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TDSB museum a quirky window to education in the past

It’s about more than just old inkwells and The Strap.

A new museum about public schooling in Toronto opened this week in historic Eastern Commerce Collegiate.

The staggering range of 1 million objects and artifacts in the new Toronto District School Board collection creates a surprising trip through time that goes well beyond the schoolhouse to shed light on how people lived and learned as Toronto grew from young city to urban powerhouse.

There are fun bits – look, there’s little Norman Bethune’s name on the 1901 attendance roll from Winchester Public School (he lived nearby on Parliament St.) He would go on to become an internationally revered doctor and anti-fascist crusader.

Here’s a record album called Facts about Venereal Disease that teachers would play for students in the 1950s and 60s as part of sex education. From the turntable comes a crackling voice citing other names for this hazard of promiscuity – “the Clap, a Dose, or even a Dose of the Clap.” There’s an album too about marijuana, which the record explains is “also known by the hip names of pot, grass and Mary Jane.” Teachers used records, slide shows and film strips to deliver highly charged material – a far cry from today’s candid face-to-face discussions.

There’s a school dentist’s chair from the era when public education was becoming the way to ensure all children, rich or poor, received preventive health care. There are photos of children doing “toothbrush drills” in 1913 at Victoria Park Public School, noted TDSB Archivist Greg McKinnon, and black-and-white images of kids getting lessons in how to properly blow their nose.

The sprawling new 10,000-square-foot collection is designed to welcome students and members of the public for free, but by appointment.

“We want this place to be full of kids,” said Superintendent John Chasty, who added that moving the collection to a school saves $ 90,000 a year in rent that the board used to pay the University of Toronto for the old site on McCaul St.

Not everything is old. Stunning pieces of modern native art chosen by elder Duke Redbird are displayed in a way he hopes shows students that First Nations artists were inspired by nature and the spirit world, and by memory and voice – “not the paper and print of the European art tradition.”

There is an 1893 calculator, a gear-driven table-top Millionaire’s Calculating Machine that weighs 75 pounds and was one of the first to do multiplication as well as adding and subtracting.

“It was considered pretty cutting-edge at the time,” said McKinnon.

Then there’s the throne; the polished, regal seat for the Chair of the early Toronto Board of Education “and the carved wooden pillars behind that make it look like the ‘temple of education’,” said McKinnon.

“It shows the high regard trustees were held in at that time,” said McKinnon, “and also the high regard in which they held themselves.”

To book an appointment email McKinnon at Greg.mckinnon@tdsb.on.ca .


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