The grandiose Royal Ontario Museum
The Royal Ontario Museum, also known as ROM, is an extraordinary place, made even more extraordinary thanks to Jamaica-born Canadian immigrant Michael Lee-Chin, whose pledge of a $30-million gift transformed the ROM dramatically in 2007. But let me not get ahead of myself.
For starters, a stupendously giant dinosaur skeleton greets you in the huge lobby. Knights in armor jousting on horseback circa 1475 AD gallop past on a lofty mural. First people’s carved wooden totem poles stand by the stairs while signs point left and right, front, left, and right back to multicultural exhibitions. I was lucky enough to get there before the September 2 ending of a magnificent Indian display of treasures from the western Indian city of Jodhpur, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom polished aluminium automobile created in 1927 for Maharaja Umaid Singh who ruled from 1918 to1947 and a Royal Marriage Procession Elephant with decorative covers, tassels and parasol.
Excellent signage throughout helps to educate and entertain ROM’s visitors.
ROM’s first building, a rather conventional structure with touches of Romanesque and Venetian windows, opened in 1914 with the dual purpose of locating the University of Toronto’s various college collections into one place while also creating a world-class museum. So successful was this endeavour that by 1918 the museum was overcrowded which inspired plans to more than double the space.
Despite the Great Depression, the Province of Ontario pushed ahead, stipulating that as much as possible, building materials were to come from Ontario, including limestone, sandstone, brick and marble. The enterprise also served to create work. Opened in 1933, the Queen Street entrance is a fine example of Art Deco design with the museum’s mission carved in stone on one side proclaiming: “The Record of Nature Through Countless Ages”. And on the other: “The Arts of Man through All the Years”. This perfectly sums up the ROM’s over six million eclectic objects accumulated over more than a century.
On Level One the First Peoples Special Exhibitions highlight indigenous artworks and cultural artefacts while across the lobby, the recreation of a stately stone Chinese tomb complex contrasts with a nearby colourful Chinese temple and statuary. A Korean gallery on one side, a Japanese on the other – the ROM is many museums in one. Level Two is particularly beloved by young people who find the Earth’s Treasures, Bat Cave, Biodiversity, Birds and especially the Dinosaurs and Mammals collections totally awesome.
My favourite is Level Three, not necessarily for the European exhibitions but rather the fascinating Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific section. The Egyptian gallery with mummies and a diorama depicting an Egyptian woman preparing for a banquet c.1400 BC calls forth elegance. On the other hand, modern Ghanaian burial practices prove quite surprising. A fisherman chose to be buried in a coffin built like an enormous fish and another man, to display wealth, had a Mercedes-Benz coffin created by Paa Joe Workshop in Pobi Asawa, Ghana in 2009. Having just seen the Maharaja’s 1927 Rolls Royce, I couldn’t help remarking how people do love their big cars no matter what their culture or decade! And that is part of the museum’s mandate, to highlight both diversity and unity in mankind and nature.
Michael Lee-Chin’s gift enabled the museum, under the direction of William Thorsell as the ROM’s director and CEO until 2010, to launch an international search for an architect to revitalise the museum’s image, transforming the somewhat staid institution into an eye-popping modern – some say controversial – icon. Architect Daniel Libeskind designed what became known as the ‘crystal’ extension opening onto Bloor Street. Jagged glass and aluminium rooms clad over a steel structure projecting into the sky again doubled the museum’s exhibition space. Level Four of this creation houses both the Textiles and Costume gallery and the dramatic Roloff Beny Gallery, a 6,000 square-foot multimedia gallery named for the Canadian photographer. The museum’s Institute for Contemporary Culture now has this special space high above Toronto’s busy streets for contemporary exhibitions.
One can enter from either the Queen’s Street Art Deco entrance or the Ultra- Modern Bloor Street entrance because the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court, in that four-story lobby, connects the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal with the heritage building. Lee-Chin not only honoured his mother but said that ROM gave him the opportunity to give back to Canada. When India-born Jamaican businessman Gordon Tewani gave $100,000 almost a decade ago to help the board of what is now called National Museum Jamaica to begin fund-raising for a new building, his donation slipped into obscurity. Just ask Herbie Miller how difficult it is to get a Music Museum building. For years, music artefacts sat in what is essentially a corridor between the Institute of Jamaica’s administrative offices.
Fundraising for cultural centres is not easy and not all Canadian donors have been able to complete their projected gifts thus far – the financial crisis of 2009 hitting some of them particularly hard – which means that Ontario’s taxpayers have had to increase their support and the $300-million ROM Renaissance renovation has taken a toll on the museum’s resources. Nonetheless, Canadians must be proud to have created and maintained such an incredible treasure house for all the world to enjoy. I have no doubt that ROM will meet its target of 1.5 million visitors a year and when you visit Toronto, you’ll want to be one of them.