Reflections on Historical Building Tours

As I’ve been working on my digital doors open project on Huron University College I’ve been reflecting on the usefulness of historical tours as a means of teaching history to the general public.  Don’t get me wrong, I love building tours, and I’ve been to a few significant buildings in my life like Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, Salt Lake Temple, Empire State Building, and El Cabildo.

As I was searching through primary sources for old images of Huron College (yearbooks, photograph collections, etc.), I realized that there were relatively few clear, quality images of rooms in the college.  Frustrated, I thought to myself “Why? Why weren’t there good images of the spaces in this building.”  It was important to me because I wanted to kind of do a “then and now” comparison of the rooms.  I realized there weren’t any good pictures because there nothing inherently historically significant about rooms or buildings themselves.  Buildings are transformed by events and relationships.  What I did see in these primary source documents were lots of pictures of intramural teams, dances, clubs, dramatic productions, and random and impromptu social gatherings.  In a nutshell, it’s the tradition and spirit of the institution that’s makes a building historical, not the building itself, hence the lack of images for my project.

As an institution, Huron College has been around since 1863; however, the current building in which the College is housed only opened in 1951. So it’s interesting that Huron was designated an Ontario historic site in 1963, even though the building was just 12 years-old at the time.

Another thing I’ve realized is that. when we do a building tour, we typically go from room to room, with a brief description of the historical significance of the room, and its architectural features.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but it presents an incomplete history of the structure.  What we don’t talk about is the interaction between rooms and how they function together to create events and significant moments.  For example, when planning the Huron Ball–an annual semi-formal dance–certainly the whole thing did was not planned and executed in the Great Hall of the College, where it used to be held.  I’m sure a planning committee was formed, meetings occurred in various offices, classrooms, or dorm rooms, before the Huron Ball happened.  What I’m suggesting is that we talk more about the relationships between the rooms to get a better sense of the building’s function.

So, how do we convey these relationships between spaces in the college or any other historic building?  My suggestion is that we take a significant person who was affiliated with the building and center it around him/her.  For example, suppose we’re putting on a tour of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, what if we put on a tour called “A Day in the Life of Pierre Trudeau“, and took visitors through Parliament as if they were Trudeau through his daily routine during a significant moment during his Prime Ministry like the October Crisis in Québec in 1970 or the Patriation of the Constitution in 1982.  With this kind of approach to building tours, I think the historical significance of the building would impact people more deeply, and leave them with a greater appreciation for the history of the building.

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