Robert Fulford's column about the Royal Ontario Museum's South Asian Gallery

(The National Post, December 19, 2000)

William Thorsell, the former editor of The Globe and Mail and the head of the Royal Ontario Museum since August, finds himself presiding this month over a much-publicized new installation that illustrates just about everything that's gone wrong with museums in recent years: the Christopher Ondaatje South Asian Gallery, which opened on Nov. 30. I've been there three times -- the first two occasions for 15 minutes or so, the third for an hour. I can't see anything good about it, aside from some of the 50 or so artistic and scientific objects it contains. Whether Thorsell knows it or not, this overcrowded, over-hyped exhibit demonstrates how badly Canada's largest and best museum, one of the great public institutions of Toronto, needs radical reform by an audacious outsider like him.

Intended as a way of displaying the cultures of South Asia, the Ondaatje Gallery instead delivers 2,500 square feet of incoherence. As a work of design, it is almost bad enough to be in the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. It's one of those exhibits that somehow manage to detract from the sum of human knowledge; at the end you may feel you know less than you did when you entered.

The first thing you see is what the designers call the Tree of Life -- some branches made of a plastic-like substance. From the tree hang 60 tiny video sets showing tiny films of South Asian life: fish, flowers, boatmen with their boats, camels, sunsets, etc. (but no cities, no slums, no industry). If you wonder whether tigers live in some parts of this region (South Asia encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives), then you simply look up at one of the screens, see a tiger and be assured that they do. But the real purpose of the tiny TVs is to create atmosphere. Instead, they and their accompanying soundtrack create distraction and annoyance.

Visitors may flee to the second (and last) room, hoping to escape the pain of audiovisual assault. No such luck. The second room has a 14-minute film on a larger screen in which various experts explain the objects in the room, which include garments and jewellery. The film runs in English for 14 minutes, then starts up again eight or nine minutes later in French, badly dubbed, then comes on in English again, all day long. There's no way to turn the damn thing off.

This farrago represents the ROM's current idea of dynamic, up-to-the-minute presentation. Installations like this one are always announced by two clichés that experienced museum-goers have learned to dread: "innovative" and "state-of-the-art." (Both mean "sort of like Disneyland.") Sure enough, both terms show up in the ROM press releases. The design work was done by Reich + Petch, a Toronto-based firm that's been involved in the Millennium Dome in London, among other projects. An announcement from Reich + Petch describes the gallery as "two jewel-like rooms, featuring the reciprocal themes of Diversity and Unity ..."

Nobody can deny the diversity part. The wildly mixed content ranges from religious art to geology, from holistic medicine to sugar cane, from military gear to cotton plants, the latter being there to show us where cotton comes from, in case we don't know.

The quality of the art objects, most of them from the ROM collection, is highly uneven. The exquisite Jain goddess in stone from Madhya Pradesh, made about 1,100 years ago, is one of the most impressive. At the other end of the scale is a 19th-century model (perhaps made in the Punjab) of the Sikhs' Golden Temple at Amritsar. The caption says the model uses "silver gilt," but it looks like tin. The Golden Temple, one of the most evocative buildings in India, makes a stronger impression in a standard National Geographic photo than it does here.

Depending on how much you like or dislike it, you can call the Ondaatje Gallery an anthology, a sampler or a jumble sale. What no one would call it is a clear and thoughtful exhibition. The ROM worked it up as an interdisciplinary project, deploying several departments, various staff members and South Asian community leaders, all directed by the head of the Department of Near Eastern and Asian Civilizations, Ed Keall.

The final choices reflect no understanding of the difference between interdisciplinary and chaotic. What emerged looks like the work of an unmanageable committee, whose members all came with separate agendas, determined to jam their favourite items into the exhibition: When the arguments ended, apparently everybody won except the public. Perhaps the central planning fault was an anxious desire to please all factions at the same time.

Condescension may also have played a part. The name of the gallery acknowledges a $1-million gift from the Canadian financier Christopher Ondaatje, who was quoted recently in Maclean's on his intentions: "I'm introducing a young country to one of the oldest civilizations in the world."

Was he trying to be offensive? Many thousands of Canadian citizens were born in South Asia, thousands more are their descendants, and among the rest of us, many have visited the region or read about it and absorbed its imagery all our lives. The Ondaatje Gallery may well provide a few visitors with their first glimpses of South Asian culture, just as the museum does for some with dinosaurs or Roman sculpture. But the implication that we are waiting in ignorance for Christopher Ondaatje to introduce us to South Asian culture (in a small, vague, and unfocused gallery) is preposterous and insulting.

What does this gallery say about prospects for the new regime of William Thorsell at the ROM? The planning started more than five years ago, and it must have been nearing completion by the time he arrived. He couldn't have had much to do with creating it.

But was he there soon enough to stop it? Should he have thrown his body on the tracks before this hideously embarrassing train pulled into the station? In a conflict-producing decision like that, a leader would have to balance delicately the demands of quality, senior professional staff, and the public. How much, really, can one president affect the nature of an encrusted institution that's 90 years old? In the case of Thorsell, it will be a long time before we know the answer.

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