Uncovering Bishop’s Block: How Artifacts Reveal Rich Histories

I took a walk this past Monday to Adelaide Street, west of University Ave. to find a stylish red-bricked building, relatively buried within surrounding high-rises. With thousands of artifacts excavated from its original location, Bishop’s Block demonstrates the value in how objects reveal the dynamic histories of a particular place.

Exterior of Bishop’s Block, taken with my Sony Alpha DSLR

As one of the city’s oldest buildings, Bishop’s Block dates back to 1830 consisting of five Georgian-style townhouses constructed for landlord and butcher John Bishop. Its original location was directly on University Avenue where the luxurious Shangri-La Hotel now rests in its place. According to ASI’s website, some of the first tenants in Bishop’s Block were prominent members of the community. The building pictured above is a 2012 reconstruction from the two remaining townhouses, with some of the original red brick used. A plaque designated by Heritage Toronto is mounted on the side facing north of Adelaide Street.

In 2007, ASI Heritage excavated this site which revealed the foundations of about four townhouses and recovered almost 70,000 artifacts, including hygiene products, children’s toys (specifically dolls’ heads), kitchenware and even a leather shoe. ASI’s archaeological evidence and written documents show “a changing landscape on Adelaide Street from a semi rural, upper middle class range of single family homes to a fully urban, working class enclave of boarding houses and commercial businesses by the early twentieth century.”*

Material history is fundamental for studying heritage conservation and museum practices. There’s the obvious fascination of interacting with an actual physical remnant of a distant time and place. But the discourse goes even further. Who was the owner? Maybe they were passed on or used by different people at once? Any other signs of wear or damage (beyond the usual aging process)? Were there other means of use? Understanding historical objects and seeking for answers reveal meaningful new stories. With storytelling as my unifying theme for Finding Sonder, it’s no surprise that the stories behind objects are significant to me.

An old object can also resonate with whoever’s looking at it. Objects offer comparisons between a person’s social, cultural or economic backgrounds and lifestyles and that of the historical subject(s). For instance, I’m reminded of my experience as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of History, using objects as primary methods of interaction and historical interpretation. I used Viking horns to teach kids that they were used to drink mead, not for helmets! When learning about the Gold Rush, visitors held a 4 lb gold nugget and a heavy 8 lb bar (all fake, of course) to feel how heavy pure gold was. I used a real scale from the 1800s to teach them how gold was weighted. An object can do wonders, even create a moment of enlightenment, an ephemeral but meaningful exchange between others.

I share that same enlightened feeling by the excellent work ASI does to uncover these amazing artifacts.

For more information about ASI’s excavation work and their other projects, check out their website here.

* ASI Heritage, “Bishop’s Block.” Accessed Aug. 14, 2020. https://asiheritage.ca/portfolio-items/bishops-block/

More resources:

  • Historical images of Bishop’s Block, courtesy of Toronto Archives. See ASI Heritage’s website on Bishop’s Block to view an original photo of the building.
  • For more images and info about the building’s reconstruction: http://www.eraarch.ca/project/bishops-block/.
  • The Shangri-La Hotel, the site of the original structure, hosted an exhibit about Bishop’s Block. See here view some of the artifacts displayed.
  • View the plaque here, designed by Heritage Toronto.

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