How the ROM's new entrance opens the museum to the city
If nothing else, the Crystal made it clear the Royal Ontario Museum has become as much a space as it is an artifact. But for many Torontonians, the undifferentiated expanses of Daniel Libeskind’s 2007 addition stand in stark contrast to the exquisitely decorated halls of the ROM’s older parts.
So when the museum reopens its Queen’s Park entrance Tuesday, don’t be surprised if most visitors decide to trek the extra distance just to enjoy the ROM’s most unabashedly extravagant room, the Rotunda. With its gold mosaic surfaces, vaulted ceiling and soaring limestone arches, this is the museum at its most impressive and jewel-like.
If anything, the changes are even more evident on the street. A new stairway gives the entrance greater presence on Queen’s Park Cres. while living up to the expectations of the elaborately carved Art Deco facade. It’s easy to imagine these new steps will become a popular seating area in warmer weather. They don’t have the heft of the famous staircase at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum, but they will do. Certainly they seem destined to become a meeting place.
For Josh Basseches, an American import who has been the ROM’s CEO since March, 2016, that meshes perfectly with his big idea — accessibility. “My wish is to throw the doors of the museum open,” he declares. “I want people to see the museum as their civic living room.”
Libeskind made similar claims for his addition. He added windows across the Bloor St. front to show off the displays inside. Passersby have nice views of the dinosaur gallery, especially at night. Still, the Bloor entrance, which will remain open as well, has always been underwhelming. It is inexplicably small, hard to find and the doors themselves appear to come right out of a manufacturer’s catalogue.
Interestingly, the original Queen’s Park doors have been replaced by more contemporary examples made of bronze and glass. “Making the doors transparent means you can see into the museum,” Basseches explains. “That’s symbolic of the things I care about.”
Though Libeskind moved the entrance to Bloor because it’s the more important of the two streets the ROM faces, it has never quite fulfilled its promise. Before his addition, the museum was set back and sections were actually fenced off from Bloor. That made no sense, but even now the building’s north face feels disconnected from its surroundings. Basseches says this will be addressed in the next round of changes some time early next year. There’s room here for something urban and engaging, perhaps not a full-fledged cafe but certainly more than the four or five black benches, however elegant, now arranged on the Bloor sidewalk.
On Queen’s Park, where the sidewalk is not as wide Bloor, the opportunities are limited in scale but not scope. The stairwell will go a long way to conveying a message of openness and welcome, as will an improved entry ramp for disabled visitors. Inside, the clutter of years has been removed to reveal the Rotunda in its full glory. New and better lighting will make it harder than ever not to stop and gawk at the extraordinary effort and level of detail that went into its creation in the early 1930s. Compared to the endless drywall in the new entry hall, the effect is all the more dramatic. That there was ever a time when designers considered every part of a building — ceiling, floor, walls — equally worthy of attention seems all the more remarkable in an age when architecture is as disposable as possible while remaining structurally sound.
As Besseches likes to say, “Everything comes from the object.” The ROM has six million in its collection, only a handful on display. But the museum is also an artifact, one whose meaning and power have defined existing communities as they create new ones. It is as important to the city as the city is to it. The one embodies the other. The current Dior show is a good example; its contents — clothing worn and given by local donors — reveal as much about Toronto as they do postwar haute couture.
“I’m a big fan of the Crystal,” Besseches continues. “It brought the museum into the contemporary era. I want to continue our engagement with Bloor; it’s one of the most important avenues in Toronto. But we also have this glorious heritage entrance.” Besides, with attendance reaching new heights — 1.35 million last year — the ROM could use two entrances.
Christopher Hume’s column appears weekly. He can be reached at
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