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Once Upon A City: Digging our history at the ROM


Looking skyward your eyes feast on 4,000 sheets of imported Venetian glass, cut into more than one million tiny squares. Workers laboured for eight months in 1933 to install the mosaic ceiling for the Royal Ontario Museum’s Rotunda, considered one of the finest architectural spaces in Toronto.

It was during this 1933 expansion of the centre block and the Queen’s Park wings — named after the street that forms the eastern edge of the property and are just north of Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature — where different elements came together to add to the building’s magnificence.

Architects Chapman and Oxley designed the addition in a Beaux-Arts style. The ROM website notes that exterior walls were faced with limestone from the Credit Valley and Queenston areas. At the height of the Depression, quarries in Bancroft were reopened to supply the interior decorative marble flooring and the trim.

The marble, tile, and terrazzo used for marble bases, trim and jambs in the Museum were installed by the Italian Mosaic and Tile Co. Brick was made at Toronto’s Don Valley Brickworks and used for the walls facing the old building to match the bricks of the 1914 wing.

The Royal Ontario Museum was created by an act of the provincial government on April 16, 1912. It was the brainchild of two men: Sir Byron Edmund Walker, a bank executive and amateur paleontologist and Dr. Charles Trick Currelly, an archeologist, the official antiquities collector and the museum’s first director of archeology.

The yellow-brick building was designed by architects Pearson and Darling in an Italianate neo-Romanesque style, which was popular until the 1870s. The doors opened to the public on March 19, 1914. The ROM had strong ties to the University of Toronto, which also funded the museum, and was built along Philosophers’ Walk, with its main entrance facing Bloor St. Originally there were five galleries: The Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, Paleontology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Geology.

Prince Arthur, The Duke of Connaught, who was Canada’s Governor-General from 1911 to 1916, attended the opening of the Royal Ontario Museum and appealed for it to be a museum for everyone to enjoy.

“I know of certain museums, which although they have possessed many things of high artistic and scientific value, have appealed most entirely to the connoisseur and the expert,” the prince, Queen Victoria’s third son, told the crowd on March 1914, the Toronto Daily Star reported.

“To my mind, this is a great mistake. One of the most important functions of a museum is ‘popular education’ to show their treasures in a way that appeals to the ordinary mortal, and to arouse popular interest in art, natural history, and kindred subjects,” he said.

He expressed his hope that this would be the case in the future “that this institution will ever be a pride to the citizens of Toronto and will keep pace in size and scope with the development of your great and beautiful city.”

Today’s ROM is Canada’s largest museum, and one of the biggest in North America that illustrates natural history and world cultures. It attracts one million visitors yearly and now holds more than six million objects in its collections with more than 30 galleries that showcase art, archeology and natural science.

It has the most extensive collection of fossils from the Burgess Shale, with more than 150,000 specimens. Along with its meteorites, dinosaurs and Egyptian mummies, the museum also houses an extensive collection of design and fine arts.

There are 16 Iconic Objects in the museum, which include totem poles, made of western red cedar; the painting of The Death of General Wolfe; “Gordo” the 27-metre-long Barosaurus skeleton; the Tagish Lake Meteorite; the Bust of Cleopatra VII; the Burgess Shale and the Light of the Desert, which is a giant 900 carat cerussite gem and the world’s largest faceted cerussite. (The mineral is a lead carbonate and too fragile to be set in jewelry.)

And there are favourites with young and old alike. These include the Bat Cave, which was built in 1988 and revamped with a $ 2.75 million grant in 2010, which also saw the ROM open new Roman and Byzantine galleries. The redone Bat Cave brought in 300 new wax models of bats with vinyl wings and new bugs, such as glistening cave cockroaches.

The cave was a reproduction of the St. Clair cave in central Jamaica. In 1988, the Star’s Christopher Hume praised the Bat Cave and its exhibit. “In the old days, the ROM’s bats would simply be stuffed and mounted under glass,” commented Hume.

He said display cases now share space with “‘walk-in dioramas’ and elaborate installations. “We have gone from being viewers to participants.”

The ROM’s exhibits weren’t always destined to remain within the museum’s walls. One Toronto Star photo illustration in January 1956, explained how “history is being taken to Ontario schoolchildren in suitcases.”

Museum staff travelled to students in remote northern areas with suitcases full of items from the ROM, such as masks, snowshoes and what a fur trapper would wear.

“The teachers carry 150 objects with them during their trips to Northern Ontario schools,” the Star wrote. “…Trips last five weeks and last year teachers visited 267 schools and talked to 9,300 students.”

Today, the ROM has nine travelling exhibitions that cross the country in crates and boxes.

Over the years there have been additions — and subtractions to the museum. Its expansion in 1933 gave it the addition of the centre block and Queen’s Park wings. This completed an H-shaped floor plan with the new Rotunda lobby entrance facing Queen’s Park.

Charles T. Currelly, the first director of the ROM, conceived of the Rotunda, which includes 16 pictorial images that symbolize cultures throughout history. The Rotunda is dedicated to philanthropists Ernest and Elizabeth Samuel.

Carved in stone on the museum’s doors along Queen’s Park during the 1933 expansion is the ROM’s mandate: “The record of nature through countless ages” and “The arts of man through all the years.”

The McLaughlin Planetarium, with its then state-of-the-art electro mechanical Zeiss Planetarium projector, opened in 1968. Declining attendance led to its closure in 1995.

In 1978, a $ 55 million renovation was undertaken to provide additional space for the ROM’s research activities and to store its collections. In 1999, four new galleries were opened.

In 2001, Renaissance ROM was launched — a project to revitalize and transform the museum. In spring 2002, the project received $ 60 million from the provincial and federal governments through the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Program. The first stage of this project, says the ROM’s website, resulted in the creation of 10 new galleries and public spaces in the historic buildings, which were opened to the public on Dec. 26, 2005.

The latest expansion was the new angular main entrance to the museum. Architect Daniel Libeskind’s the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal opened in 2007. Michael Lee-Chin Crystal donated $ 30 million for its construction. Reviews for the Crystal have been mixed.

The Crystal contains a gift shop, a cafeteria and additional galleries, including James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs and the Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume.

The most controversial of the exhibits was the ROM’s Into the Heart of Africa exhibit. It opened in November 1989 to protests that it perpetuated racist stereotypes. The exhibit, which featured 375 cultural artifacts gleaned during the turn of the century, led to the resignation of its curator, Jeanne Cannizzo.

Twenty-seven years later, in November 2016, the ROM apologized for its 1989-1990 exhibit, the Star reported. “The ROM expresses its deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism. The ROM also officially apologizes for the suffering incurred by the members of the African-Canadian community,” Mark Engstrom, ROM deputy director of collections and research, told a crowd who attended the reconciliation between the museum and the Coalition For the Truth About Africa, who had protested the exhibit.

It was also announced during this time that the museum would mount a “major exhibition” planned for 2018, that “addresses the exclusion of blackness from mainstream Canadian historic narrative,” through the work of seven contemporary black artists, said ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches.

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