Sunday, September 19, 2010

London, Strut Your "Stuff"

An Ian Gillespie article in the London Free Press this past week highlights one of this city's long-term heritage problems. The article discusses former fire chief Jim Fitzgerald's collection of firefighting memorabilia, some of which dates back to the 1840s. The artifacts include photos, posters, helmets, hoses, alarms, masks, coats, etc. Every item tells a tale about brave firefighters of London's past.

Jim's collection was recently on display at City Hall lobby. Which is nice because normally no one would get to see it. Though he's tried for years to get the city to establish a firefighting museum, the city's just not interested. "I can't get to first base," he was quoted as saying. "It's sad." He adds: "It's a damn shame this stuff isn't in a permanent home." Presumably the artifacts spend most of their time in Jim's basement.

Of course, it's not just firefighting "stuff" that doesn't have a permanent home in London. Witness the recent closure of the Guy Lombardo Museum near the former Wonderland Gardens and the wrangling over ownership of the music legend's speedboat.

Then there are the various London museums in crowded, inappropriate quarters - like the First Hussars Museum in an Ontario cottage behind the Old Courthouse. Or the ones in out of the way places - like the Secrets of Radar Museum somewhere behind Parkwood Hospital. (I know, veterans will find it there - but who else?)

What this city needs is a real historical museum (by "real" I mean not like Museum London) with sections devoted to: the founding of the city at the Forks, the First Hussars, the Western Fair, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, the Medical Hall of Fame, Royal Canadian Regiment and the Secrets of Radar. There would be room for firefighting artifacts. Throw in a section on London's role as a refuge for fugitive slaves before the Civil War. Have a special display on our worst disaster, the Victoria riverboat capsizing. The role of the railway in developing the city.

I could go on but you get the point. Most of our heritage should be under one roof, not scattered throughout the city. And we don't even need to build new. There's an unused library on Queens Ave. Its lobby is probably large enough to hold Engine 86. There are dozens of empty stores on Dundas Street, most large enough to hold Tempo VI. There's an empty Normal School in Wortley Village...

If we build it - and make it good - they will come. Even pay. And Jim could get all that "stuff" out of his basement.


  1. The idea of turning the old library into a Historical Museum is honestly one of the coolest ideas I've heard for re-purposing that building.

    Very neat.

  2. Sadly about 20 years ago Keith Thompson, a firefighting heritage activist - even helped with local Heritage Week - tried to get a redundant firehall for a firefighters museum - beaten out by, of all people, Ed Phelps, backing a residential use for the property. Not sure agree with concept of centralizing all the specialty museums, setting up a bureaucracy, volunteer unfriendly, and just one downtown location for a vast city. You seem to live in central London, most of us don't - and remember the parking problem. "Heritage" does not package well, no problem with military at Wolseley Barracks, Royally patroned, Radar fits down where the Western Counties huts housed our ill Returned Soldier relatives. Hussars is a problem since turfed out of the Old Courthouse years ago - not sure how strong their Regimental Association is these days. Of course museology was moved from L&MHS Victoria House to that 1940 composite EPW Queens Ave. building at Centennial time with the new maple leaf shaped exibitions structure (!) the eclectic Collection housed in the bowels of the main building, known as the Bear Pit. Then shunted off to the 1980 Art Gallery building about 20 years ago. As a newcomer you might want to review the history of museums in this and annexed communities. It starts with the Historical Society wanting to get accumulated artifacts from under the members' beds..

  3. The 1940 EPW building did host the historical museum, transferred from L&MHS's Victoria House museum up Wellington, the collection housed in e Library sub-basement "Bear Pit" for years.
    A donated separate exhibit building was added c1968 re Centennial. Then 20 years later the art function of EPW was transferred to the new LRAG Moriyama building at the Forks. c1989 museum functions went there resulting in unintelligible
    'Museums London' name,and a sole library function on Queens.

  4. Keith Thompson, a firefighter heritage activist (even helped with Heritage Week) tried to get a closing fire station in south London for this purpose, being beaten by of all people, Ed Phelps pushing for residential use. As for the idea of packinging all museology at one downtown location with parking problems, what's wrong with having small institutions in various neighbourhoods - and avoiding a central bureaucracy. The Radar one is compatible with a location many of us remember when the Western Counties huts housed our injured and ill and dying "Returned Soldiers". And look up the prices of the real estate mentioned...

  5. Might add that the last thing important community collections need is to be housed in any old building the public fancies. That kind of thinking went out decades ago. Artifacts and archives need a controlled environment, ideally a purpose-built facility, allowing for Collection conservation and Exhibit/public education functions. An expert opinion on the efficacy of mid-20th century EPW and Victorian Normal School building for this would be instructive. And an estimate of the costs of upgrading on top of the purchase price, if even available to London taxpayers.