Captivating the hearts and imaginations of millions for generations, the Royal Ontario Museum marks its 100th anniversary on March 19.
At the turn of the 20th century, a group of Torontonians conceived the idea for a provincial museum within the city that would one day be world renowned. Among its founders were Sir Byron Edmond Walker and Dr. Charles Currelly, who, with help from other influential persons, advocated for the building and convinced both the Government of Ontario and the University of Toronto to fund the project.
The Royal Ontario Museum, more commonly referred to as the ROM, was formally established on April 16, 1912, after the signing of the ROM Act in the Ontario Legislature. The then Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, officially opened the building to the public on March 19, 1914.
The original building also featured five museums: The Royal Ontario Museums of Archeology, Paleontology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Geology, respectively.
Over the last century, the ROM has undergone several expansions to meet the needs of both its staff and its numerous pieces and collections.
“The exhibits have utterly changed over time because we have had major new buildings and gallery installations many times in 100 years,” Julia Matthews, editor for ROM ReCollects, said in an email.
Today, the building’s exterior features many different architectural styles, which reflect the period in which they were built.
The original building, designed by Darling and Pearson, a Toronto-based architectural firm which was responsible for shaping the look of many of the city’s more prominent buildings during the 20th century, is done in an Italianate neo-Romanesque style. This was a revival design popular throughout North America during the 19th century, which featured heavily massed, rounded, segmented windows and hooded mouldings.
The first addition began construction during the industrial and financial collapse of 1929, otherwise known as the Great Depression. Excavation was done by hand using picks, shovels and horse-drawn wagons, while building was done using mostly locally-sourced materials.
Breaking away from the heavy Italianate style of the original building, the new addition was done in a Byzantine, art deco style. It reflected the Gothic revival with its triple windows, gargoyles and heavy bricks that had worn, roughened surfaces.
The entrance to this building faces Queen’s Park and features an ornate rotunda, the brainchild of Dr. Currelly. It is composed of gold back-painted mosaic tiles and more than a million coloured tiles of imported Venetian glass, arranged into several pictorial images. The mosaics of the Byzantine world and Eastern Europe are illustrated in rich reds, blues and turquoises, while the pictorials are symbolic of the different cultures throughout human history. The rotunda, as a whole, took eight months to complete.
Officially opening in 1933, the Toronto newspapers were heralding the Queen’s Park wing as a “masterpiece of architecture.”
In 1955, the five Royal Ontario Museums were recognized as a single body. After years of being under direct control of the University of Toronto, the ROM became an independent institution under the provincial government in 1968.
A $55-million renovation began in 1978 in order to better provide space for the ROM’s research and collection activities, new curatorial centre, library and other much-needed facilities. The Terrace Galleries were opened in 1984 by Queen Elizabeth.
In 2001, the ROM launched a $270-million project called Renaissance ROM, the first stage of which opened in 2005 and included 10 new galleries and public spaces in the historic buildings.
The most recent addition to the ROM was completed in 2007 as a major part of the Renaissance ROM project, which involved the renovation and expansion of the museum’s gallery space. The Terrace Galleries were torn down in order to make room for the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a set of five interlocking, self-supporting prismatic structures that have been considered one of North America’s most challenging construction projects.
Because the Crystal is self-supporting, it therefore remains unattached to the original building, except for the walking bridges which connect both structures internally. The $30-million project was funded by Lee-Chin, a Canadian business mogul, as not only a gift to the museum, but to Canada as a whole for the opportunities it has given him.
The design for the building, named in Lee-Chin’s honour for his generosity, was inspired by the ROM’s extensive mineral collection. The Earth Treasures gallery alone has about 600 rare gems and gem crystals, as well as jewelry and gold pieces. The initial sketch was drawn on a napkin by the renowned Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind, who was selected from among 50 finalists to spear-head the Renaissance ROM team.
Other parts of the building have also been dedicated to certain individuals for their extensive philanthropy, such as Ernest and Elizabeth Samuel. The Samuels gave generously to many projects, including funding the completion of the Samuel European Galleries, as well as the refurbishment of the Currelly Gallery, which has since been renamed the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery in their honour. The ROM has also dedicated the newly restored rotunda to the Samuels for their lifelong commitment and generosity to the museum.
Ernest Samuel was the grandson of the late Sigmund Samuel, who contributed some of the finest pieces in the museum’s Ancient Greece collection, becoming a key member of the ROM’s success from the very beginning. He was also a collector of Canadian stamps, prints and maps, contributing a large amount to the ROM’s Canadiana gallery. When the ROM could no longer adequately display the collection, the collections were moved into the main building. The new Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada is one of the galleries opened as part of the Renaissance ROM project.
With over six million objects in its collection and 40 galleries of art, archaeology and natural science, as well as their diverse collections of world culture and natural history, it’s no wonder that the ROM has been able to garner such a prestigious international reputation.
The ROM is also Canada’s largest field-research institution, with scientific and academic research taking place around the world, making the museum one of the leaders in both knowledge and communication.
But with limited space and constant collecting, the future of the ROM, like most things, cannot be easily determined, especially since the museum has such a unique dual mandate — to build understanding and appreciation for the diverse cultures and natural environments around the world.
“This museum has built a new building and new facilities about once every 25 years or so. And right now, although we have recently completed a building that improves our public spaces, we’re full, in terms of our collections,” said Janet Carding, the director at the ROM, in a ROM ReCollects video.
“We already have places off-site where we store material. But to continue to be the research organization that we want to be requires an active collecting program, and simply put, we wouldn’t want to stop collecting material. We need the space so that we can continue to grow, because it’s only by growing that I think this museum will remain alive and have its research base.”
“How this museum continues to grow, when we’ve already filled the site that we own, will be an interesting challenge.”
The ROM is also one of the largest museums in North America, attracting over one million visitors each year.
Matthews said the museum expects more visitors in the future as it continues to grow, not only in space and items, but technologically as well.
“We do expect more visitors, and we do count them in new ways,” Matthews said. “Virtually, through Google hangouts, tweets and web stats, as well as bodies through the door.”
The ROM has also introduced Wi-Fi access, which visitors can use to download the ScopifyROM app to their smartphone. The first of its kind, the ScopifyROM uses Quick-Response (QR) codes (a matrix barcode readable by cellphone cameras) which are posted on certain exhibit pieces throughout the museum to allow a user to learn more about a specific item.
The ROM will also be introducing a new book this year entitled Every Object Has a Story and holding a year-long celebration.
In addition, Matthews said the museum is preparing a special exhibition, the details of which cannot be revealed until March 19.
If you’re interested in learning more about the ROM and its upcoming celebrations, visit www.rom.on.ca.