Monday, December 19, 2005

I haven't been in to see the new galleries myself... but

Rebuilt ROM is wondrous
Dec. 19, 2005. 01:00 AM

It's over budget and behind schedule. So what else is new? The important thing is that when the $233 million rebuilding of the Royal Ontario Museum is complete sometime next winter, the ROM — and the city — will be better as a result.Just how much better will become clear when the first batch of new galleries opens to the public on Boxing Day. For the first time in living memory, the windows of the museum's exquisite west wing, built in 1914, can be seen. The wall that for decades covered these enormous arched openings has been removed and the original features revealed.Now, with the new light-filled galleries restored, ROM visitors can wander through the museum's ancient Chinese artifacts and watch the snow falling on Philosopher's Walk. This is the kind of experience the new museum will offer in spades.Throughout, the newly reconfigured spaces are organized to appeal to our sense of curiosity and our desire for comfort — not just physical comfort but psychological as well. The Currelly Court, the ROM's main gathering area, has been transformed into a wonderfully domestic space complete with chairs, couches, tables and rugs. It's so inviting, it's destined to become hugely popular with visitors.Small seating areas can also be found in the galleries, where they provide places to pause and ponder.Not only is this kind of attention to the details of the museum-going experience refreshing, it adds a layer of casualness, even domesticity, to the ROM. Informality is the order of the day, of course, but that can be a mixed blessing. Here, designers have managed to put people at ease but on their best behaviour.The galleries themselves represent a welcome return to sanity after decades of museological madness. The hermetically sealed black box favoured since the 1960s and '70s has been replaced by a new approach that allows for light and transparency. The new ROM mixes wide-open spaces — one can see from one end of the west wing to the other — with moments of intimacy. The rooms are largely defined by glass display cases filled with countless objects. Never has the museum felt so alive with stuff.The result is a happy cross between a wunderkammer, or room of wonders, and a living room. More objects from the ROM's vast collections are on display than ever before. The west building, the oldest, is devoted to China, Japan and Korea. The 1931 east wing, which faces Queen's Park, has been handed over to aboriginal exhibits. The restaurant and shops have been cleared out and this important hall returned to the museum.Ultimately, though, the project is an attempt to get more of the collections before the public. They are what the museum is all about, but for the past few decades, the emphasis was on themed galleries complete with interactive displays, cartoon characters and computer-controlled effects.There was precious little room left over for objects, though that hardly seemed to matter. Under the regime of current director William Thorsell, however, the ROM has moved away from anything that smacks of Disneyfication and insisted that the museum is for adults as well as kids.Though the most visible element of the ROM remake, Daniel Libeskind's Crystal, is still a year or so from completion, the new galleries are a dramatic indication of the vision of enlightenment that lies at the heart of the massive rebuilding program."History doesn't only exist in the past," Libeskind said at the museum last week.He's right; the beauty of the project is that it respects the old ROM as much as it welcomes the new. Cultural institutions grow over time; each age adds its bit to what went before. Libeskind's intervention will bring the ROM into the 21st century, but not at the cost of what went before.Those who pay close attention will notice that the additions, even the exhibit cases, have been carefully crafted to remain separate from one another. In other words, the ROM has become part of the cultural history it documents, an artifact in its own right, an object of wonder and beauty.

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