Friday, 8 June 2007

Glimpses of Crystal: Royal Ontario Museum

Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum has been in the process of expanding. And I'm an unabashed fan of the redesign.

My wife got us memberships last Christmas, and it's been neat to watch the process. There is a wealth of artifacts that are rarely if ever on display, and the ROM wanted to show them off...and add some striking new architecture to the city. Last night, we had tickets to wander around the new, mostly empty galleries. There were surprises.

The new Lee-Chin Crystal was designed by Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind, ini
tially on a napkin (at right). The original facade of the ROM, facing east is classic, sculpted architecure, very detailed stonework. The new design on the north end is as if gigantic geode crystals had formed out of the original stone. If you stand to the southeast, you see only the classic building I grew up with. Standing at the northwest, the Crystal dominates the street and demands attention.

History of History
Inside, we were taken in a gigantic elevator to the fourth floor. The suggestion was to start at the top, and head down. The first exhibit was an art show designed and curated by Hiroshi Sugimoto. It was an interesting show, of the kind I like; the narratives on the wall explained the works to an extent, but were only placed in soft greys, so if you wanted to merely examine the art and artifacts you could. At the beginning were some truly awesome trilobites, among other fossils. Most of the show was about photography, and the explanation on the wall suggested that fossils are pre-photography, prehistoric snapshots into the past. It was an interesting idea on the surface, and a beautiful idea to put fossils under a photo-centric ideal. But I couldn't help wondering, as we looked at the rest of the very staged and beautiful photo-artifact pieces, wouldn't a camera hurtling through downtown Montreal, or the coral reefs of Aruba taking undirected snapshots be more like a fossil?

(photo of opening ceremony fireworks)

The Crystal
Words like 'lofty' and 'soaring' come to mind. I believe the space is designed to promote reflective thought. But words like 'intimate', 'peeking', and 'glimpse' also come to mind. There are beautiful shafts of natural light filtering onto new shiny structure and original stone. Viewing through the levels is intentionally partially obstructed and therefore intriguing.

Surprising Stairs
The Driscoll Stair of Wonder caught us delightfully off guard. We went down the flight from the fourth to third, and a giant whimsical wall of antique toy soldiers greeted us. Around the next flight, beautiful insects, glass paperweights and seashells glittered. The next, birds with extravagant plumage, Victorian glass finger bowls, and jars of small animals in formaldehyde. The final stair to the basement featured mammal weaponry; narwhal tusks, antlers of all kinds...
The whole stairway was a happy surprise.

Over the next few months, the ROM will continue to unveil more & more. (Trilobites & invertebrates in 2009!) I'm loving it.

(Both images above are credited to the Royal Ontario Museum website.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Popular opinion now seems to agree that Libeskind is a vulgar fraid.
In its end of decade review, the Washington Post identified Libeskind's ROM as 'The Worst Building of the Decade'. And viewers at www.virtualtourist.com included it in their list of the World's Top Ten Ugliest Buildings.

Glendon Mellow said...

I saw those reviews: some critics hate it, others love it.

I've grown up with the ROM, taken classes there on Saturdays as a kid, and it was my place of choice as a child. Now I regularly take my nephew there, or just go in to draw.

The new building is awesome, and appropriate. You can stand at the south-east corner and see nothing but the beautiful original facade. At the north-west corner, the imposing shattered crystal.

The space inside is excellent, and they took advantage to provide the public with more information than I can ever remember about the exhibits: the "infotainment" era is gone. The new Rom is respectable, and makes no apologies for blending the old and new.

Popular opinion seems to me to come down on both sides. NOW magazine likes it. Who matters more, the Washington Post, or NOW magazine and a paleo-enthusiast who both live in Toronto?

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