Secret warehouses offer glimpse of Toronto's past

Toronto maintains two secret warehouses that contain more than 150,000 artifacts from the city's past, including ancient pottery and modern-day sports paraphernalia.

Tucked away in two secret locations, the City of Toronto maintains a vast store of artifacts, containing everything from sports memorabilia to ancient pottery, and detailing the area's history from 11,000 years ago to the present day.

Some of these items are rotated between the city's 10 museums but many never see the light of day and sit in boxes or behind plastic curtains.

The CBC's Kimberly Gale visited one of these hidden caches of history, a five-storey building containing 150,000 artifacts. The other contains larger items including cars, boats and carriages.

The objects are as eclectic as the city they come from and include artifacts from First Nations people who settled in the area, military uniforms from the 19th century, diaries from the city's inhabitants and even paraphernalia from the 1990s, when the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series.

The items give an insight into the lives of people who have lived in Toronto, said Karen Black, manager of museum services for the city.

"Museums are all about creating a sense of belonging," she said. "Toronto has this amazing 11,000-year history."

'Person behind' each object

Most of the artifacts have also come from private donations and usually include a personal history, said Alex Avdichuk, supervisor of collections and conservation.

"That's what makes our collection unique, that we can talk about the objects but also the people behind them," Avdichuk said. "It makes those stories easy to relate to when there's a person behind it."

Although some of the artifacts occasionally appear in city-run museums such as Mackenzie House or the Fort York National Historic Site, the collection is so large it cannot all be displayed.

And that's not just a problem facing Toronto, said Wayne Reeves, chief curator for the city's museums.

"One of the challenges of collections that stand behind museums is that usually at no time do you have more than five per cent of your collection on display," he said.

Many of the city's existing museums, moreover, have a narrow focus — a particular family or historical event — whereas much of the material in the hidden warehouses pertains to the city as a whole.