Monday, March 30, 2009

Frida and myself went to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum).  I've been avoiding going since it's re-opening.  I loathe the Michael Lee Chin addition.  It's an eyesore; incongruous with the rest of the museum and neighbourhood. It looks like a battered, defeated Transformer has sat down on the building and died.  The addition has even proven to be dangerous.  Due to it's shape, it has grown enormous icicles in the winter requiring the sidewalk to be fenced off lest some passerby be crushed by it.

I wasn't in the door 2 minutes when I greeted by the Gestapo,  " You have to check your bag".  The request did not surprise me.  I've visited many galleries and museums around the world but the force used was uneccessary.  I turned toward the coat check, put my coat in my backpack and handed it to the attendant.

"That's one dollar"

"Excuse me", I replied, "the sign says bags are free.".

" Your coat in bag.  Coats one dollar".  We repeated this argument until I gave up and slammed a toonie on the counter.  You may think I was niggling over a paltry amount but how cheap is that for the museum to extract another dollar when it costs $22 Cdn for admission?!  The coatcheck is free in Britain's National Gallery ( which is free) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ( which is pay-what-you-can).

When I calmed down and entered the lobby ( the former armories for those who remember the museum 2 renos ago) and was immediately baffled.  There was no signage ( except to the two restaurants) nor galleries visible to lure you beyond the empty space.  There was no natural flow between the galleries and often a long crooked journey.  God forbid you should stumble into the Michael Lee Chin crystal.  You are confronted with heavy industrial grey doors.  I watched people turn away from them or open them with great trepidation as there was nothing to indicate whether you were heading into a display or private area.  Once through the doors, its metal grate walkways that end abruptly into a corner and dizzyingly angled walls like being trapped in a German Expressionist film.  Don't look to closely where the crystal's walls meet the original structure.  It looks like a cheap slap-up job.
On to the next bone of contention-the cafeteria.  An overpriced menu catering strictly to the family crowd.  Burgers and fries, chicken fingers and fries, fries, poutine, pizza.  Pricey pasta and packaged sandwiches was the only adult fare( I'm excluding the nasty looking soups).  I opted for a grilled cheese sandwich for $4.50.  Two slices of squishy white bread and processed cheese served on a paper plate.  Add to it a coffee and a brownie for Frida and the bill came to $9.19.  Jamie Oliver has demonstrated that you can serve healthy cafeteria food and economically.  Look at the fantastic job the AGO has done and the food comes on china.  The Food Shop was appalling and came off as nothing more than a money making scheme.  A brief aside-Where did the drinking fountains go?  They used to be outside of the washrooms ( which have not been upgraded) and now they are gone.  Guess you have no choice but to buy bottled water.  This leads to the next unpleasantry.  I used the washroom off of the cafeteria, washed my hands and stuck them under the only hand dryer.  I'm assaulted by the odor of hot fresh diapers.  What fool designed a hand dryer with integrated garbage?
Back to the galleries.  The displays were confused with insufficient signage.  Cultures clashed with no clearly identified cases.  Aboriginal cultures were embarrassingly segregated from "civilised" cultures by a bridge.  The once thrilling dinosaur gallery ( many of my age group fondly recall the terror it instilled) is jammed into the akward space like one would discard items higgledy-piggledy in the attic.  There is no drama.
"Look at the lion!", said the girl pointing at a mounted tiger.  The mother didn't correct her not that there was sign for the mother to have read (presuming she didn't the difference between the two).  Which begs the question, " Is this the new face of museums?"  Have museums just become glorified gymkhanas?  I was nearly run down on many occassions by tank sized strollers with their passengers merrily eating, seated over enough luggage for a round-the-world tour.  Maybe this explains the lack of signage.  Who's going to read it?  The toddler?  The parents cooing over the baby and ignoring the toddler that's crawling under the barriers, sticky hands stretching towards irreplaceable objects?  The museum is just a background for family photos ( flash photos are permitted?!).  I'm not trying to condemn lack of parenting skills or consciousness but maybe, the ROM needs to build a separate children's museum where parents can let the kids off-leash.  It would be a good use for the abandoned Sir Robert McLaughlin planetarium.

I spent some time speaking with a visiting museum curator about the new ROM and he said this:

 " If you can't see the artifacts because of the building or display design,  the museum is a failure".

That sums it up.  The building and design overshadows what is a world class collection.  Treasures I adored are lost in the midst of design concepts or still off-display.  Wasn't the addition supposed to add gallery space not just be the architectural equivalent of a neon sign?
The one positive.  The fourth floor of the crystal houses the Contemporary Culture gallery  The current show "House Paint" brings together several of Toronto's spray artists to pay tribute to the former tent city.  It's bold and dynamic and the only exhibit that effectively claimed the space. 

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