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.

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