Growing History: The Historic Garden’s Role in Inspiring Behavioural Change [Case Study]

Guest Post by Lauren McCallum, Acting Program Officer at Montgomery’s Inn. Montgomery’s Inn is one of ten historic sites belonging to Museums and Heritage Services, City of Toronto. Opinions are my own and may not reflect the views of the City of Toronto.

Working in historic houses I have grown accustomed to students and visitors eagerly inquiring if I wish I could go back in time and live ‘back then’. I always answer honestly: absolutely not. As a Millennial in its purest form I embrace social media, apps that provide instant gratification, and of course speaking in the #tense of hashtags. What draws me to history, and what fills me with the passion to work, teach, and socialize in historic house museums is the pure connection to the environment.

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Lauren at the Inn for our Dishing Up Toronto event: Breaking Bread in partnership with the Toronto Ward Museum

As a program officer my role is to engage with and create opportunities for the public that allow them to connect with the past and put that knowledge to future practice.

So how can historic house and living history museum programming inspire a change in current human behaviours to impact an individual’s carbon footprint?

Most of the public enjoys learning about, but does not want to live like they did ‘back then.’ No one wants to burn coal in their fireplace today (hopefully), and most new homes are built with insulation that we assume is attempting to be somewhat energy efficient. Green dresses are no longer made with arsenic and although we would love more people to take public transit or bike into work, no one is using their horse and wagon to trek the family up to the cottage for a weekend.

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Harvest basket from Gibson House Heritage Garden

The buy-in is food

For most of history, humans from all over the world were deeply connected to the food they ate. Because of the role and relationship people had with food, they had a better, almost innate understanding of basic earth sciences. You had to know which direction the sun rose and what qualified as ‘good soil’.

When you understand what the earth requires to give you the nourishment you need, the relationship become symbiotic and taking care of the planet in other ways, be it transportation, water consumption, or energy saving, becomes naturally instinctive behaviour.

At the City of Toronto we currently interpret ten sites that act as a select sample of what was being grown, bought, sold and eaten in various households and family types, in close but varied time periods throughout recent history. If you look at what the typical producer vs. consumer patterns are in these households, compare them with Indigenous land use prior to established settler communities, and then contrast that with current home to land to grocery store ratio, you get a quick snap shot at how rapidly our demands on the land have changed and increased in a small pocket of time.

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Gibson House Heritage Garden

I believe the disconnect  between how our food is grown and how it ends up on our dinner plate has contributed to a butterfly effect separating people from their relationship with the environment as a whole.

My job and my passion is to stick people’s hands in soil, care for and maintain a plant, harvest that plant, and prepare a meal for others with that plant. I spend a lot of my time doing what many people describe as gardening. But what I have discovered is that one growth cycle (seed to plant to food) is enough to spark a relationship with long term potential.

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Lauren, Diana Wilson of the TRCA, and Min a youth volunteer at Montgomery’s Inn

The garden programs I create have features of Indigenous three sisters companion planting, historic Victorian kitchen gardens representing settler plant varieties, and modern pollinator gardens supporting native bee species.  By teaching the public how and why the way we grow food has changed and the current threats to our food systems, they are empowered with the tools to make better decisions about their ownership, stewardship and hopefully lifelong relationship with the land.

Lauren McCallum

After graduating from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Lauren applied her love of culture and pedagogy to the field of museum education. Over the last decade she has worked for a range of organizations such as the Ontario Science Centre, Toronto Botanical Gardens and City of Toronto History Museums, developing hands-on programs for school age and youth groups. Her passion for creating edible classrooms was cultivated during an organic urban farm internship in the greater Vancouver area in 2011.

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