Saturday 28 March 2015

A Tour of the City of Toronto's Museum Collections

This evening I had an opportunity to take a tour of a place that I have wanted to see the insides of since I first heard of it. The building that long ago was the Bank of Commerce Book Vaults, now is the office and storage area for the City of Toronto Museum Services Collections.

The building and collections are not normally open to the public but Heritage Toronto arranged exclusive tours for it's members, and hey, I'm a member. Membership does have it's advantages!

It is said that only 5% of a museums collection is shown at any one time, and it turns out that this is true. Even thought the Museums collections support nine different museums in Toronto, which are Fort York National Historic Site, Colborne Lodge, Gibson House, Mackenzie House, Montgomery's Inn, Scarborough Museum, Market Gallery, Todmorden Mills and the Zion Schoolhouse, this fact remains true. This building is in fact over full at 150% capacity. According to an old 2007 Globe and Mail article, this building at that time had an estimated 100,000 artifacts and about one million archaeological specimens. Incredible!


The building was built in 1912 and was used to house bank records. This made it perfect for museum storage as it is fireproof and because of the weight of the paper records the bank had to store, the floors were poured extra thick with lots of support. Everything is protected in a veil of plastic.


One of my favorite things was a part of the building itself. We rode on the original elevator that was installed in the building. It rode on rails and had to be run manually. There was no danger of it dropping as it is locked in the rails. One story was that elevator inspectors came in and gave it a drop test, where they over load the elevator to see how much it would drop.

The new rules.

They double weighted this car and then gave up. The car would not drop. I wish I had a picture from the inside with the old wooden bars protecting the passengers pulled down.

This is a terrible angle, but one donor donated boxes and boxes of paper and metal items. Things that usually deteriorate in time or are simply thrown out. The museum has been going through the collection for some time.

It was explained that many people keep what they treasure such as wedding gowns. Things like socks, shoes, work shirts are tossed, yet they are the fabric of what made the city and are valuable to a collection. Here are some everyday paper items that survived the years.

It's not just items from a hundred years ago that are treasured. They have a full commemorative can of Coke celebrating the 1992 Blue Jays World Series. Here is a collection of Leaf gear from their last Stanly Cup Victory in 1967. Oh, those coins at the bottom. They came in Sheriff Jello, and I had the whole set at one time.

Next up was the textile room. Normally, I would not have much interest but here ...

These are hand made quilts being prepared fro the Spadina museum.

Fabric has to be stored on it's side to preserve it. If it is hung, the weight of the fabric will pull down with gravity and ruin the outfit. Each drawer is carefully labeled. 

Army uniforms of prominent Toronto citizens are stored.

Alex, the Supervisor of Collections and Conservation for museum services, and led the tour, showed us samples of painstakingly hand woven lace, and the more manufactured kind. I'm sorry Alex, I never got a decent shot of you!

The textile floor is not only about outfits. Also accessories, and personal items such as address books.

This is one of Alex's favorites. This piece of jewelry is completely made of hair!

Having studied so much of the War of 1812, I was so thrilled to see the actual uniform of William Jarvis, who fought in the militia in the war. Light is the biggest enemy of fabric. It destroys the colour and that cannot be fixed, so the 200 year old uniform is laid down in a box and stored in the dark. The rules for this very old outfit is that it can be displayed for only a six month period, once every dozen years. This summer is is to go on display in the new Visitors Centre at Fort York, and you know I'll be heading over to see it!

One morning the staff came in and found six cuff links had been dropped through the mail slot. It turns out that at one time, Toronto councilors and aldermen received these when elected to office.

This room was so cool. It was used for the bank for storage of bank boxes. The shelves rise the full four stories of the building. Alex admitted she has dropped her keys down the slats. Again Alex, sorry for the poor picture of you.

In this room I discovered muskets, drums, flutes, muskets and yes ... sabres!


Our last room was storage for the Marine Museum, which used to be in Exhibition Place, then moved to Queens Quay, then closed. Although it was a Great Lakes Museum, and not Toronto specific, the museum took in the artifacts.


One of my favorite stories was about this diving gear, No, it is not for ocean exploration, but for work right here in Toronto. A man would suit up every day in this deep sea gear. The outside is made of rubberized canvas. Then lead weighted shoes would be put on and then the diving helmet. The legs and arms were then keyed in tight, so no air could escape. A pressurized hose supplied the air. 

The job? To clean out the water intact pipes out in the lake at the water stations. He would put on all this gear, which must have taken some time to put on, then wade out into the water and clean the pipes. Lot's of faith in those who supported him for sure!


I am so thankful that I had a chance to do this. It was all so fascinating. I only wish it could be longer but there were so many groups going through. Our city has such a fascinating history, and these people help to preserve it. Personally, I don't feel that the city council has ever been behind preservation of our past.

I can only hope that will change.

Many thanks to Heritage Toronto and the City of Toronto Museum's for setting this up. Heritage Toronto has plans to do more of these exclusive free events for members. I'm so glad I'm a member.

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