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Destination Canada

Royal Ontario Museum: History and Nature in the Heart of the City

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is one of the city’s main attractions. This iconic building, built in 1914, has undergone several expansions, the most recent of which is the addition of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

By: Ximena de la Pava
Photos: Javier Pinzón

On arriving in Toronto one is greeted by a modern city whose ongoing expansion is evident in the countless cranes reaching up over the tops of the dozens of buildings under construction and the huge glass walls of the newly finished structures that give this vertical city a bluish tint. Also striking is the new highway that runs along Lake Ontario which, despite offering a wonderful view of sailboats from the heart of the city, leads inevitably into a knot of streets and bridges incapable of dealing with the city’s congestion. And, shining down from every angle is the undisputed symbol of the town, the 1,800 foot-high CN Tower. So when we finally came across an older neighborhood with examples of the city’s British architectural legacy, we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the simplicity of buildings on the University of Ontario campus and sat down to rest along the green trails in Queens Park. This respite, however, was short lived; before we knew it we found ourselves on Bloor Street, facing modernity once again in the form of a massive pyramid spilling out onto the sidewalk, lending an irreverent, iconoclastic touch to our surroundings and reminding us that despite its history, this is Canada’s most modern city.

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, as this pyramid-shaped invention is known, was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind whose “Freedom Tower” was chosen in the original competition to redesign Ground Zero in Manhattan; Libeskind also designed the famous Jewish Museum Berlin. The Crystal is named after the Canadian millionaire of Chinese and Jamaican origins who donated thirty million dollars to the museum.

And, although the Crystal captures one’s attention from outside, the museum (the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, for its English acronym) itself is undeniably one of Toronto’s “must-sees.” The original museum building has been iconic since its construction in 1914 when it was designed as a place to train students at the University of Toronto. It is part of the University and Queens Park. In 1933, during the Great Depression, the building was enlarged for the first time. In 1984, Queen Elizabeth II opened a new building bearing her name. The first stage of Renaissance ROM, the museum’s third expansion project, was completed in 2005 and includes new galleries and the famous Crystal, already a symbol of the city.

The museum is the largest in Canada and the fifth largest in North America. Part of its attraction lies in the way it gathers together in one location ancient and modern art, Canadian history before the arrival of Europeans, nature, biodiversity, and a gallery in which children can have fun with science. Not surprisingly, it contains over forty galleries and six million pieces.

Among the most striking artifacts in the museum are the huge dinosaur skeletons, one of the best collections of its kind in the world. Gordo, for example, a central figure at the museum, is one of only three Barosaurus to have been successfully assembled and exhibited worldwide. There is also a huge Parasaurolophus and hundreds of fossilized specimens including birds, reptiles, and fish as well as plants and invertebrates of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. And, naturally, the museum would be nothing without its famous Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops specimens. Many of these fossils were found in the Burgess Shale, British Columbia, considered one of the largest fossil cemeteries in the world.

We had to limit our visit to four of the museum’s multiple thematic options, otherwise we could not have gotten out in under three days. First, we visited the World Culture galleries, which offer visitors a comprehensive overview of many different cultures. For example, there is an excellent exhibition dedicated to Chinese architecture and another wonderful one with sculptures and statues carved in stone, bronze, ceramic, and wood dating back more than 1,500 years. One of the most remarkable is a huge bronze Buddha nearly ten feet high and eight feet across. To teach about Egyptian culture, reproductions of temples and carved walls are on display. There are also more than a thousand items from Mesopotamia and a few others from various African cultures, including the lost civilization of Ancient Nubia.

Second, we visited the First Peoples of Canada gallery for a quick view of the country and its customs and traditions. We learned how ancient people survived the country’s extreme temperatures —as low as -30º Celsius— before the age of heating. We were struck by the colors and designs of their fabrics, which could easily blend in with modern fashions.

We dedicated as much time as possible to the natural history gallery with its expansive collection of birds, bats, fish, insects, fossils, and mammals. Some five million pieces are displayed so that visitors can soak up the incredible biodiversity of shapes, colors, and sizes of our animal neighbors. The exhibits explore three main themes: diversity, highlighting the variety of species that inhabit the planet; connection, emphasizing the importance of maintaining close relationships between species, because their presence on the planet depends on it; and endangered life, which raises awareness about global warming and endangered species. Lest you say the museum is a nothing more than a frigid collection of pieces, you should be aware that the institution supports the work of researchers in twenty-five countries, several of whom have been responsible for identifying new species.

For those traveling from South America we recommend the gallery devoted to the age of mammals, which explains how the rise of the Central American isthmus three million years ago changed the inventory of animals in the south and north forever. And bird lovers can walk beside or under a collection of a hundred species of birds of all sizes, shapes, and colors, displayed with outstretched wings.

The final gallery we visited was dedicated to nature’s inanimate objects, celebrating the hidden beauty of rocks. Close to 3,000 mineral, gems, and rock specimens, including truly stunning jewels, make up the most valuable collection in America. The meteorite collection alone features more than one hundred pieces, including rocks from the Moon and Mars. The museum also owns part of a piece found in Tagish Lake (British Columbia) that may preserve the secret of the origin of our solar system.

If you plan to visit Toronto before January 5th, don’t miss the fabulous “Mesopotamia” exhibition, the largest assembled to date. It features 170 artifacts from over 2,500 years of history, some of which are on display in America for the first time. The exhibition revisits the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures and includes the “Catastrophe” exhibit, illustrating the extent to which the world’s heritage was destroyed ten years ago in the invasion of Iraq when the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad was invaded, destroyed, and looted, wiping out the evidence of the culture that invented the world as we know it. This exhibition was mounted by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which launched a worldwide campaign to recover the pieces that were stolen and not destroyed. The next exhibition, scheduled for March, will focus on the Forbidden City, with approximately 250 rare items on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum.

It seems strange, after having been seduced by history, science, and nature, to return to Bloor Street with its traffic and pedestrians scurrying across crosswalks, with the city only a few blocks away, reflected in the glass facades of the skyscrapers in Canada’s most populated financial center.