Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)

I intended to start this blog on common places I’ve visited with a post on Toronto City Hall. That seemed like a natural starting point for someone who was born, raised, grew up in Toronto and will probably die here. However, when I went to snap some pictures, the square in front of city hall was cluttered with the makings of what a sign said was to be an art installation for the Toronto version of Nuit Blanche.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), with the Crystal addition prominent.
1: The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), with the Crystal addition prominent.

I was eager to start this blog. So, rather than wait for what looks like a mammoth art installation to be set up and then taken down, allowing me to show you what the square looks like in its normal state, I’m giving pride of place to another august Toronto institution, the Royal Ontario Museum.

Before getting into that, my first paragraph may have raised a couple of questions. First, why do I call them “common places?” This might seem a poor choice of words because some people may find many of the places quite interesting, maybe even occasionally exciting. What’s more, no matter where I go, the vast majority of the more than seven billion people in the world will not have been there. So, why “common?”

And second, there are lots of pictures of Toronto City Hall and its square floating around on the Web. Why didn’t I just grab some of those and follow my instinct of starting with an entry on city hall?

The answers to both of those questions are in the About page of this blog. Rather than repeating the details here, I’ll let you go off and read that page by clicking here. Don’t worry. You won’t miss anything. I’ll wait for you to get back before proceeding.

… waiting …

… waiting …

When in ROM

ROM Main Entrance
2: ROM Main Entrance

Oh, good. You came back. Let’s jump into the Royal Ontario Museum.

The first thing you need to know is that Torontonians almost always refer to the Royal Ontario Ontario museum as the ROM, pronounced with a soft “o”, like rawm. In fact, it will take most of us a small fraction of a second longer to clue into what you are talking about if you say “Royal Ontario Museum” than if you say “ROM.”

Nevertheless, in either case our brains will switch on very quickly because the ROM is the big museum here. Well, that is to say, my fellow Torontonians’ brains will switch on very quickly. Mine is often addled.

I am a member of the ROM. I joined a few years ago when the museum mounted an exhibit on Charles Darwin’s life and his journey to his theory of evolution. The usual corporate sponsors of the ROM’s temporary exhibits refused to sponsor that show, presumably because they thought evolution was too controversial a concept risk their brands on. In the end, the ROM went staged with sponsorship from United Church Observer and the Humanist Association of Canada. (You’d expect it from the Humanist Association, but bravo to the United Church Observer.)

That was when I decided that the ROM was an institution that I had to support. That evolution was still considered controversial shocked me. That the ROM was willing to go ahead with the show anyway elevated its already high esteem in my eyes. In addition to being a member, I also donate a few bucks to the ROM each year. But enough about me.

The Crystal Controversy

ROM Old Section
3: ROM Old Section

The ROM opened its doors to the public in 1914. There have been a few additions to the museum since then. The most recent one, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a crystal-shaped structure named after the lead donor to the expansion fund-drive, Michael Lee-Chin, opened in 2007. In picture 1, the Crystal is the primarily white and glass, angular box emerging from right side of the stone building.

The addition of the Crystal was controversial. Even after people have had several years to get used to it, the Crystal remains mostly a love it or hate it architectural element. Designed by star architect Daniel Libeskind, the Crystal is said to have been inspired by the crystals that can be found in one of the ROM’s permanent galleries, what is now known as the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasures.

I’m one of the people who love it. I think it’s brilliant the way that the Crystal thrusts forth from the older stone building. I also like the way the new main entrance to the museum juts out over the sidewalk and pulls you in through its doors (see picture 2). (Note to human rights advocates: Relax. “Pulls you in” was a turn of phrase. There is, of course, nothing that physically pulls you in.)

This is not to say that I dislike the old sections of the museum. Quite the contrary. The stately, staid stone frontages present an distinguished face to the world. And, many of those facades were retained in the new section, except that a few of the walls that used to be outside are now inside. The result is mostly impressive.

ROM: Bringing the Outside in
4: ROM: Bringing the Outside in

If you want to get a sense of what the museum looked like before the Crystal, cross Queens Park (the street, not the park) and walk a bit south. As you can see from picture 3, from this vantage point you see the old facade, but not the Crystal. My luck being what it is, there was some work being done on the roof when I was there this time. The scaffolding you see in the picture is usually not there.

For an example of the beautiful blending of old and new, all you have to do is go inside. Just past what is now the main entrance, you’ll immediately face a large, imposing, tan-coloured wall of one of the older sections of the museum. Guarding the wall and looming over the entering patrons is the skeleton of a huge dinosaur. It makes for an inspiring welcome to the museum. (See picture 4.) To get up-close and personal with the wall and the exhibits inside the museum you’ll have to buy a ticket.

Dinosaurs Roam

The rest of the dinosaurs are upstairs on the second floor of the Crystal. (Alright, there not really dinosaurs. They’re fossilized dinosaur skeletons and/or moulds of the them. But you probably figured that out.)

Skeletons of creatures that outsize and outweigh us by a significant multiple raise an interesting question. Why did these massive creatures meet an evolutionary dead end, while mammals evolved to be today’s dominant class of animals? (Dominant in terms of intelligence and power, but not in terms of the number of species within the class. Insects have us beat there by a wide margin.) Evolution experts have one view. Theists have another. My money is on the experts. Feel free to fight among yourselves.

But I digress. I was talking about the treatment of the old section of the museum in the context of the new. On my recent visit, I found something in the dinosaur gallery that disappointed me.

Missing Juliet

Before the Crystal officially opened, and before the exhibits were mounted in it, the ROM ran architectural tours of the new section. I went on one. The tour guide took great pride in showing off a Juliet balcony on one of the old outer walls that was now inside the Crystal. Whereas, because of its height above the ground and its location on the building, few people noticed it before, it was now fully exposed. Visitors to what would become the dinosaur gallery would be able to better appreciate it as they could get quite close. I thought that was fantastic.

When I visited the ROM in preparation to write this post I went back to the Juliet window to find it located behind smudged glass and largely blocked by a wall. I sought out a volunteer to confirm that my memory was correct and I wasn’t going crazy. She was not able to confirm that.

The volunteer had been helping at the ROM for about ten years, which would have been before the Crystal opened, but she couldn’t remember the balcony ever being fully exposed. However, she did say that when they opened the Crystal people interacted with it in ways that hadn’t been expected.

For example, The new walls aren’t all vertical. A few slope outward at a significant angle. According to the volunteer, some people tried to run up the walls. Consequently, changes had to be made to the way things were laid out. So, suggested the volunteer, maybe people were climbing on the balcony and the museum felt the need to protect it. Or maybe I am going crazy and my memory failed me. Either might be the truth.

ROM Bat Cave
5: ROM Bat Cave

As an aside, the volunteer was very friendly and helpful. She was carrying a slice of an actual fossilized dinosaur bone, along with a roughly equal-sized and -shaped piece of petrified wood. She engage with visitors to the dinosaur exhibit and let them hold the two specimens and compare and contrast them.

Bat Cave

In addition to the dinosaurs and the building itself, be sure to visit the ROM’s bat cave. This has been a famous feature of the ROM for decades. The cave is not merely a figment of someone’s imagination. It’s modelled after a real cave in Jamaica, the St. Clair Cave. Inside you’ll find more than 20 specimens and 800 models of bats lining the walls and ceilings of the cave and its alcoves.

ROM Chinese Statue
6: ROM Chinese Statue

The ROM is also renown for it’s collection of Chinese art, architecture and other artifacts. The Chinese architecture gallery alone contains more than 200 artifacts, including a Ming tomb. Plus, there are galleries devoted to Chinese temple art and Chinese sculpture. And the main Chinese gallery includes more than 2,500 artifacts.

The history and culture of the rest of the world is also well represented at the ROM. For example, if you’re into mummies head to the Egypt gallery. (Note that I said “into mummies” not “into mommies.” If you’re into mommies that’s something else and a subject for a very different blog.) In addition to mummies and mummy cases, including a mummified cat, you’ll find a wide selection of Egyptian artifacts in this gallery and a reproduction of the the inner chapel of the tomb of Kitines.

The World in One Place

I don’t want to gloss over the other galleries, but I will because this blog post is getting a little long for short Web attention spans. I’ll just quickly note that you’ll also find galleries devoted to, in no particular order, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Korea, Byzantium, Rome,  Greece, the rest of Europe, and, of course, Canada.

ROM Giant Amethyst Geode
7: ROM Giant Amethyst Geode

And don’t miss the ROM’s featured permanent biodiversity and minerals, rocks and gems galleries. In the latter galleries you’ll see some of the crystals that supposedly inspired the design of the ROM’s Crystal.

ROM Totem Poles
8: ROM Totem Poles

One feature of the ROM that you might miss if you aren’t looking for it is four totem poles that arrived in the 1920s and were moved to their current locations in 1933. The totem poles stand in two groups of two back-to-back poles towering up two stairwells in the old section. The stairwells are opposite each other and not far apart. As you walk up or down the stairs that wrap around the totem poles you can get a closer look at their carvings—with one exception. The top of the tallest of the four poles (picture 8) extends well above the top step of its surrounding staircase.

Except during change-overs in the hall, there is also usually a blockbuster show in the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall in the lower level of the museum. During the visit I made to the ROM to prepare for this inaugural CommonPlace blog post, I took in an exhibit on Mesopotamia. Because it’s a temporary exhibit that will likely not be there when you visit (unless you read this shortly after it was posted and come to the ROM soon) I’ll leave the commentary on that to others.


    1. Thanks! And you’re welcome. I’ll try to deliver more interesting places to your laptop in the days and weeks to come.

  1. My cousins live in Toronto, and I am long overdue for a visit. When I was there last, we went to a museum, but I don’t think it was this one. Anyway, your informative and entertaining description of ROM is enough to convince me it’s worth a visit. I like your new blog. I’ll be able to travel vicariously through you.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope you’ll correct your Toronto deficiency. Thanks for the compliments.

      There are a few more focused museums in Toronto, but ROM is the big one. If you haven’t been for a while the Crystal addition wouldn’t have been there then, so it would have looked different. We also have a major art gallery (the Art Gallery of Ontario). That also went through a major addition a few years back. That addition was by Frank Gehry. The addition isn’t an out-there Gehry building like his signature buildings. There’s a reason for that. If I do a post on the AGO down the road (I’m not much of an art gallery sort of person so it likely won’t be right away) I’ll talk about it and the reason why the addition is much more subdued than the iconic Gehry buildings.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.