Five years ago, not long after he was appointed director of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, William Thorsell began to talk about rediscovering and restoring the two handsome old sections of the museum that were built in the first half of the 20th century but later hidden by a series of wrong-headed additions.
The original structure went up in 1914, an elegant atrium that looked on to the University of Toronto campus. It was the work of Darling and Pearson, a prestige-laden architectural firm of the time. Chapman and Oxley, another well-regarded partnership, designed the next building, running on a parallel north-south course, erected in 1933 and joined to the first by a gallery that made the floor-plan look like an H.
Thorsell argues that these two buildings were a far greater expense than the $233-million he and his colleagues are currently spending, provided you take into account the relative value of the dollar and the size of Toronto and Canada in 1914 and 1933. (Alas, judging the truth of that complex equation is beyond the jurisdiction of this court.)
The ROM has for generations displayed the result of archaeological digs. Under Thorsell it has studied its own dark past, executing auto-archaeology, digging into the layers of change imposed on the old buildings. Various directors had bricked over the tall, splendid windows of the 1914 building, lowered the ceilings, and cut the vast space into neat little rooms that would, they hoped, make the collection coherent. Sometimes the changes made little sense; I've always felt, for instance, that the great achievement of the 1982 rebuilding was a handsome escalator.
Gradually the museum turned inward, losing visual contact with the world outside. So bringing city and museum together has been a major part of this renewal project. And last week, when journalists were invited to get a first and partial glimpse of the new ROM, the freshly exposed 1914 wing made the most striking impression.
Now we can see out the windows, as the original designers intended. In fact, Daniel Libeskind, the architect, has treated the windows as precious objects in themselves. The museum looks out, and the public looks in. At night, with the museum lit, people going by will be visually entertained by the ROM's Oriental art. With window glass treated to keep art-damaging ultraviolet light at bay, the ROM will function as an advertisement for itself.
This newly liberated space now holds four Chinese galleries and displays of Japanese and Korean art. The famous stone Ming Tomb, built in 1656 to honour the remains of General Zu Dashou, has been installed, stone camel and all, in the Chinese galleries, now brought into close association with 800-year-old temple paintings and Buddhist sculpture. One star of the Chinese section is, of all things, a reproduction. It's a corner section (seven metres wide by seven metres high) of a gilded hall in an imperial palace, with traditional Chinese materials, no-nails wood construction, and the brilliant colours of 17th-century China. Artisans created it at the National Museum of Chinese Architecture in Beijing and came to Toronto to set it up.
Most displays follow the principle that art should stand in the open, not in box-like rooms, and that visitors should walk freely, if respectfully, among the objects. Elsewhere we can find a new gallery pretentiously named Gallery of Canada: First Peoples. The contents were incomplete when shown to the press but it was clear that the selection and arrangement, done with a painfully intense level of political correctness, will be sharply controversial. But no one need be concerned about the fate of the 1919 bronze statue of Timothy Eaton, donated to the ROM when the Eaton dynasty collapsed in the 1990s. It now casts a commanding glance over the lower rotunda, outside the much-improved Eaton Theatre.
The between-buildings crossbar of the H has been redesigned as a luxurious public room in 1930s Grand Hotel style, with its own entrance through the elegantly restored rotunda and disparate examples of the ROM collection on the walls. A place for contemplation and conversation by day, it should generate after-hours revenue as a site for private and corporate parties.
A new Royal Ontario Museum is no small event in the history of Toronto or the national museum community. The ROM's own inner decline and a newly competitive environment left it on the sidelines by the 1990s, but for many years before that it was arguably the most potent cultural centre in Toronto. I realized this in childhood through my aunt, a much-travelled New Yorker who considered Toronto at best an outpost in the bush but made an exception for the ROM's Chinese collection and its archaeological research.
It seems natural that the ROM should be the only Canadian museum used as the setting for a book by a major novelist, Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man.
For several generations, including my own, it was a cherished avenue to ancient and distant cultures, a temple to multiculturalism long before that word was invented.
And although young Torontonians assumed it must be like museums everywhere else, the ROM in fact developed into the only full-service museum on the planet. There's nowhere else that brings the sciences and the arts under one roof, delivering dinosaurs and Chinese paintings, 18th-century English silver and Indian canoes, Darwin's finches and ancient Roman sculpture.
The old catch-all museums common in Europe in the 19th century split up according to their specialities; science, in particular, went off on its own. But the ROM simply evolved into a refined, scholarly version of the one-building-fits-all tradition. At one point it had 22 independent curatorial departments, most of which did their best to ignore all the others.
Libeskind, the architect responsible for the redesign, has called the uncovering of the old museum spaces "the dark fortress opened to light." He sees this costly, complicated process as a serious act of reclamation and an homage to the original designs, generous and expansive works of civic architecture. The entire Renaissance ROM will finally be judged next fall on Libeskind's spectacular crystal shapes, which will reach out over the sidewalk and dominate Bloor Street. What journalists saw last week (to be opened to the public Boxing Day) is only Act One in this drama -- but it's an exhilarating start, and a cause for celebration.