Monday, June 07, 2021

David Gagan, historian 1940-2021 RIP. Mary Allodi, art historian, 1929-2021 RIP

David Gagan, historian of nineteenth century Ontario died recently. He is perhaps best known for Hopeful Travellers: Families, Land, and Social Change in Mid-Victorian Peel County, one of a 1980s cluster of highly quantitative social histories of the urban and rural demographics, economies, and social structures of nineteenth century Canada -- a historiographical style that seems to have lost favour since then. Gagan also had a long career as an academic administrator around the country.

One of the things Hopeful Travellers demonstrated was the mobility of early Canadian rural settlers. Far from taking up a piece of land and settling in to spread their descendants around the neighbourhood for generations, they moved and removed often in search of advantage, and developed what Gagan suggested was a southern-Ontario inheritance pattern to facilitate that process. I once asked both David Gagan and Graeme Gibson, author of a novel about 19th century Ontario called Perpetual Motion, if they knew each other's work. They did not, but their themes, like their titles, overlapped. I did not know David well, but I remember an evening at the Gagan home in Burlington that started as a social gathering and turned into a long historical debate. I recall David, Brian McKillop, and I think Doug McCalla, blur on the others, and have no memory at all of the topic, but it was much enjoyed by those of us involved, probably quite tedious for others trapped there.

Update, June 8:  Alan McCullough writes:

I never knew David Gagan but I was influenced by Hopeful Travellers and the quantitative social history which he used so well. His case for the mobility of rural settlers in Ontario was also true of settlers in Dufferin Municipality, Manitoba, in the 1870s. Some Dufferin settlers were born in Ireland, farmed in Ontario for several decades and then moved to Manitoba with their adult children. And some of the Dufferin settlers, born in Ontario, made further moves to farms in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the early 1900s.

Mary Allodi, who also died recently, was a longtime curator at the Royal Ontario Museum and a pioneering student of Canadian art history, central to almost all art-history matters in Canada for about half a century. 

I once consulted on a ROM initiative to repurpose a collection of historical Canadian silverware, ceramics, furniture, and other objets d'art, housed at an isolated location on the University of Toronto campus, to become part of a Canadiana gallery in the main building. Mary Allodi was a senior curator, perhaps emeritus then, but very much involved.

I had been hired through the exhibits planning staff of the ROM, and was initially unaware of the turf wars that prevailed between them and the curatorial staff. Exhibits wanted to create a chronologically-based set of rooms that would take visitor through the main periods of Canadian history -- an attempt to redress somewhat the ROM's appalling neglect of Canadian history, a plan of which I much approved. This, I began to learn, was strongly resented by the specialist curators, who liked having all the silver in one room, all the ceramics in another, and so on. 

It hardly does justice to Mary Allodi's contributions that my one recollection of her is her fierce disapproval of the whole project, including the consultant brought in to work on scripts and text panels. She may have won in the end.The new gallery was created, but disappeared in the next renovation project undertaken at the ROM.  

I remain proud of one small contribution to the embattled project. As the period rooms were being laid out, I managed to persuade both sides that the ROM's "Death of Wolfe" by Benjamin West would be better placed not at the end of the New France section but at the start of the British Regime section. 


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