Do you believe Fort York is worth fighting for?

The Fort York Foundation isn’t getting what it wants and sounds embattled. Already frustrated by Toronto city council’s heel-dragging over building a $20 million bridge to enhance the fort’s accessibility, it has made a desperate fundraising plea for its proposed new visitor centre. On the heels of a gala dinner, it ran a single ad in the Globe and Mail (Saturday, June 25) hoping to persuade readers “Fort York is worth fighting for.”

Should we believe Fort York is worth fighting for on the basis of this one, eighth-of-a-page, ad? I would have hoped that, with the bicentennial of the War of 1812 almost here, they might be a bit more imaginative and substantive. If they don’t care enough to tell me their story, to engage my interests in history between visits, why should I care enough to support their cause? And until they do, I can’t say that they are worth fighting for.

Sadly, this culture of expectation is the museum way: its a world that places great faith in the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ approach; believes high visitor numbers indicate “something good is happening” (Falk and Sheppard); whose imagination has been handcuffed by the belief people have to visit in order for them to learn. It’s a world that expects support on the basis of some nebulous claim that “history is important,” yet can’t go beyond this cliché to make a compelling case for its public value. The marketing gimmicks to which they default build the wrong kind of identity, and don’t produce meaningful connections and long-term success.

To establish their relevance, museums need something other than chutzpah.

If they expect me to fight for them, Fort York better start telling me – and the rest of us – why I should care. Because here’s how Torontonians think: if Fort York doesn’t care enough to promote itself effectively, and if visitorship is down, why should the city spend $20 million on a new bridge to Fort York? I’d rather have my street paved. Sounds callous, but that sentiment reflects the Toronto identity: we’re a Toronto Life kind of city, shallow, cosmetic, celebrity-driven. Event-driven. Where what happened five minutes ago no longer matters; a city whose vision comes from developers. Toronto’s identity doesn’t include the past because our museums and heritage organizations don’t communicate effectively. And because they don’t communicate effectively, they aren’t being adequately supported.

Museums have to stop expecting and work differently to earn greater support. If they’re looking for support from politicians, museums have to prove they’re useful: Fort York has to demonstrate that history supports the Toronto brand and extends the city’s marketing effort. At some level it appears city officials consider municipal museums to be tools to market the city. In October 2009, Councilor Glenn de Baeremaeker said the Toronto Zoo was important to Toronto because it was “one more way to put the city on the map.” Who knows if he feels the same way about Fort York? But, given the state of funding for history in this city – and council’s reticence to build the bridge – I think it’s a fair guess the city doesn’t know how it benefits from its historical assets.

And that’s because no one at Fort York – nor at Colborne Lodge, Spadina House, Mackenzie House, Toronto Zoo, or even Heritage Toronto – is telling them adequately. If the city of Toronto doesn’t know what museums do for them it’s because the heritage community hasn’t made a compelling case for its relevance. So let’s lay blame where blame should lie: with the people managing these sites.

It’s up to the museum community to tell us why we should care about its work. They have to provide the right catalyst to attract new audiences. Fort York will not be more successful with a new bridge. It may enable easier access, but does doesn’t address why people should go. At the Toronto Zoo, city councilor Giorgio Mammoliti is “convinced the pandas are a ‘catalyst’” to raise awareness, motivate more people to visit, encourage more donations. Pandas aren’t the right catalyst, they’re merely a spectacle that will produce, at best, superficial attention and make the zoo look like a local entertainment venue. Certainly, not the tactic that suits the zoo’s high aspiration of becoming “one of the strongest conservation advocacy groups in the world.”

Then there is Casa Loma – one of Toronto’s relics that gets passed-off as a kind of museum (people pay a hefty fee to go and see what, exactly?). Gary Miedema, the chief historian at Heritage Toronto, declares it to be special, but what is its value beyond being a memorial to self-aggrandizement? (Hey…maybe it is a worthy symbol of the city after all, closer to the Toronto identity than I give it credit). There is an important story to tell about how Sir Henry made his money and its impact on the province, but no one, it seems, has the will to tell it beyond a few panels in the almost-furnitureless “castle.”

Museum managers have failed to clearly establish and communicate the unique value of public history because they don’t try engaging audience thinking beyond in situ visits and exhibitions. Museums want us to believe in their importance, but by not communicating to keep people connected to their work between visits, we lose touch with their – our – story. Isn’t it ironic, then that in 1840, Lord Durham – in town to mop up the mess of two little rebellions – unfairly declared French Canadians a people without a history. 170 years later, the Quebecois have a handle on who they are while we Upper Canadians – with our Toronto Life sensibilities – have lost the connection to our story.

With that lost connection, of course, goes our perception of museums’ value. Which leads to the real problem: lacking the will to reach out and communicate to a broad audience, and suffering from declining attendance, has made these museums look increasingly like black holes. And what do people do with something that isn’t perceived to have any value? Tear it down and throw it out. Why not sell-off Casa Loma and convert it into condos?

Here’s what I think: you can’t be heard if you aren’t saying anything. If museums are to prove they are relevant and vital they have to can develop a deliberate and sustained content-first brand marketing strategy that can engage more people. Effective branding starts with content: Tell your story, build a community, meet your goals.

Toronto has long wanted to believe it is world class: it’s time for the city to recognize the value of history in telling its story and marketing the city, and time for our museums to realize they have a stake in advancing that aspiration. The zoo, Fort York, Casa Loma…all have inspiring objects that demonstrate – collectively – Toronto’s unique story. Can the loose fish in Toronto’s heritage community and museum sector work together and give the rest of us something to talk about? They better start trying, because it seems clear the mayor and his brother are more interested in attracting an NFL team to Toronto than supporting arts and culture.

Fort York does indeed need a bridge as a catalyst, but not a physical one: its story provides the bridge to new audiences. And if they tell me a story that makes me believe in them, then I’ll fight for Fort York. The awareness and sustainability it craves will emerge only if they are intrusive about transmitting what they know. Until they come to terms with this, Fort York and its colleagues will continue losing ground to the city’s multiple (and increasing) distractions; they will never be perceived to be anything more than a sideshow.


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