Saturday, March 15, 2008

The ROM in Review: Epilogue

In my last two posts, I spend some time criticizing the ROM's recent renovations, with regard both to their form and their function. I was, suffice it to say, unimpressed. That being said, I was not against renovations and other changes in principle; as ever, though, it's all in the execution. It's also nice to see a major cultural institution benefit from private philanthropy without the cost of a big Scotiabank or Shoppers Drug Mart logo plastered on the side of the building.

However, what troubles me is a seeming shift in the ROM's purpose, particularly with respect to who it is evidently meant to serve. In the late 1990s, the public subsidies to the museum were cut (by the Ontario government under Mike Harris, among others). This had one immediate consequence in the closure of the McLaughlin Planetarium. In the meantime, adult admission has since risen to $20, and while memberships still offer notable savings, such costs are rather exhorbitant for what is still, ostensibly, a public institution.

I'm not sure the ROM's current management believes this, however, and this is amply demonstrated by their continuing push to tear down the empty planetarium and replace it with nothing less than a luxury condo tower. Yes, that's right - public space was to be literally privatized for the use of those wealthy enough to live in "luxury" in Yorkville. Unsurprisingly, this was opposed by many local groups, notably the Faculty of Music at UofT, which is located directly behind the planetarium. Considering how the project was introduced, the opposition was not surprising:
Architect Brian Brisbin introduced the project. The tower will feature 42 storeys of residential condominiums atop a four-storey podium and provide for underground parking for 160 cars with access from Queen’s Park.

“The tower tells a story,” he said. “It’s like an obelisk, marking the skyline from the top to the bottom. It symbolizes the area and district, creating a significant identity for the ROM and the museum district.”
Of course, the condo tower (at 42 stories, no less) would clash with the surrounding area in both height and scale generally. And when I think of what symbolizes the ROM, I think of the rotunda (to be turned into a cafe, apparently), the totem poles, and the exhibits themselves. I don't follow how condos "tell a story", much less symbolize the area (unless the idea is to symbolize Yorkville... because what we really need is for a public institution to build a monument to signify conspicuous consumption and snobby restaurants and shops).

When I was growing up, never for a second did I doubt that the ROM's mission was to make natural and global history accessible and fascinating to the general public, while also providing support for scholarship and research. In light of funding cuts, it's not altogether surprising that the mission seems to have shifted. Yet I can't say I'm not offended by the ROM's evident orientation toward those over on Bloor who complained that, when Winners opened in the old Bloor Chapters location, it was the "wrong sort" of store for the area (yes, one person interviewed on the news actually said this... I suppose if one cannot afford Holt Renfrew or Cartier, one shouldn't expect to be able to shop on Bloor West?). It is, after all, still our museum, and with any luck, it will start to feel that way again some day.


For the record, the ROM's self-described mission is as follows:
The ROM will be a world leader in communicating its research and collections to increase understanding of the interdependent domains of cultural and natural diversity, their relationships, significance, preservation, and conservation.
And, yes, the ROM remains an agency of the Government of Ontario. It should probably start acting like one.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The ROM in Review: The Galleries

In my previous post, I criticized the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. It is neither impressive as an example of contemporary architecture nor well suited for the galleries it is meant to house. Although several notable galleries have remained essentially unchanged since the renovations, many others - such as the dinosaur and pre-historic mammal collections - have been entirely redone. But does this represent an improvement over the old galleries?

The Galleries: The new exhibitions are frankly a mixed bag. Some I like... some I really didn't. The new galleries include revamped dinosaur and mammal exhibits, several redesigned galleries of world culture, including China, Korea, Japan, South Asia, and the Middle East, and galleries devoted to Canadian historical artifacts and art and to Canada's First Peoples.

I'll start with the good. The new style of most of the ROM's exhibitions is one of minimalism. Dramatic dioramas have generally been eliminated in favour of bright, open galleries with most items mounted on walls or in glass cases. While this has mixed results, it serves to brighten up some previously easily overlooked galleries. This is especially the case with the Canadiana and First Peoples galleries, both of which were previously looked in the ROM's first basement, literally below the radar of most visitors. While the First Peoples gallery cannot compete with the scale of a recreation of a West Coast native villiage, it's well done and informative. For the most part, I didn't spend much time inspecting either of these Canada-centric galleries closely, their presentation is vastly improved. Thumbs up.

The ROM's galleries of Chinese culture, including stunning collections of temple art and sculpture, have always been highlights, and I'm pleased to say that the revamped galleries are quite successful. The Gallery of Temple Art especially is a vast improvement - previously, the impressive murals had been housed in a large but dimly lit hall, hardly the right showcase. Thanks to the minimalist (and, certainly, brighter) presentation, the collections feel more accessible. They are still grouped according to their respective dynasty, and the brighter lighting is appreciated - the previous incarnation of the exhibit could be rather gloomy. A further kudos should be given to the new arrangement of the Ming Tomb, which is now housed in an interior atrium and lit dramatically by indirect flood lights. All in all, I was impressed. Note that the similarly mounted galleries of Korea and Japan are essentially unchanged from before.

So far I have not actually described any new galleries in the Crystal. So here goes. The new galleries of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture, on the Crystal's third level. I didn't spend much time looking at these exhibitions; their presentation is minimalist, much like the galleries mentioned above, but the bizarre angles of the Crystal are simply distracting and only serve to reduce the amount and flexibility of interior spaces.

Now... what about the dinosaurs? The best I can say is that they now have more skeletons and fossils on display. However, as we all know, quantity is not quality. The picture below shows how one of the allosaurus fossils was previously mounted. Note the dramatic background; in this display, two allosaurs were depicted attacking a stegosaurus. I loved it. Indeed, the philosophy of the previous dinosaur (and mammal) gallery was to present the fossils in dramatic poses in colourful dioramas.

Photo by Dylan Kereluk via Wikipedia
Things have changed, though. The new philosophy of the exhibit is to eliminate dioramas entirely. We are given the fossils simply as they are, which is admittedly in keeping with evidently minimalist presentation of the other new exhibits. The picture below shows a fearsome T-Rex. Note the white drywall in the background.

It goes without saying that I don't like the new galleries at all. Thanks to the Crystal's design, they are disjointed, cramped, and oddly shaped. Whereas visitors previously journeyed first through the age of prehistoric mammals and then into separate halls depicting massive (and scary, as they were mounted to give the impression of still being underwater) aquatic reptiles, hadrosaurs mounted as if only recently unearthed in the Badlands, a scene of mostly herbivorous dinosaurs from the Jurassic, and, finally, the aforementioned (Cretaceous) scene of a stegosaurus menaced by a pair of allosaurs. Along the way, there were smaller exhibits concerning the La Brea Tar Pits, the evolution of the horse, and, of course, our own species and our recent ancestors.

The new galleries lose any sense of a "journey through time"; everything is a mish-mash, and the minimalist presentation and brighter lighting actually detract from the experience. While I'll grant that, with some imagination, the dramatic scenes characteristic of the previous galleries can be brought out in one's mind's eye, that frankly doesn't cut it. Simply put, kids will always be the most enthusiastic visitors to a gallery of dinosaurs, and the dramatic and visceral the gallery, the more captivated the children will be. If the old gallery was akin to Jurassic Park, the new one is rather like a collection of photo stills from a paleontologist's catalogue; still quite interesting (and I'm sure kids will still like it quite a bit), but not as exciting.

That's more or less all I have to say on the new galleries. I should note, though, that exhibits relating to human evolution (or evolution in general) are conspicuously lacking in the new galleries. The cynic in me wonders whether such subjects are deemed too controversial, as the old evolution gallery itself often seemed to be neglected too. It's unconscionable that a musuem purporting to emphasize natural history would neglect such a unifying biological concept. A few other things bothered me:
  • The Gallery of Reptiles would do well with some freshening, or at least some new signage. It's a perfectly serviceable exhibit, but it doesn't appear to have been maintained with sufficient care during the renovations.
  • The entrance of the Bat Cave has been changed. In fact, it's been shortened, as the foyer, painted and decorated like a South American jungle, has been eliminated. This sadden me, especially since the change has no evident purpose.
  • The insect (well, arthropod) gallery is gone entirely. It had better be restored at some point, unless the ROM's management believes that the largest phylum of animals should be ignored by a museum putatively concerned with educating visitors about the natural world.
  • The corridor displaying various stuffed mammals is gone as well. It was kind of interesting (there were anteaters along with more traditional lions and wolves), and again I cannot figure out why it was removed, as nothing has replaced it.
I should mention, though, that much of the natural history galleries are currently unfinished - doubtlessly, some of the above changes and disappearances will doubtlessly be incorporated into the new biodiversity gallery, which won't actually open for a year (this may mean that the reptile gallery is simply awaiting some more profound changes). Likewise, an earth sciences gallery is upcoming, as is a temporary exhibit about Darwin (which, frankly, still doesn't make up for the evident lack of a dedicated evolution gallery).

All in all, the galleries new and old still prove that the ROM's collections are remarkably impressive. It's simply unfortunate that the Crystal's design is unsuited to giving these magnificent collections the best possible environment in which to experience them. I'll have an epilogue on the new ROM tomorrow or early next week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The ROM in Review: The Building

About two weeks ago I visited the Royal Ontario Museum for the first time in a year or more. It marked the first time I'd visited since the completion of the Michael Lee-Chin "Crystal" (shown above), among other major renovations. I'll admit - I was skeptical about these renovations from the very start. Previously, the ROM had undergone a major renovation in the 1970s and 1980s; the space between the original neo-Romanesque wings had been enclosed, giving rise to grand halls lit by natural light as well as terraced galleries on the Bloor St. elevation. That's the ROM I grew up with; with only small exceptions, it remained pretty much the same from the late 80s until the current renovations began.

I won't lie and say that nothing should have changed, but I remain very attached to the ROM as it once was; growing up my grandparents frequently took me, my brother, and my cousins there on Saturday mornings, and it goes without saying that those visits made a strong impression on me. So, my review of the "new" ROM should be read in light of this, but I will say that my feelings on the renovations (and changes to some of the galleries in particular) are based on a more objective assessment. The ROM I knew is gone; so how does the new ROM stack up?

Well, first I should point out that not everything has changed. The Galleries of Birds, Reptiles, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Bronze Age Aegean Art are all exactly as they were, as are the Samuel European Galleries, which continues to house arms and armour as well as a history of European decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the present day. The totem poles haven't moved, and the rotunda is as beautiful as ever. Additionally, since the original Crystal renovation plans were considerably scaled down, due to a variety of engineering and cost considerations (evidently, large amounts of glass to form such a Crystal are not just structurally unsound, but nightmarish for heating and cooling and, of course, the protection of fragile artifacts), the southern half of the 1984 renovation is completely intact. I daresay that even the washrooms haven't warranted an upgrade.

What's gone? Well, every single other gallery has been redone and moved. The Crystal structure has taken over the northern half of the building, and, bizarrely for a building with no fewer than five levels open to the public, the escalators appear to be gone permanently. For reasons I cannot fathom, the long-standing entrance on Queen's Park Crescent, which welcomed visitors into the stunning rotunda, has been abandoned in favour of a Bloor entrance, which provides visitors with an excellent view of a lot of white drywall. I may as well discuss the Crystal itself first.

The Building: I think the best I can say about the Crystal is that it's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The design has been considerably scaled down, as I noted above. Originally, the Crystal would've stretched nearly all the way back to the Planetarium; now, it just looms over Bloor, giving the impression that a Goa'uld mothership has landed on a mission to enslave Yorkville.

The idea behind the Crystal was to make the ROM into a "distinctive new symbol of Toronto for the 21st century" by embarking upon "one of the most important architectural projects of our time". Thus the dawn of the "Crystal Age" would make the stately old museum into the country's "premier cultural and social destination". Yes, they actually used this language to describe the renovation. The "new age" was to be ushered in by "starchitect" Daniel Libeskind, most of whose buildings display decidedly unconventional ideas, with all manner of strange sight lines and angular ceilings and walls. Of course, it would be more unconvential if this sort of post-modern architecture weren't so excessively trendy.

Inside the Crystal, you will indeed find all the hallmarks of Libeskind's angular designs. However, since the amount of glass had to be drastically scaled down (too much natural light in a museum is a bad thing), the interior consists of large swaths of white drywall. In fact, from some of the open spaces inside, it looks as though an iceberg has lodged itself into the side of the building, sort of like a Lawren Harris painting brought to life (only with less colour). The drywall is rather boring, though, and I cannot figure out why new escalators were not put in. There is at most one new elevator and, of course, a new staircase, but it seems ludicrous that crucial issues of accessibility were evidently overlooked. It's not just a matter of helping out the disabled or those with arthritis - carting around a bunch of kids is easier, I think, when they don't have to be crammed into elevators frequently.

Indeed, much about the new design veers far in the direction of "form" as opposed to "function". The angular walls are problematic for the efficient use of space in the second and third floor galleries of the Crystal especially; not only are the galleries cramped and disjointed, but the large amounts of angular white drywall create lots of useless open space that detracts from the exhibits aesthetically. At the same time, different sections of the upper levels of the Crystal are connected by walkways and short staircases, the surfaces of which are actually metal gratings that feel only slightly more stable than those that run over subway vents. The gratings are noisy and, to be blunt, ugly. I don't know what they were thinking, though I'm hoping that they're just temporary. In any case, one of those runs incongruously right into the arms and armour exhibit, so that the Crystal connects to some of the older sections of the building. This comes at the cost of an entire section of the exhibit (the antique firearms to be precise).

So, in sum, I don't much like the Crystal addition. It's definitely not very practical, but I could somewhat forgive that if it were actually impressive on the inside. It isn't, and I can conclude that Libeskind is tremendously overrated as an architect. That's not to say that I dislike contemporary modern architecture - just the opposite - but the new ROM is completely lacking in the seamless unity of form and function that is present in, say, the Canadian Museum of Civilization or the National Gallery. Now those are magnificent buildings. So, incidentally, is much of the existing ROM (as were the terraced galleries razed to make way for the Crystal), but the Crystal neither works with the original structures nor is it adequate taken by itself. The work is not done yet, though, so perhaps it will yet improve.

Since this post is already very long, I'll write a second post entirely about the galleries tomorrow.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Brief Foray into Politics...

Generally speaking, I've preferred to steer clear of matters political on this blog, but this merits an exception to that rule. In a word, the Conservative Party, with the knowledge of then-Leader of the Opposition Stephen Harper, is alleged to have attempted to bribe the late independent MP Chuck Cadman into voting against the government on a crucial budget vote in May 2005. Had this occurred, the government would have fallen. The allegation surfaced via a soon to be published biography of Cadman, and is attested to by Cadman's widow as well as his daughter and her husband. The "financial incentive" offered was, according to Cadman, a "million-dollar life insurance policy", though it's not absolutely clear that that's what it was. Still, something was offered and the evidence comes from none other than Harper himself.

Now, we might ask whether this sort of thing is commonplace, whether this is "business as usual". And perhaps it is. But a bribe is a bribe, and justifying it along the lines of "but everyone else does it!" is hardly acceptable. Plus, offering "financial incentives" in exchange for votes is illegal, pure and simple. While it's debatable whether there is enough evidence for making a criminal case out of this, trial by election does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and it seems amply clear that a financial offer of some sort was made. That's enough for me.