Collection Access: the Toronto District School Board Artifact Loan Program

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) recently announced plans to increase access to the private art and artifact collection held by the School Board.  The collection is estimated to be worth millions of dollars, has been unavailable to the general public for years, and includes items from numerous noteworthy Canadians.

The School Board plans on increasing access to their collection through an educational loan program.  The proposed program aims to expose school children to the artwork and artifacts in an educational setting.  The program would allow school children to both learn and engage with material culture and would see items from the collection being temporarily loaned to Toronto schools.   The School Board has acknowledged the fact that in some cases preservation and security measures will have to be put in place prior to certain items being loaned to schools.  Additional information on the loan program can be found here and here.

This proposed program is great in terms of increasing public access to a private collection and in the unique way it plans to teach children about art, culture, and heritage.  The downside? The proposed program will serve only the schools and children which are part of the Toronto District School Board.   Currently, no additional plans exist to extend the program to visiting school groups, or allow the general public access to the collection.  It is also not currently clear which items from the collection will be part of the loan program.

This example highlights a frequent dilemma in the art and heritage community.  Who decides what portion of a collection should be accessible to the general public? It is not logistically possible for any museum or art gallery to provide constant access to all items in their collection.  Exhibit space is limited in any heritage intuition, making it necessary to be selective in deciding which items are to be displayed to the public at any given time.  Additionally, from a preservation standpoint, placing artifacts on display puts an artifact under stress.  For example, fragile paper documents are very susceptible to light damage, making it impractical for such items to be on display for long periods of time.  Artifacts need to spend time in storage as a means of allowing them to ‘rest’, restoration to take place, and general collection maintenance to occur.

In addition to the quandary of selection, a loan program such as the one proposed by the Toronto District School Board presents another level of logistical problems.  Many museums provide hands on educational programming for children.  However, the materials which children handle in most educational programming are replicas, or deaccessioned items. This allows hands on exploration to take place without any risk of damaging irreplaceable artifacts.  The program suggested by the Toronto District School Board collection is intriguing as it proposes to loan out many original artifacts and art.  Policies and precautions will need to be put in place to protect the valuable nature of the items in the collection. Ideally, the developers of this program will strive to combine the desire to promote interaction with the need to preserve the collection for future generations.

Krista McCracken is a public history consultant and is currently working as a Digitization Facilitator for Knowledge Ontario.

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