Last night I attended the “Lost City” panel discussion, sponsored by Keep Toronto Reading 2008. The host was CBC’s Matt Galloway, and panel speakers were Matthew Blackett, Barbara Hall, Christopher Hume, and Brad J. Lamb.
The event was billed as a debate; however, I was genuinely disappointed by the lack of open debate or dialogue. The panelists seemed to spend very little effort in interacting with each other, instead responding individually to the questions: the thing could have been held as four separate interviews.
The few times that panelists responded directly to each other’s statements, it got heated, quickly. I got a distinct sense of hostility and blame — whether they were baling each other, or parties like the OMB which were not represented.
The question period did not much help — it became more of a forum for the airing of particular grievances, which were then shot down by panelists, than a discussion of public concerns.
All of which made me wonder: is it possible to have open, non-aggressive dialogue on Toronto’s relationship to its architecture, old and new? Or is this a subject which is fraught with too many decades of antagonism for anything to be achieved in a public forum?
Panelists argued that a benign meritocracy in the form of an architectural board would be empowered to make the decisions that benefit us all, but is there really no room for public input in such things?
And what does any of this have to do with cultural heritage and preservation? Some specific ideas that were brought up, and my responses to them, below:
- We care about the past, but haven’t figured out how to incorporate it into our lives. (Hume)
- True. For most people, an interest in history is one of the first priorities to be deferred as soon as other issues come up.
- As the general public can be apathetic in times of duress, it does fall to professionals to ensure that preservation is still an active priority, for when records or artefacts are again seen to be of cultural importance.
- On the other hand, it’s important not to be preserving records for their sake alone: the archivist must trust that at some point in the future, those records will be again in use and valuable to education, history, or some other venture.
Then, in opposition:
- We don’t have a culture that values history. (Hall) She implies that in order for legislative changes to occur, there must be grassroots interest in history.
- It’s the wrong sort of people who attend consultations, the most vocal minority only. (Lamb)
- Public consultation process is made to be deliberately intimidating. (Audience member.)
- Developers and politicians are thus in some way puppets of the zeitgeist. They have no responsibility except when directed by majority of the public.
- This goes counter to other views expressed, that experts are better equipped to make these decisions than the public.
- Is it possible to encourage the public to develop a stronger interest in history, without endorsement and awareness coming from the political ranks?
- Improving the accessibility of public consultation to “regular” informed citizens would only improve it, and improve respect for the process from all sides.
- It was expressed that wonderful things are being done by volunteers all the time. If this is a valued function for our culture, should there not be professional or paid positions serving this function? Saying “volunteers will do it” marginalizes the role.
The way we think about history and preservation is coloured by what’s gone before, and strongly affects what of us will be preserved in the future:
- Preservation is often an elitist venture. (Hall)
- Historic buildings are not consciously destroyed so often as let go. (Hume)
- The buildings under discussion were not built to last, and preserving them is too much of a challenge; more of a challenge than developers are able to take on without special incentives. (Lamb)
- The implication is that things which are planned to last have fewer barriers to preservation
- Also, as we preserve those things which are easy to preserve, that presents the future view of the past — and those things which were preservable “must have” been of greater value to their creators. This creates a skewed perception of history.
- The way we build things today (from landmark buildings to electronic documents) is a gigantic deciding factor in how long they will be around, regardless of how valuable they are deemed to be.