Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A more detailed view of the ROM

Monday was the first Family Day holiday in Ontario. I ended up going to the ROM again that day. What a line-up! There were people lined up around the block to get in! I would have turned around and said forget it were it not for my newly-purchased membership card, because they had a separate and much shorter line-up for members.

I realized that the place was going to be crowded as all get-out but decided to do it anyway. I actually spent a couple of hours in the museum checking out as many of the galleries as I could.

The Dinosaurs exhibit was, as I expected, the most crowded. Really really REALLY crowded. But I think it will be worthwhile to go back with Tristan, there was quite a lot to see there. I had looked at the information on the web about that exhibit so was curious to see how it looked in real life. On the website the skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus Rex looked rather small, but in "real life" it was not so small. The head was huge! And very toothy.

My summary opinion is that the overall quality is very mixed. It is clearly "a work in progress". Some galleries were well setup and informative and interesting, others not so much. I particularly appreciated the galleries on Egyptian history and European history.

The Canadian gallery was kind of helter skelter, I didn't get a clear picture of timeline or thematic approach there. But I was positively surprised by the paintings there. Works by early Canadian artists depicting the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And I didn't realize that the Death of General Wolfe was at the ROM, it was kind of neat to be able to walk right up to it and look at the detail of it. Other paintings showed scenes of First Nations encampments with awesome scenic backdrops. The idea was to show both the "Noble Savage" and the amazing scenery of the New World.

The European gallery was arranged as a series of tableaux of household furnishings from the Middle Ages through to the Twentieth Century. It really gave a sense of how things changed in everyday life, although it clearly was depicting the households of upperclass Europeans up until the twentieth century. I cannot imagine that ordinary Europeans had furniture and room decor that spectacular. For the Victorian age, the exhibit description said there was no distinct Victorian style, rather a mix of revived styles from the past, mixed with the beginnings of industrial elements. By the twentieth century industrial and mass produced furnishings dominated. Although obviously in ordinary households that would not necessarily hold true for all Europeans, many would have furnishings of a former era, many would not have the latest and greatest in modern styles. But overall the gallery was informative, and both the timeline and the themes being described were very clear and easy to follow.

I felt similarly about the Egyptian gallery, I could follow the timeline and it was informative. I got a sense of the development of Egyptian culture by following the fairly clearly marked route through the gallery. Although it did take me a few minutes to figure out what direction you had to go in order to get the progression. Of course the small area where the mummies were displayed was about as crowded as the Dinosaur exhibit, clearly the ROM is most famous in many people's minds for its dinosaurs and mummies.

Another gallery I appreciated was the temporary exhibit for Black History Month. This display depicted slavery in Canada, in particular Ontario and Quebec. What I learned was that slavery was officially abolished in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1793 by Lord Simcoe, as the result of an incident involving the sale of a female slave in Detroit. She was forcibly removed from Ontario to be sold in Detroit, this event was witnessed by a free black man who reported it to Simcoe, who actually acted on it. Amazing. I don't know much about Simcoe and did not have an opinion one way or the other about him, but that hugely ups him in my estimation. There were also posters describing the slave trade and showing the appalling conditions of slave ships. It was a moving display.

A number of galleries are not yet open and according to my ROM floorplan map (online PDF version here), will not be open until as late as sometime in 2009. Signs in various places note the fact that some items on display or soon to be on display have not been available to the public for thirty years. So for the past thirty years, most of which time the museum was not being renovated, they had much of their material in storage. Not for lack of space because that material was available in the 1960s and '70s, but because of stupid curatorial decisions. In my opinion. Well they can't get that stuff out again too soon for my liking. I miss the Early Life gallery, the Gems and Minerals gallery, the old Geology gallery and the Africa gallery.

And I hope they do something to make the First Nations gallery a little less appallingly bad.

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