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Civic Impact

Toronto museums look for new ways to capture our imagination

Bigger media presence, more collaboration with artists, more engaging programming and a larger role as community resources.

Those are just a few of the changes Larry Ostola, director of Toronto’s Museums and Heritage Services, would like to see as he and his team set out on a five-year strategic plan to keep their 10 museums and 40-some historic sites relevant in a city that’s increasingly shiny, new and future-focused.

“I really do hope that people will look at these places in a new way,” says Ostola, who took on the job in May after 20 years at Parks Canada in Ottawa , where he had a wide range of responsibilities for national historic sites, built heritage and World Heritage. Toronto has a strong portfolio of properties and programs, including its signature site, Fort York. But like many other cities, it’s been struggling with keeping the public engaged with history and heritage. A stronger media presence and more collaboration with partners are just some of the ways Ostola would like to reach out to a variety of Toronto communities.

“You can define community a couple of ways. There’s the geographic area immediately surrounding these places—do the residents of these places feel welcome? Are we catering to their needs? Are we making these places available for their needs like community meetings?” says Ostola. “There are also communities of interest. Are there ways we can invite those people in to make them feel welcome as well?” Newcomers, for example, might have a particular curiosity about the history of their chosen home that can be better served by the city’s historic sites.

Although technology can help engage people with history, particularly younger people, there’s a delicate balance between being wired and being authentic.

“The two are not contradictory. It’s how you do it. When I was a kid going to these places, it was, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to see another demonstration by a blacksmith.’ That was something we were familiar with that we didn’t find very dynamic. You could speculate now that we’ve come full circle and that kind of experience can be seen as dynamic because of our familiarity with technology.” And our lack of familiarity with blacksmithing.

Ostola will talk about some of the possible new directions for the city’s museums and historic sites at the second annual Howland lecture at Lambton House on Thursday, January 15 at 7:30pm.

Writer: Paul Gallant
Source: Larry Ostola
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