but I will refrain and instead suggest that you see it for yourself. Curator Matthew Brower offered us MMST students a tour of this exhibition, and I am glad I took the opportunity. These stories stuck with me.

Yonder just finished its run at the Koffler Gallery, but it will be exhibited at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery in January. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016




The Toronto Ward Museum will challenge most of your perceptions of what a museum is. It has no walls, no collections, and no curator. But last Saturday, Founding Executive Director Gracia Dyer Jalea curated inspiring conversations about migration through food. As she said, “tonight the museum is here.”

I’m working with the Toronto Ward Museum and two Masters of Museum Studies colleagues, Anja Hamilton and Rachael Thiessen, on our exhibition-related project. We’re expanding the series of programs called Dishing Up Toronto. The most recent iteration was Importing a Taste of Home: a special event at the Pasquale Brothers Warehouse.

From right to left, we are: Anja Hamilton, Erika Robertson, and Rachael Thiessen.
Photo: Lisa Martin

On Saturday, folks gathered at the warehouse in Etobicoke to enjoy good food, good conversation, and good company. Highlights of the evening included Monk’s Head Cheese, which I learned was so named because of the a special tool used to slice off rounds, resembling a monk’s tonsure. I was also impressed by Collective Arts State of Mind session IPA. It hits the sweet spot between bland sessions and hit-you-over-the-head hoppy-ness. I highly recommend pairing it with truffle chips. As our hostess, Anna Maria Kalcevich said with a laugh, people are always happy around food, except at funerals.

I was very happy. Photo: Erika Robertson
The Pasquales spoiled their guests, but we weren’t there just to eat. The warehouse party served as a soft launch for my group’s blog project, Our goal is to create a platform for Torontonians from all walks to share their stories of migration through food. Over the next few weeks, you can find the stories we gathered at the event with photos of our lovely guests.

I captured as many stories as I could, but so many defied attempts at documentation. Even I was surprised by how food memories created the sudden sense of intimacy among strangers. I found common ground with an older man who enjoyed my home state’s wine country. Another woman discovered that we both felt comforted by the taste of spicy chai. When a museum is an event and its collections are experiences, perhaps we have to put aside the urge to preserve everything.

Two guests share stories from their relationships with the food industry.
Photo: Erika Robertson

Our project is an experiment for both social media and museums. Many cultural institutions use social media to promote their programs or share educational content, but few use it to gather and amplify new voices. We aim to foster a sense of belonging and community based on common experiences of moving, cooking, and eating. The Toronto Ward Museum is hoping that people like you (yes, you) will add your voice. We have a few questions on our submissions page to get the conversation flowing.

Do you use Tumblr? I’m new at it, so if you have any pointers, please share! You can tweet me @EphemeralErika using #DishingUpTO



Note: The DAPL protests also covers environmental and water safety concerns, but I have focused on the heritage aspect below only.
Elderly woman arrested holding a prayer stick on Oct. 27: Source: Indian Country Today

Part A: Dakota Access Pipeline Update: 
  • - The United Nations and Amnesty International have both sent human rights observers to North Dakota to monitor the situation.
  • Over 500 protestors have been arrested. Many were injured or suffered from hypothermia, after a barrage of rubber bullets, concussion grenades, water cannons and tear gas. One of them includes Sophia Wilansky, who may lose her arm after a concussion grenade was shot directly at her.  
Protestor injured by rubber bullets and water cannons Source: TYT            
Tear Gas canisters fired. Source TYT 
  • - New drones have secured footage of the the DAPl activities, including indications that construction has been closer to the water than was thought. A drill platform has been set up, despite the fact that this is beyond the permit Army Corps of Engineers.

Drone footage showing the construction of the drill pad and proximity to water: Source: Dean Deadman via TYT
  • - President Obama has not attempted to stop construction activities for further investigation but has stated that he would prefer to “let it play out” in an interview in November. President -elect Trump owned Energy Transfer Partners' stock shares, but sold them over the summer.
  • - Most major news networks have not sent reporters or journalists on the ground to cover this story. In light of the recent concerns of false news reports in the elections, this has only clouded the facts on the topic.
  • -The Army Corps of Engineers has issued two requests to Energy Transfer Partners to halt for 30 days to no avail.
  • - The Army Corps of Engineers plans to force the closure of one of the protestors' camps on December 5 , though they have outlined a “free speech zone”.
  • - Water protectors intend to hold out through the winter.

Part B: Hierarchies of Power: 

Still of two women just before they are dragged and arrested in front of advancing police line: Source

1. The Myth of “Stakeholder” Equality?

A First Nations archaeologist once told a class back in my undergraduate years that he couldn't help but scoff on reflex when he saw a list of stakeholders for a project. For him, the notion of being viewed as or called just another “stakeholder” in a list of profiteers was absurd. It was his past that was on the line. The whole way of “balancing” stakeholders as if they were equal was a lie, he thought. The potential for loss was different and the gaps in power and voice were immense. “Balancing” stakeholders assumed an equality where there was none and depended on one party playing the part of the fair mediators. The truth is it is only an attempt at equality in a mess of hierarchies whether it's people or priorities. So a lot of it is fragmented and difficult to tease out. Give me another 8 or 20 years and I might be wiser, but in lieu of that, here are some starting points to understand the black box.

2. Developers, Energy Companies, Land Owners are the Drivers: 

Developers are the primary driver of archaeological and environmental assessments, and the reason why most archaeology in North America is salvage archaeology. 

In the present system, they ultimately have the most leverage, and it is in many ways, in their control. They pay for assessments and therefore, would prefer to have it done quickly and continue development. It is entirely contingent on the individual developers as to whether they understand or are interested in making sure that archaeological sites or more importantly, burials are respected and whether they would like to adhere to the law and their ethical guidelines or manipulate loopholes to save costs.

Many clients do follow the proper process, but preventing or prosecuting malfeasance is difficult. The reasons are quite simple. The powers that be who can step in are often slow to action, hesitant to hold parties accountable or do not hold much priority as they do not view the consequences to be important. Those who cannot can only petition or protest. Even in cases where wrongdoing is identified or legislation is passed, existing penalties may not be a sufficient deterrent if penalties are deemed is less costly. 

With that being said, it should be acknowledged that smaller homeowners may also find themselves footing the bill for archaeological assessments for basement renovations, an issue that has a different context and power gap. 

Drone footage showing work into the night and the arrival of the drill: Source TYT

3. Mechanics of Destruction:

Two general strategies are taken in cases of malfeasance: 

Fait accompli is the strategy taken where an area is bulldozed and developers or owners state that they either did not know about it or it was already done due to miscommunication. Since it was already done and intent cannot be proven, construction activities must go ahead.The DAPL project began with shades of this, though the clear antagonism displayed may defeat any feigned ignorance.

Demolition by neglect on the other hand, applies more to historic and built Euro-Canadian/ American heritage where land owners choose to let buildings fall beyond repair so that demolition is a necessity due to safety concerns.Toronto has had discussion on these topics frequently enough

In all cases, it is difficult to assess intent.

4.The Government Scattered: 

Senator Bernie Sanders speaking to a crowd of protestors outside the White House: Source

The government holds the greatest power theoretically. However, the present system is rarely able to respond very quickly when serious problems arise. Speed is essential to assessing and protecting lands, but the system(s) in place in North America is often severely underfunded and has little in place to ensure accountability against those who take advantage of its weaknesses.

As with all the groups here, it is not one monolith , but small hierarchies within a hierarchy. Police are often unfamiliar with investigating this topic and often do not prioritize it. Lawmakers do not view First Nations as a priority and often decisions are made by local governments without awareness of the issues. Cultural heritage professionals in the government must fight for funding and recognition within a larger structure that has different goals. Not all jurisdictions mandate archaeological assessments by law, though we do in Ontario. 

Concerns of how the Army Corps of Engineers managed the DAPL permits were raised as early as Oct. 18th and the internal conflict with its goals of economic development in this case have been brought up.

5. Salvage Archaeology is the Predominant Model: 

Archaeology in North America is by and large done as salvage projects, either by private Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms, teams within a larger organization (mining, oil companies or engineering firms) or government archaeologists.

CRM Archaeologists in North America are often the first and last line of defence. This is neither praise nor critique, but an unenvious responsibility. This is because they are often the only ones in the system who regularly assess properties, make recommendations to clients, contact First Nations, analyze and report findings, and disseminate information within reasonable time and preserving privacy (i.e. protecting site location). All of this is done under time and pressure. Contracts may also be underbid to less qualified firms.
An Army Corps of Engineers sponsored poster from 2002: Christopher Wai

If archaeologists cannot find the information necessary for accurate assessment the system fails. Within an organization (i.e. engineering firm or government) that holds other interests, their voice is muted and subject to their employers. If they are independent firms, they may have to preserve relationships for future contracts.

Archaeologists must make tough decisions- most firms cannot save every site, though they attempt mitigation (i.e. recommend building around specific areas) as a primary strategy and excavation or relocation as secondary fail-safe to protect the record. Unfortunately, most archaeologists are not First Nations and may be unaware of certain issues or, under pressure, some archaeologists may make problematic decisions 
Drone footage: Closer view of drill pad: Dean Deadman via TYT
6. First Nations Archaeologists are Under-represented and Must View,"The Other from Within":

Kennewick Man has only begun to be repatriated after a DNA analysis in 2015 (and not the previous use of outdated and racist classifications of “Mongoloid”/“Caucasoid”/ “Negroid” features).

One of, if not the largest Canadian repatriation projects that reburied 1760 individuals from University of Toronto and Ontario Heritage Trust collections at the Thonnakona Ossuary was completed just three years ago in 2013.

So, first and foremost, becoming an archaeologist for Indigenous peoples is not the most understandable nor comfortable thing to do. Anthropology (or Museum Studies) students who say that they are (metaphorically) "beat over the head with" the history of colonialism can only do so because they are so distanced from it. At the core of it is what Whitney Battle-Baptiste once described about her own experiences as a black female archaeologist as (adapting from Michelle Wright's concept): to see “the other from within”- to be a part of the system as a member of those who have been “othered” by the same system.

It means having to stare at the long history of archaeologists and anthropologists measuring skulls, cataloguing artifacts and being labelled assorted things for the pursuit of eugenics, colonialist justification or a mangled form of “Enlightenment ideals”. It does not go away, but hangs as a spectre.

To paraphrase the same guest lecturer and another who felt the same way, he felt he had to compare it all and decide to somehow make sense of it and justify how he could reconcile being First Nations and being an archaeologist; how they will be different and how they can explain it to families and friends.

Whereas the demographics of archaeologists in most of the world are now largely descendants of the people that they study as opposed to the earlier colonials and have agency over their own heritage, this is not so in North America. This being said, many countries will also have local labourers who do not hold the same status and their own issues with local communities and urbanization.

In North America (and somewhat similarly, in Australia and The U.K.) however, there is a different power dynamic. At all levels, all members on an excavation are expected to have BAs at the minimum to be field technicians. Field techs serve as the predominant labour here and are primarily seasonal with high rates of turnover. Higher levels requires degrees beyond the bachelor's level and sufficient time spent in this unstable job environment. 

In Ontario, advancement requires either a BA and enough experience for a research license and a full professional license requires an MA. Each level grants the authority to manage or direct projects. First Nations archaeologists are few and far between with Brandi George as the only one holding a full professional license and who runs her own archaeological firm. A separate system of First Nations monitors has become more common as an attempt to rectify things, but monitors often do not have the same privileges in the existing system as fully licensed First Nations Archaeologists and may have to negotiate separately with clients.

7. Indigenous Peoples of North America Face Many Issues

A friend of mine gave me a stark reminder when I naively asked her why her grandparents never voted on a drive back to the city just the other day. 

First Nations in Canada only had the right to vote a little over 50 years ago. Prior to that (1867-1960), the only way would be to give up their status and treaty rights or in other words, to be forced to assimilate. Something to think about as we move into Canada's 150th.

In the US, all Indigenous peoples were granted citizenship in 1924, but voting rights were under the jurisdiction of individual states and many could not vote until 1957.

Voting rights for Indigenous peoples in the US and Canada are recent and politicians have rarely ever treated them as people to hear or to engage with. For Indigenous communities in North America, the bulldozing of their ancestors is one of a long line of issues to contend with while having very little visibility in public dialogues or in positions of power in the government, along with the scars of treaties broken, the traumas of residential schools, environmental concerns, assimilation and disappearance of identity in their own ancestral home (unlike immigrant groups that still have an ancestral country elsewhere), housing, incarceration, or missing women.

Next: Where do Museums and Publics stand? 

In the next and final part, I will continue on to some of the issues of silence in media, the public and museums, especially in the context of the curation crisis that exists and the legwork that will need to be done in the future to recover what is being lost. 

In the meantime, protestors/ water protectors prepare for the winter.

For more discussion, Chip Colwell, Curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Lecturer at the University of Colorado, Denver, and Rosalyn LaPier, Visiting Professor at Harvard, have also discussed similar issues with a focus on defining sacred sites.

Water protectors building structures for winter Source: TYT

Correction: It has started snowing.

Monday, 28 November 2016




Museums have a lot of work to do. If you had asked me a few weeks ago why I've chosen to write about women in museums, I may have played it off as an attempt to use up my collection of Beyoncé gifs. (To be fair, I have so many. ) However, the political state of the world today makes me think that this topic is as necessary as ever. this is further evidenced by the number of times the #womeninmuseums tag is used on Twitter. If no one takes the time to recall the stories of women in our history, people will start to forget that those stories exist, and that women have always been a part of culture.

It has always been my intention that this article be as intersectional as possible despite having a title that implies a focus on female-identified individuals. I thought that today I wouldn't focus on one woman, but would instead leave you with a list of some of the people and institutions whose work towards justice has inspired my own museum practice. Without further ado:

That's right, Ferris Bueller, museums are for everyone! (Source)

1. The Incluseum: The Incluseum is a blog devoted to facilitating conversations around inclusion in museums. Their mission is to create discussions about new ways to be a museum using colaboration and community building. This is in direct opposition to a traditional museum model in which the institution is the authority. The blog was founded by Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, both museum professionals, who are very interested in issues of social justice. In keeping with it's policy of inclusion, The Incluseum has many contributing authors adding a rich variety of content as well as a multiplicity of voices. As an emerging museum professional, what I love best about The Incluseum are the Tools and Publications  and Resources pages. These pages are full of content on topics such as pop-up museums, museums and autism, museums and race, and activism.

2. Brown Girls Museum Blog: Brown Girls Museum Blog is a collaborative blog and consulting firm designed to highlight cultural workers who are visible minorities.
Amanda Figueroa and Ravon Ruffin founded the blog to redefine the stereotype about who the average museum worker is. As both millenials, and women of colour, Amanda and Ravon's blog represents a radical shift in the thinking around museum work and museum workers. They post about everything from understanding otherness in museums, to post grad survival, and their candid writing merges critical discourse and cultural critique with accounts of real world problems faced by young professionals working in museums today.

3: Museums that have reaffirmed themselves as safe spaces for everyone: I suppose that this one should go without saying, but in a political climate that is increasingly divisive, it is important to remember that public spaces and public institutions should still be accessible to everyone. That's why this article made me so happy to see so many institutions reaffirming that everyone is welcome to visit. Museums such as  the Tenement Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Japanese American National Museum and The Philbrook Museum of Art are all among the list of museums who are making sure they continue to offer services that are safe and inclusive. I know there are many others that I cannot list here, but I truly believe that even a small statement like this makes a huge difference to visitor experience in the museum.

These are just a few of the people, projects and institutions that I look to when I need some professional inspiration. So tell me, Dear Readers, who are your muses?

Friday, 25 November 2016


How do you recognize your connection to the past and embrace it in the present? This is a topical question to ask since November has been a month of exciting renaming and reclaiming projects related to African-Canadian history in Toronto.

1. The Opening of the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre

Artists completing the mural for the Centre. (Source)

Transit in Toronto is a hotly debated topic. However, long before talk of subway extensions and ride-sharing licenses, finding the fastest, easiest and cleanest route around Toronto, then-York, was a common concern in the early nineteenth century. One solution? Track down a taxicab from one of the city’s earliest transit operations started by former slave Thornton Blackburn.

Blackburn and his wife Lucie Blackburn embody the complex African American-African Canadian identity politics and illustrate the transnational mobility of Blacks during this era. You can read more about their stories in Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad and in a previous Musings post.

Stories about the Blackburns have resurfaced since the opening of the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre last week at George Brown College.  The opening activities included tours, live performances, an artifact presentation and a lecture by Smardz Frost.  Students from George Brown also presented their mural “A Leap of Faith” that is dedicated to the Blackburns and will become a permanent feature in the space.

2.  Welcome to Blackhurst Exhibition curated by Chinedu Ukabam

Welcome to Blackhurst on at Markham House (Source)
Welcome to Blackhurst aims to unearth, dust off and reposition Black history in the Bathurst and Bloor area. As the exhibit explains, Black history in the area did not begin with the waves of Caribbean immigration in the 1960s.  Historical evidence places Black settlers in this neighbourhood as early as 1860. The focus is on the individuals who lived there, some of them escaped slaves, as well as the businesses they started as a way to support themselves when they were denied service based on their race elsewhere in Toronto.

Welcome to Blackhurst will close on December 11, but Ukabam is already exploring new ways to preserve this history.  The redevelopment of the surrounding Mirvish Village that will transform the look of the neighbourhood in more ways than one makes these efforts that much more important. 

I applaud both of these projects for several reasons. Both initiatives successfully merged archaeological findings, archival material, artifacts and contemporary art into coherent and engaging presentations. Also, both the Centre and the exhibition grew from collaboration between different community stakeholders and key sources of knowledge such as the Ontario Black History Society.


Moreover, I appreciate that these projects launched at a time to meet a need in the community. In effect, these efforts challenge the notion that Black History is only to be celebrated in February. 

Finally, I’d argue that both projects have fully grasped this idea of Sankofa, which to the best of my knowledge is an African value that encourages people to "go back and fetch it." Said differently, only after claiming your past can you begin move forward.

So reader, how can museums better position themselves to ensure we don’t only look back but we also move forward?

What area would you like to rename to better reflect its origins?