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.


Ladyjutea said...

I can't believe they changed the entrance to the Batcave and shortened it. How could they do that to the Batcave? I love the Batcave! It was probably the most memorable thing I saw on my very first visit to the ROM 16 years ago!

It really is too bad what they did to the dinosaur exhibit.

Oh god, I just remembered. What did they do to the Canadian forest in autumn diorama with all the stuffed animals hidden here and there? I could never find all of them. They didn't get rid of that, did they?

Josh Gould said...

The cave itself is, I think, the same length. But I don't get why they removed the little foyer (if you recall, it had windows, i.e. natural light), along with the little cartoons of how bats are viewed in different human cultures and contexts. The Batcave doesn't have quite the same effect now, but it was lots of fun when I was small.

Thankfully, the Hardwood Forest is just where it's always been.