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The ROM turns 100 years old

Posted by Chris Bateman / March 15, 2014

toronto royal ontario museum romThe treasure trove of rare jewels, glittering gems, and ancient fossils that became the Royal Ontario Museum was originally imagined by architectural firm Darling and Pearson as a cavernous Italianate structure capable of dominating the corner of Bloor Street and Queens Park Crescent.

The design had four matching sides galleries arranged in a rough square. A grand entrance flanked by two matching towers was drawn facing Bloor Street and something even more elaborate was planned for the main facade on Queens Park Crescent. It was to be "one of the finest museums on the continent," wrote the Toronto Star.

Unfortunately, budgetary constraints imposed by the province, which was paying for the construction and half the running costs, meant each block would have to be built separately, starting with the west wing facing Philosopher's Walk. The others would be added later when more money was available.

That original wing, which was considerably smaller though no less impressive, and the institution that was established to operate it turned 100 years old yesterday.

toronto royal ontario museum romConstruction of the province's first purpose-built museum didn't entirely go to plan: Two men were killed when a temporary wooden floor over the top of an elevator shaft collapsed, sending a group of workers more than 80 feet into the basement. "I was just saying to the men that we were just about finished without a single accident of any account," said Professor Corelli, the superintendent of the museum.

The $400,000 building that showed its best side to Varsity Stadium was opened on Mar. 14, 1914 by the governor general, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, the seventh child of Queen Victoria, on the eve of the first world war. Inside was thousands of precious items sourced from the various departments at the University of Toronto.

toronto royal ontario museum romThe first displays must have been a wonder to early visitors. The 300-foot hall on the ground floor, divided down the middle by a geological map of Canada, was packed with gleaming jewels, gold from the Canadian Shield, and lumps of silver from the mines of Cobalt, Ont.

There were Egyptian artifacts, including a "large alter of libations" from about 2700 BC, donated by a Dr. Robert Mond. Roman garments, embroidered curtains, and other treasures sealed inside glass cases or tucked in alcoves along the exterior walls.

toronto royal ontario museum romThe main attraction, however, was the museum of palaeontology on the first floor, in to which staff had squeezed some 60,000 animal specimens from 15,000 species. There was a giant trilobite found near St. John, N.B. - the only one of its kind, the Star said - and several smaller examples from around Toronto, one of which was found at the Don Valley Brick Works.

Several dinosaur skeletons were lovingly assembled and presented on marble plinths. A "sea-going reptile" that measured 16-feet in length - possibly a plesiosaur - had pride of place beside an "almost perfect and very valuable" Moa, a massive flightless bird hunted to extinction by the New Zealand Maori in the 1400s.

toronto royal ontario museum romThough the museum tried to steer clear of curios and remain strictly educational, there were several delightfully odd exhibits. An albino beaver of unknown provenance was mounted on a piece of wood (minus its eyes) and a shark's tooth workers claimed had been found in Toronto was given special attention in the newspapers at the time.

The tale went that workers digging the 40-foot foundation for the Board of Trade Building at Front and Yonge streets had found the bizarre artifact deep underground during a routine excavation. The Star called it an "unsolved mystery" and left it at that. The ROM was happy to leave a question mark over the find, too, though the tooth does appear to have been verified as genuine.

"If it came by natural agencies its presence here is a mystery yet unsolved," The Star wrote.

(Interestingly, more than a hundred years later, when the TTC was excavating the streetcar tunnel beneath Bay Street, workers turned up a section of orca vertebrae that no-one has since conclusively explained. Early predictions that it was a discarded piece of a whale once displayed in an early zoo at Front and York streets seem to have been disproved, however. Serendipitously, the mystery bone is on display at the ROM today.)

toronto royal ontario museum romIn all there were 10 alcoves in the palaeontology section: protozoa and sponges; corals; crinoids; crystals, blastoids, asteroids and echinoids; bryozoa; brachiopods; pelecypods; cephalopods; gastropods; arthropods.

"The names sound most forbidding, but the specimens themselves are fascinating for the layman and the student alike," a preview of the museum's offerings calmly assured its readers.

The Royal Ontario Museum was finally expanded to its intended size with the addition of the east wing in 1933. The space to the south of the H-shaped structure was filled by a curatorial building and the Bloor Street face was home to the Queen Elizabeth II Terrace Galleries until the arrival of Daniel Libeskind's loved-and-loathed crystal addition in 2007.

A year-long program of events is planned to celebrate the ROM's centenary.

toronto royal ontario museum romChris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Royal Ontario Museum



Hazel McCallion / March 15, 2014 at 01:41 pm
O my wattles;-) ROM = My Age! Matter of Fact, that's my first husband, not a dinosaur!
Deb replying to a comment from Hazel McCallion / March 15, 2014 at 02:16 pm
What's a wattle? I've been to the ROM a few times but never noticed.
W. K. Lis / March 15, 2014 at 02:42 pm
Doesn't look a year over 90.
Steven / March 15, 2014 at 03:51 pm
A shame they had to mess up the architecture with that piece of shit glass and aluminium zit hanging out on Bloor. I'm so ashamed by this, I've told tourists to visit other places instead.
Chester replying to a comment from Steven / March 15, 2014 at 04:32 pm
You're a straight idiot bud. He building looks gorgeous now while still maintaining its heritage. I remember going as a kid with my parents or with schools and cramming into that side entrance with not much food options either. Now you got tons of room for families, great food and better exhibits.

A I hate ass hats like you who don't embrace change. I bet instead of condos you want them to build 3 story brownstones with shitty plumbing and no space because it's "authentic".
JH replying to a comment from Steven / March 15, 2014 at 07:16 pm
While the addition was certainly controversial, everyone need not like it, it's no reason to deter people from the excellent collections on the inside of the building. It remains one of the best museums in North America, zits and all.
ali / March 16, 2014 at 12:43 am
Chris - you've got a typo - I think you mean "hunted to extinction" in this phrase: "...Moa, a massive flightless bird hunted to extension by the New Zealand..."
a change is coming replying to a comment from Steven / March 16, 2014 at 02:23 am
Did any of them listen to you Steve? I doubt it. No one likes a bossy-boots Philistine playing Tourist Guide. Funny how many people were terrified of something that they couldn't easily wrap their heads around. It was like quite nothing ever built in Canada before, and that was a Very Bad Thing. We knew so because local architects chimed in to tell us so. They should have been the ones to build it, not a Starchitect.
Seems quaint and somewhat provincial now, doesn't it? :)

Job well done, Chris! One of your best ever. Thank you!
Alexander / March 16, 2014 at 05:12 pm
YAY...can they have a birthday party where they charge twice what they should, close at 5pm and then invest millions in hideous architecture that everyone hates? Honestly, just close the damn thing. It's an embarrassment as a museum for a world class city like Toronto.
linden / March 16, 2014 at 06:49 pm
why is it all the amazing buildings in Toronto which are a true architecture gym were build in the first half of 20th century.
Cliff S replying to a comment from linden / March 18, 2014 at 11:03 am
We elect cheapskates with no vision for the future and anything other then the lowest cost option is considered gravy.

What we have asked for is cheap temporary buildings with no personality or long term value.
Is there a part of the dinosaur exhibit that has Ford skeletons? / March 18, 2014 at 11:12 am
You know they are an extinct species. Robdougkathyrandy sapien are "living fossils" and "missing links".
Hazel McCallion / March 18, 2014 at 05:19 pm
My twat is 100 too! Talk about dry!
Hassy replying to a comment from Steven / March 18, 2014 at 05:57 pm
Good for you Steve. I would not want my friends offended by the eyesore that is the ROM either.
Hassy replying to a comment from a change is coming / March 18, 2014 at 06:01 pm
@ "Chester" So, you like to embrace change, do you? Just for the sake of it too, I'll bet. Well, I got this new ice-cream flavor called CatShit you might like to try. And there's this new urine-scented cologne designed just for progressive experimental types like yourself. -

Try thinking before you open your big mouth and criticizing others ... especially when you look so stupid yourself.
Hazel McCallion / March 21, 2014 at 07:45 pm
It's very rude to talk about my twat! I did NOT post that comment! My twat is a juicy 92! My wattles(q.v.) are 100!
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