Recording History

I recently became aware of an effort in Ontario to establish a museum of photography.  It’s intended to house artifacts and images relating to the history of photography in my home province.

In this day and age of instant history, with uploads to Facebook and a multitude of other social media platforms, with cloud storage options and sharing galore, I wondered what place there might be for a physical museum of photography.  So I set out to find out.


I was surprised to learn that local archives showcasing the evolution of my favourite pastime are actually few and far between.  They are most often associated with educational institutions or form part of an anthropological museum collection of other artefacts depicting human life.  Two such examples are the Canadian Photography Institute, part of the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Ryerson Image Centre, part of Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts.


These venues will showcase curated works by Canadian artists, on display for visitors for fixed periods of time.  They also provide research and archival storage, for scholars and members of the public to learn about the pioneers of photography.  In the case of the Ryerson Image Centre, it will also host exhibitions from artists around the world, both as part of larger festivals such as the Contact Photography Festival, and to showcase socially relevant issues of our time.

I’ve also found smaller collections associated with specialized groups, such as military history or industrial associations (automakers, railway companies, heavy industry, etc.).  Quite often, these have restricted or limited access.  Examples include the GM Heritage Center in Michigan. or the Military History Research Centre in Ottawa.


War Museum

And of course, there are private collections, in the homes and facilities often belonging to well-to-do families with legacy ties to the province or country.  That such collections exist is often not known until the owner passes away, leaving donations to the above mentioned educational institutions and traditional museums.  Even some of my friends have substantial historical collections of photographic gear.  I hope they eventually find their way into a public setting.

Additionally, there are special events and curated exhibitions, offered by the owners or trustees of specific collections, to showcase particular methods, photographers or works.  One example is the Vivian Maier collection.


All of these entities, except for private collections, have an online presence where much of the content can be examined from the comfort of home.  As a visual supplement to online content, or where the collection includes hard assets, such as cars in the case of GM or camera equipment in the case of CPI, has there been a need for a facility to visit.

As well, when there are annual or regular ceremonies, such as Remembrance Day, does there seem to be a motivation to establish a place to go, typically for the purpose of immersing yourself in the event being recognized.

That brings me back to my recent discovery of the effort to establish a Photographic Museum of Ontario.


It seems this effort has been underway for a decade, with not much progress.  Fundraising efforts have not been very fruitful and discussions to purchase or lease one of the iconic Kodak buildings in Toronto have been stonewalled.  It is no small feat to establish a cultural destination, which might explain the tendency to find them associated with schools or already established destinations such as museums.  I wonder if these options have been explored?

The organizers are continuing with fundraising efforts through local events.  One such event, coming up in May, is a night with Yousef Karsh, famed Canadian photographer known for his iconic portraits of world leaders and celebrities.


Tickets can be purchased at Discovering Karsh.

I must admit that I’m ambivalent about the need for a separate physical museum of photography, especially one focused on Ontario.  I love immersing myself in photographic history, but there are many ways to do this, some of which are outlined above.

On the one hand, I regularly attend dedicated exhibitions, thoroughly enjoying the experience of being surrounded by a single talent, a single genre or a single photographic theme.  I seek out festivals and special events, lectures and presentations.  I enjoy being taken on a photographic journey by an expert, learning about a past master or a contemporary talent.

And yet, I don’t spend that much time in museums.  Wandering on my own through static displays is not what I would choose to do for an afternoon.  I’ve tried it over the past year, holding a membership in our city museum, the Royal Ontario Museum.  I found I enjoyed my visits the most when there were special exhibitions, such as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year.  And I only visited such exhibitions once.

So I wish the organizers luck in their endeavour.  I will look forward to seeing the fruits of their work, but probably only once.