John Goddard speaks to Dundurn Press about his book Inside the Museums: Toronto’s Heritage Sites and Their Most Prized Objects.
Q: What got you started?
A: I wanted to know more about some of Ontario’s more obscure museums but I didn’t have a car. Then I thought, “I can get to the Toronto ones by subway.”
Q: Why a book?
A: The stories and characters proved incredibly rich. You couldn’t dream up a wilder personality than William Lyon Mackenzie — funny-looking, witty, physically courageous, and almost unbelievably irritating to the colonial elite. He pops up in every chapter.
Q: The museums are spread out, right?
A: Yes, but their stories overlap, and paradoxically even the differences help unify the book. The sites include a rural inn, a townhouse, a stately mansion, a country estate, a post office, a city hall, a military garrison — most of the elements of a pre-Confederation village.
Q: Who is your favourite character?
A: I would call John George Howard my top personal discovery. He was an architect, one of the city’s top early builders, and one of its most generous early philanthropists — the creator of High Park. He also led a double life, with a long-time mistress with whom he had three children.
Q: What is your favourite story from the book?
A: I like how Eliza Gibson, of Gibson House, hides her baby in a snowbank as government troops close in to burn her house down, then she goes back and rescues the family clock, because it’s so valuable. That took guts.
Q: Do you have a favourite “prized object?”
A: George Lamb’s Rebellion Box, at Mackenzie House. When the 1837 Rebels were thrown in jail, many of them passed the time making small, memento boxes as gifts to their wives and sweethearts. They made hundreds of them, all beautifully constructed with inlays, and poems, and specially constructed lids. Very few remain. The prisoners used cordwood meant for the fire, and their work was so precise that they must have used chisels, files, and coping saws, but how was that possible? It’s a mystery. Why would the guards allow prisoners to have sharp tools in jail during such a politically tense time? Or, if the guards didn’t allow it, how did the prisoners sneak the tools into the cells? Nobody knows.