The ROM wasn’t built in a day: 100+ years of the Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum
The Royal Ontario Museum

The saying goes that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither was the ROM! For month eleven of Global Archaeology I’m based at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada. This is a special treat for me because, as a Canadian from the province of Ontario, the ROM was one of the first museum’s I ever visited. I have childhood memories of being transfixed by the Egyptian mummies and Classical Greek vases on display. Visiting as an adult, the architecture of the museum is as fascinating to me as the archaeological and natural history objects it exhibits.

The 1984 extension and the original 1914 building
The original 1914 museum and the 1984 extension

On April 16, 1912, the ROM Act was signed in the province of Ontario Legislature. This piece of law outlined the parameters of the museum and gave equal power over funding and development to the province and to the University of Toronto over. About two years later the Royal Ontario Museums of Archaeology, Palaeontology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Geology were opened to the public by the then Governor-General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught. The original five galleries in the Italianate Neo-Romanesque building, designed by Toronto architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson, each housed a different museum. It wasn’t until 1955 that the five museums were amalgamated into one.

The 1933 entrance
The 1933 entrance on the eastern facade

The ROM’s next growth spurt happened in the midst of the Great Depression. In 1933 a neo-Byzantine style eastern wing facing Toronto’s Queen’s Park was opened to the public. The economic pressures of the Great Depression were as keenly felt at the ROM as they were across North America and the world, and so the construction of this new wing was done by hand with local labour and local building materials. While the original 1914 wing and the new wing were tied together using similar brick the new east façade was constructed to make its own unique visual impact with rusticated stone, triple windows in recessed arches and coloured stones arranged in patterns.

The atrium that connects the original 1914 structure with the 1933 extension
The atrium connecting the 1914 museum with the 1933 extension

The shining gem of the 1933 wing designed by Toronto architects Alfred H. Chapman and James Oxley is the art-deco Byzantine inspired rotunda. The first director of the ROM’s Archaeology Museum, Charles Trick Currelly, proposed the idea of the domed ceiling which glitters with a mosaic of gold back-painted glass arranged in geometric patterns interspersed with real and imagined animals. The rotunda is open from the ground floor to its dome, with mezzanine walkways giving access to different galleries. It is wonderful to stand on the uppermost level to see the mosaic up close and identify all the animals. This wing and the original 1914 museum are today listed as heritage buildings of Toronto.

The mosaic ceiling and the upper level of the rotunda
The mosaic ceiling and the upper level of the rotunda

No additional changes to the ROM took place until the late 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1968 the ROM became fully under the auspices of the provincial government and formally separated from the University of Toronto. Informal ties, thankfully, remain strong to this day with ROM curators teaching classes at the university, undergraduates volunteering for the museum and graduate students performing research on the ROM’s collections. It was in 1978 that the ROM began another period of growth: a multi-million dollar renovation to expand the research and collections work of the museum through the building of new facilities including a curatorial centre and library.

The 1933 wing connecting to the 1984 expansion
The 1933 wing connecting to the 1984 expansion

New exhibition and gallery space at the ROM was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1984. The Terrace Galleries complement the modernist style curatorial centre (renamed to Louise Hawley Stone Curatorial Centre in 2006) that was designed by Toronto architect Gene Kinoshita with Mathers & Haldenby and built with poured concrete, glass and precast concrete and aggregate panels. This was a stylistic shift from the traditional aesthetic of the heritage wings of the ROM and it is interesting to walk through the museum today and see where these stages in the museum’s story intersect.

The entrance lobby today
The entrance lobby today

The largest heritage project undertaken to date in Canada began at the ROM in 2005. This was a major revamping of the 1914 and 1933 heritage wings that included a renovation of the rotunda. The heritage galleries were made larger, windows uncovered and the original early 20th century architecture made more appreciable. Standing in the museum today, it seems to me that the earliest stages of the ROM are the heart of the entire complex. They give the museum an air of stability and endurance – a sense of having been on that spot over decades and enjoyed by generations of Canadians.

The Crystal meets the 1933 extension
The Crystal meets the 1933 extension

In 2007 the ROM opened its’ perhaps most significant, and in some ways most controversial, renovation – one that propelled the museum into the 21st century. The Deconstructivist style Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is 25% glass and 75% aluminium on top of a steel frame. The sloping walls don’t actually touch the sides of the pre-existing heritage buildings, instead enveloping them. It was designed by the international architect Daniel Libeskind and the steel framework was manufactured and assembled by Walters Inc. of Hamilton, Ontario. The Crystal contains the new three story high atrium lobby (the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court), a gift shop, cafeteria, seven additional galleries and Canada’s largest temporary exhibit hall.

A fossilized turtle soars in the Crystal
A fossilized turtle soars in the Crystal

Today the ROM continues to exhibit material from the five original museum themes of Archaeology, Palaeontology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Geology but these are now under the umbrellas of Natural History, World-Cultures and Hands-on Galleries as well as Temporary and Ongoing special exhibitions. The almost thirty galleries display everything from T-Rex skeletons to Roman coins to Samurai armour! It is a museum that brings the world to the city of Toronto while showcasing Toronto’s architectural history to the world.

The upper level of the rotunda
The upper level of the rotunda