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May 2014

Linking to London’s Storied Past

At a glance
The challenge

Historical buildings falling into disrepair due to neglect

The solution

Collect oral histories of 31 buildings to ascertain cultural importance

The outcome

City develops more informed heritage preservation plan

What's next?

Continued partnership will see oral history tools expanded to other cities

Roberta Cauchi Santoro, a comparative literature postdoctoral fellow, turned a curiosity about her city into a collaboration with the City of London that is contributing to informed decision making about economic planning. Roberta’s project collecting the oral histories of 31 historic buildings in downtown London has helped to deepen the understandings of key cultural resources, and brought an important cultural mapping piece to the City’s Culture Office.

After moving to London, Ontario seven years ago, Roberta was intrigued by some of the older Victorian buildings near the downtown area and on historic Dundas Street. She wondered why such beautiful architecture had been neglected and what the significance of these heritage buildings had once been. With help from Jenn McLean, Mitacs Business Development Director, Roberta approached the City of London with an idea to investigate these buildings’ histories as part of a larger cultural revitalization project with the City of London’s Culture Office. Overall, the aim of her project was to develop a methodology of locating and recording stories of people and events — known as intangible cultural assets — with relation to these buildings that throw light on the city as it was being established. Novita Interpares Ltd. and the Canadian Urban Institute are additional partners on the project.

Supervised by Prof. Sandra Parmegiani at the University of Guelph’s School of Languages and Literatures, Roberta was able to take her literary understanding of narrative, cultures and architecture to use it in a way that allowed her to grow as a researcher and a professional:

“There is a tremendous potential for humanities students to contribute to the culture industry. Mitacs Accelerate was a great way for me to reach out and bring my studies to the outside world to show its relevance in ways that all Canadians can benefit from.”

The stories Roberta captured have contributed to new collaborations that are developing the Culture Office’s role in heritage preservation and economic prosperity planning. The City’s planning office may integrate Roberta’s information into historical preservation and planning processes now, and in the future. Additionally, the work has fostered cooperation between the Culture Office and the London Heritage Council as well as the London Public Library related to historic sites and heritage preservation.

Robin Armistead, Manager of Culture and Municipal Policy at the City of London’s Culture Office praised Roberta and the program for developing new understandings and connections for them:

“Collaborating with Roberta through Mitacs has been a very beneficial experience for us. Roberta took on a piece of London’s cultural mapping that hadn’t been initiated and brought it together in a way that has sparked new ideas related to heritage preservation and downtown revitalization.”

Now entering her second year of the partnership with the City, Roberta will develop her model of capturing intangible assets so that it may be used in other areas of London or for other cities, starting with oral histories for local museums. The results of her project will also be presented at an international conference in Portugal later this month. Roberta is grateful for her experience and encourages other humanities students to collaborate with the culture industry:

“Humanities students should consider the next steps of their career development and know that through experiences like this their studies can contribute to society beyond the classroom.”   

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and  the Government of Ontario for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: