(The) ROM Wasn’t Built in a Day

For various reasons, it has been years since I last visited the Art Gallery of Ontario or the Royal Ontario Museum. My previous visits had been before the latest changes, although I followed both renewal projects in the media with interest. Earlier this year I purchased an AGO family membership; we have since visited many times, and this past weekend we finally made it to the ROM.

AGO, From Afar

When the ambitious AGO renovations were announced and I saw the scale model of the proposed addition, I was curious to see how the dirigible shaped (and sized) element that was shown in a commanding position over Dundas Street would take shape and how it would be received.

I made a point of driving by on Dundas Street during the construction whenever I could. First the entire 1992 renovation was unapologetically demolished. A new timber structural frame then arose with the natural logic of a large animal skeleton being mounted for display; each element of the structure slightly different than the next, all of a kind and at once both organic and structured.

Then the glass envelope was installed. From the east or west, the oblique angle of view renders the glass a near perfect mirror; an unearthly object seemingly made of fragments of pure sky. I first saw it fully complete on a day with tumultuous grey cloud cover and the effect was breathtaking. Since then I have seen the building many times from different angles and with different skies, and the effect is never less than stunning. Within the Galleria Italia, there is the feeling of an outdoor space, illuminated by the sky overhead. At night it is transformed as the surface of the inscrutable silver lozenge gives way and the warm glow of wood softly emanates from within.

The ROM

I had seen the renderings, read about the project, and was enchanted with the concept of a crystalline insertion into the existing building. This, I thought, would contrast well with it’s traditional and ordered masonry and the clean lines of the Queen Elizabeth II Terrace Galleries added in the eighties.

I first encountered the construction site as a pedestrian on Bloor Street. I saw to my disbelief the serene terraces of the north façade being unceremoniously demolished. Later, I witnessed the steel frame of the crystal galleries being erected. Like a steel structure beneath a parade float, it was designed in a base and utilitarian fashion, obviously intended to never again see the light of day. The heavy industrial-era structural system projecting into space at improbable angles was indeed quickly concealed, and an opportunity was lost to create a real expression of contemporary structural engineering.

My reservations about the project increased as the structure took shape. I was baffled as it became apparent that the geometry of the building forms included roof sections steeply sloping towards the new visitor entrance, and clad in slick metal paneling. Of course, ice and snow are concerns in the winter, and this has turned out to be a significant safety issue. I have seen the entrance cordoned off and closed in the winter due to this danger. I assume visitors are re-directed to the entrance of the original neo-romanesque building at 100 Queens’ Park, so maybe there’s an upside in that.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Such were my casual observations from the outside, but I resolved to reserve further judgment until I had a chance to visit. After visiting a number of times over this summer, I can say that the architectural interventions at the AGO do seem on the whole well thought out; sensitive to both the important aspects of the original building and the new gallery spaces, and enjoyable to use. Many others have given positive reviews of the project, and I won’t belabour the point.

The changes at the ROM are more difficult to characterize. I have always loved the ROM, and I still do. That’s why I am writing this. The museum’s collections are exquisite, and with the completion of the latest endeavour they are better interpreted and more accessible than ever. The museum has done an incredible job improving on presentation, but the forced nature of the architectural intervention is as apparent on the inside as it is on the outside.

For our first family visit we opted to visit the natural history galleries on the second floor. To get there one passes through the main entrance hall, and ascends to the second floor via either half of the beautiful twin staircase of the original building.

At the second floor, a narrow bridge separates the old building from the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Here I did a double-take. A large portion of the beautifully crafted historical masonry façade of the old ROM is facing the broad, blank drywall-clad outer enclosure of the new gallery at a distance of only a few feet. This is not a composed juxtaposition of old and new, but rather it seems to be an affront. It’s either a deliberate one or an unintentional one; I’m not sure which would be worse.

Indirect Lighting – It’s Not Just For the Birds

Entering the James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of the Dinosaurs, ‘Gordo’ the Barosaurus – Canada’s largest dinosaur and the only real Barosaurus skeleton mounted anywhere in the world – is presented in front of exterior windows where the daylight beyond creates such intense glare that the diorama is effectively illuminated only in silhouette. As my pupils contracted from the glare, I turned away to find something else to look at and discovered the fascinating skeletons of two flying reptiles overhead. Unfortunately the brilliant track lighting fixtures aimed squarely down at the creatures in the gallery, both living and fossilized, quickly put an end to this as well.

The same effect is present for the Tyrannosaurus Rex diorama in the adjacent gallery. There is in fact some method in this madness, but it is not in service of the exhibits, or the paying guests. Fossil specimens, and models of them, are among the least sensitive to ultraviolet light of all museum artifacts and can therefore be exposed to direct outdoor light. When you combine this fact with the admittedly impressive trick of having large dinosaurs visible from the street outside, it is apparent that the temptation to try and create something impressive has won out against the desire to create a building and exhibits that work cohesively together.

Elsewhere on the second floor things are better if not perfect. For example, within Life in Crisis: Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, vitrines have been carefully and expertly lit in an appealing and thoroughly contemporary way. Unfortunately, the overhead lighting remains brilliant track lighting that reflects harshly off the glass of the displays, creating glare and diminishing the effectiveness of the lighting within the display cases.

It is not as though an understanding of indirect and diffuse lighting is not in evidence elsewhere on the second floor. The nearby modest, aging and small Gallery of Birds, although dated in it’s choice of finishes and detailing and showing wear from years of use, is a good example of indirect and diffuse lighting. Here it is used not only for up and downlighting within the diorama vitrines, but also within the public circulation area. No bare lamps are visible. The level of illumination is lower but the level of visual comfort is improved, and the eye’s ability to see the fine detailing and subtle colouration of the mounted birds is not diminished.

Go!

Despite having voiced a few criticisms, I very much enjoyed reacquainting myself with both these institutions and I’m as excited as ever about going back. That’s because what the AGO and the ROM have to offer is world-class, and there is a wealth of enjoyment, inspiration and enlightenment to be discovered at either one. As the title of this post implies, changes to these two important cultural institutions will hopefully always be a work in progress. I hope that improvements continue to be made, and continue to be subject to critical commentary from within and without. I am looking forward to many more visits to both in the future, and I encourage you to do the same.

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