Secrets of the Maya

Originally published on Torontoist on November 17, 2011.

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Part of the press preview festivities.

As we approached the seating area for a press conference about the Royal Ontario Museum’s next major exhibit yesterday, we were greeted by a man in blue body paint and a tall headdress wielding a weapon. While he was there to pose for the media (and is pictured above), we couldn’t resist letting our imagination run free to speculate that he was on hand as a ghost of a past civilization warning us of future calamity.

Along with the ROM’s recently reduced admission prices, it probably won’t hurt the museum’s attendance figures that the Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World exhibit that opens to the public this Saturday ties into the hype surrounding the Mayan long-form calendar prophecies—ones that some believe spell either glory or doom for the world next December.

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Funerary mask made of jade, shell, and obsidian, circa 250-600 CE. Royal Ontario Museum.

The exhibition is a collaborative effort between the ROM, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (where it will run later in 2012), and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (Spanish website). Over 250 artifacts ranging from giant incense burners to rings for ball games have been gathered from the ROM’s collection, various museums in the Yucatan, and institutions from overseas (British Museum) and across the street (Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art). Many items, especially those recently excavated from the ruins of the city of Palenque, are being presented in public for the first time.

Installed in the basement Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, the exhibit is divided into seven sections covering various aspects of Mayan culture: The Maya World, The City, Cosmology and Ritual, Writing and Timekeeping, The Palace, Death, and Collapse and Survival. We were particularly drawn to the Writing and Timekeeping section, especially the exhibits on the efforts to decipher the glyphs that are the written legacy of the Mayans. Videos and touch-screen panels explain how researchers have determined that the symbols often represent syllables instead of individual letters or whole words. Like the rest of the exhibit, this section includes recreations of objects on display so that the visually impaired or those who enjoy a tactile component as part of their museum experience can touch the items without damaging the originals. This section also addresses the stories around 2012 and the Mayan calendar, including a projected clock on the wall. The ROM is also offering numerous tie-ins to the show, including a lecture series, graphic novels, and a Maya-themed sleepover for kids.

As part of the press conference, we were served samples of Mayan-themed dishes that will appear on the menus of both C5 and the Food Studio Cafe during the exhibit’s run, including some rich hot chocolate. No toasts to the upcoming apocalypse, though.

A Collection of Heroes and Villains

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For most of my time with Torontoist, the holiday season meant rounding up Toronto’s heroes and villains for the year. Some choices were obvious, others were hotly debated during staff meetings. Feeling drained by the time December rolled around, I usually stuck to my comfort zones (heritage matters, media), feeling that other writers were better at articulating hot button cultural and political issues.

It took time for me to grow comfortable with writing opinionated pieces. When I worked for the University of Guelph’s student newspaper, the section editors had the opportunity to write editorials. My lone contribution was one of the weakest, being little more than griping about aggressive PR people I had to deal with while handling the arts section (I was probably too afraid to write anything stronger, given the toxic atmosphere in that office). Later on, I always feared any opinions might come off as too trite, too weak, and too bland for anybody to care about. I can be a slow, deliberate thinker, and it has taken years to develop many of my viewpoints.

Let’s dive into my contributions to Heroes and Villains. I did not contribute during my first two years with the site (2007-2008) and certain I skipped 2009 (though it’s hard to say, given the individual entries have vanished from the interwebs – here’s the list). To replace the original artwork, I’ll use a mix of photos and appropriate vintage illustrations.

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“The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Eugene Lampsonius. Oevres illustrées de Balzac, vol. 1-2 by Honoré de Balzac (Paris: Gustave Havard, Maresq et Companie, 1851). Old Book Illustrations.

2010 Villain: Rob Ford’s Campaign Team

Originally published on Torontoist on December 17, 2010.

Pundits and voters who held low opinions of Rob Ford during the municipal election campaign had to admit that his brain trust did a brilliant job of capitalizing on voter anger and the lacklustre campaigns of his opponents to win the mayor’s chair for the outspoken Etobicoke councillor. Beyond appeals to the “little guy” and catchphrases like the focus-grouped “gravy train,” tactics employed in the march to victory by now–Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis and his associates at Campaign Research demonstrated a disconcerting willingness to achieve their goals by any means possible.

When the Ford camp learned the Star possessed the recording of a potentially damaging telephone conversation in which the candidate promised to find OxyContin for constituent Dieter Doneit-Henderson, Deputy Communications Officer Fraser Macdonald jumped into gear—and invented a person, Karen Philby (a.k.a. QueensQuayKaren), a George Smitherman supporter who spouted political views on Twitter. While Philby (whose last name, shared with a Cold War spy, might have tipped off her purpose in life) quickly achieved her intended goal—securing the Ford campaign its own copy of the conversation from Doneit-Henderson—she continued to post tasteful barbs directed at the other candidates (such as referring to Sarah Thomson as a “bitch”).

Philby also proved useful in undermining other candidacies. As “will he or won’t he” stories filled the press regarding John Tory’s intentions, the Ford campaign devised ways to keep him out of the fray, since they figured much of their support would gravitate to Tory if he ran. The methods ran from the mildly amusing (a YouTube video demonstrating Tory’s lack of superpowers when it came to stopping out-of-control gravy trains) to the deceptive: a Ford staffer called into Tory’s CFRB radio show as Philby to attack the host’s integrity.

Now that Ford occupies the mayor’s chair, we wonder what further shenanigans will be deployed to sway public opinion or neutralize opponents. Will a “Gloria Burgess” or “Donna MacLean” step forward to try to embarrass or derail Ford’s enemies? If the campaign was a preview of what’s to come, Ford’s key staff may score points among hardcore devotees and political junkies for the cunning of their tactics, but also further deepen cynicism about politicians in general and about City Hall in particular. We hope what we saw on the campaign trail does not foreshadow four years of dirty politics that use up energy that would be better expended solving the problems of the mayor’s cherished taxpayers.

UPDATE: The Rob Ford era…le sigh. When John Tory won the mayoralty in 2014, one of his campaign advisers was Nick Kouvalis.

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Portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie. Toronto Public Library.

2010 Hero: Shawn Micallef

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2010.

In the foreword to his book, Stroll, Shawn Micallef notes that Torontonians have convinced themselves that our city is underwhelming compared to those world-class ones, such that “we don’t expect to turn the corner and see beauty or be amazed.” Yet Micallef, in an ever-growing number of media outlets (Eye WeeklySpacingYonge Street), uses his sharp observational skills to discover the city’s hidden treasures. In a year in which the media, politicians, and other naysayers suggested that everything in Toronto is broken, Micallef’s curiosity and keen interest in Toronto’s virtues injected a necessary and refreshing optimism.

Stroll, published this year, compiles stories drawn from Micallef’s psychogeographical walks across the city, ranging from the parking lots of Pearson Airport to the tip of the Leslie Spit. Readers gain a sense of the sheer size of the city and are taken to unexpected spots, like the middle of Highway 401 above Hogg’s Hollow. The stories he tells in the book, along with those featured in his Eye columns, weave together history and urbanism, and empathize with the residents of the locales he wanders through.
Micallef’s writing acknowledges the suburbs without denigrating them or deepening the divide between the inner and outer city. Instead, he creates connections between these geographies, mapping the relationships between all who inhabit the GTA. When he went to Etobicoke to cover one of Rob Ford’s campaign barbecues for Eye, Micallef did not mock or demonize those attending, as a journalist for a downtown-based alt-weekly might stereotypically be tempted to do, but portrayed the attendees as normal human beings enjoying their evening. While Micallef irritated several followers on Twitter for not etching those around him as illiterate cavemen, as though the writing were already on the wall, the piece demonstrated his ability to see beyond the echo chamber and understand why people might support somebody who most of his audience finds repulsive.

Micallef’s impish sense of humour was comedic relief during the long, dreary municipal election campaign. For most of the year, he successfully disguised himself as the city’s firebrand first mayor on Twitter: @rebelmayor. While other observers defined the negative tone of the race, @rebelmayor defiantly functioned as a court jester whose mock campaign updates and serious barbs at candidates (those most voters would have also aimed muskets at if given the opportunity) provided a release for the frustrations of the electorate. Though @rebelmayor has been retired for the moment, Micallef’s commentary continues under his own handle on Twitter: after Ford officially assumed office, Micallef encouraged Torontonians to act on their libertarian impulses regardless of how silly they were.

Given how the next four years at City Hall are promising to shape up, we’ll need all the comic relief we can find. Toronto will also need more people like Micallef who are not afraid to defy the defeatists and express what they love about the city.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Micallef is a columnist with the Toronto Star. @rebelmayor pops up once in a while.

Here are the ultimate winners of the competition, along with links to all of the entries.

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The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

2011 Hero: City Hall Deputants

Originally published on Torontoist on December 12, 2011.

One of Rob Ford’s major accomplishments during his first year in office has been to provoke greater engagement in civic government. The mayor’s zeal for cutting City services has energized citizens to defend programs they believe are vital to Toronto’s well-being. If there was a point when any honeymoon Ford had was over, it was during the deputations given at the marathon Executive Committee session in July. As we summed up at the time, “It was the most important slumber party held in Toronto in years.”

Over the course of almost 24 hours on July 28 and 29, 169 citizens commented on service cuts proposed in the Core Service Review report. Speakers were not the lazy, unemployed types that several executive committee members attempted to portray them to be. Many had never addressed city council before and endured insults and reductions in their speaking time. From teary-eyed teens to neurosurgeons, the deputants represented all corners and social strata of the city.

Among the highlights was a speech dripping in Swiftean satire from retired educator Mary Trapani Hines. Her performance quickly went viral, inspired the “yellygranny” tag on Twitter, and possibly encouraged more people to go to City Hall to witness the rest of the session. Other theatrics included a visit from Santa, and puppet show that caused Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to declare that some deputants were disrespecting council.

But it was councillors like Mammoliti who were being disrespectful. While claiming it was a great exercise in democracy, Mayor Ford paid scant attention to the speakers. Attempts to thin the deputant ranks ranged from running an all-night session to Mammoliti’s insistence that City staff determine if disabled participants were faking their incapacities. These obstacles mattered little when the hardcore Fordites were shown for the fools they were as the testimonials rolled on and a celebratory spirit developed within City Hall.

In the months since these deputations, opposition to the Ford administration’s brain trust has gained momentum as other citizens gained the confidence to fight them—witness the success of CodeBlueTO in derailing a new vision for the waterfront. Another marathon Executive Committee session in September saw an almost equal number of people speak. Early indications are that the voting on proposed City budget cuts won’t go smoothly. Most importantly, the deputants showed that Torontonians aren’t accepting the Ford Nation vision of them as mere taxpayers but instead are citizens who care about the services that make this city their home.

UPDATE: Giorgio Mammoliti was defeated in the 2018 municipal election. It will be interesting to see if the repercussions of Premier Doug Ford’s downsizing of city council and other acts against the city will cause a similar cycle of public pushbacks in 2019 and beyond.

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“Compositor at his case.” Illustrated by E. Bourdelin. Les grandes usines, volume 1 by Julien Turgan (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1875). Old Book Illustrations.

2011 Villain: Sun Media

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2011.

When the Toronto Sun sought a new comment page editor in October (a job filled by former Rob Ford press secretary Adrienne Batra), one requirement was an understanding of the paper’s self-mythologized role as “an organization with edge and attitude that sticks up for the little guy.” Problem is, Sun Media’s shameless support of right-wing politicians who gut programs supporting the vulnerable and who distort facts to play to their ideological base is screwing the little guy.

Decisions to pull its papers out of the Ontario Press Council and to mercilessly attack the CBC reveal a desire to be accountable to no one, especially when Sun Media’s properties bully those they perceive as different or not aligned with their world view. Their refusal to apologize for running a transphobic ad during the Ontario provincial election reconfirmed the organization’s perennially poor relations with the queer community. April’s launch of the Sun News Network brought a Fox News mentality to Canada’s airwaves, complete with guest-haranguing anchors. Krista Erickson’s vicious attack on dancer Margie Gillis for receiving government grants, which Sun Media’s corporate parent Quebecor has been known to accept, prompted thousands of complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

The Gillis incident illustrates Sun Media’s desperation to grab attention by any means. Despite the Sun’s “Welcome to Hell” cover following Dalton McGuinty’s re-election, a ring of fire hasn’t encircled Ontario. While most of Jack Layton’s political opponents paid their respects during the public outpouring of grief following his death, Sun News Network outfitted provocateur Ezra Levant with a garish orange wig and cans of Orange Crush while he and Michael Coren mocked people’s genuine feelings.

To the surprise of few, the Sun emerged as an unofficial City Hall mouthpiece this year. The paper and its City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy share the Ford administration’s view of Torontonians as taxpayers first, citizens who appreciate social services, the arts, and fire protection second. Levy’s unwavering support of the gravy hunt and her sycophantic attacks on administration opponents make us wonder if secretly she’s a satirist pulling an elaborate joke on everyone.

But it’s Sun Media’s consumers who are being played for fools. By ratcheting up the outrage to appeal to those who hate to see anyone receive any (perceived) advantage over themselves, and creating resentment of any use of public funds for purposes that its readers feel provide no direct personal benefit, Sun Media’s properties appeal to the worst in human nature. They prey upon our anger and foster a fear of those who don’t share their views or fit into their preferred societal norms. Sun Media’s revered “little guy” would do better to educate himself elsewhere on the nuances of issues that affect him than be patronizingly urged to direct his frustrations in destructive ways.

UPDATE: Postmedia bought the Sun papers in 2014. Sun News Network folded in early 2015. As the Toronto Sun was the heir to the Telegram upon that newspaper’s demise, it can be argued The Rebel was SNN’s offspring. The outrage expressed by the Sun has only grown shriller since this article was written.

Roundups of 2011’s other heroes and villains.

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Checking out the former location of centre ice in the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws, November 2012. 

2012 Hero: Maple Leaf Gardens

Originally published on Torontoist on December 9, 2012.

It probably comes as a relief to many hockey fans that Ryerson University has been using part of Maple Leaf Gardens as an arena since the Mattamy Athletic Centre opened in September. The reminders of the building’s past are all around you: from the recreation of the old marquee above the entrance, to the walls of photos of memorable moments, to the row of old seats lining the wall by the escalator.

At street level, the Loblaws store, which opened in November 2011, also mixes past and present. Beyond the wall of cheese and specialty food counters, the store’s pillars commemorate important dates in Gardens history. You can look at old newspaper wrestling ads while sitting down with a coffee. Centre ice is quietly marked with a red dot in the middle of aisle 25, though we hope staff haven’t been called too many times to clean up broken bottles of soy sauce from the adjoining shelf. There’s a hanging sculpture made from a jumble of salvaged arena seating. Even the parking garage is decorated with names of sports teams from the past.

The current state of Maple Leaf Gardens is a large-scale example of what can happen when a heritage building’s new owners embrace the structure’s past, rather than treat it with token recognition. Even future bookings, such as the upcoming Ontario Liberal leadership convention, harken back to the political events that regularly graced the Gardens. The site’s deep resonance with the public probably helped in its renewal. One can only imagine the outrage if the Gardens had suffered the fate of 81 Wellesley Street, which was suddenly knocked down in January before it could receive a heritage designation.

For years after the Toronto Rock played their last game there in 2000, we wondered if Maple Leaf Gardens was going to rot away. Former owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment might have been satisfied with that fate, given its reluctance to sell the Gardens to anyone who posed the remotest threat to the Air Canada Centre’s event bookings. As recently as last year, MLSE filed a lawsuit against Ryerson to prevent the university from using the name “Maple Leaf Gardens” for promotional purposes. Ultimately MLSE’s obsession with the bottom line won’t prevent the public from referring to the building by that name: we still call the Rogers Centre “SkyDome,” after all.

Besides, as long as the NHL lockout continues, the Gardens can boast it has hockey games. The Air Canada Centre can’t.

UPDATE: The NHL lockout ended the following month.

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“The shriek of Timidity.” “The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Gustave Doré. The days of chivalry, or the legend of Croquemitane by Ernest L’Épine (New York: Cassell Petter and Galpin, c. 1866). Old Book Illustrations.

2012 Villain: Extreme NIMBYism

Originally published on Torontoist on December 10, 2012.

Condos will destroy neighbourhoods, blot out the sun, and reduce my property values. Rapid transit lines in the middle of wide suburban streets and bike lines on busy downtown arteries will cripple my commute by minutes. Change will kill my comfortable lifestyle and bring strange new people into my community.

Those are effectively the arguments provided by the loudest, NIMBYest opponents of building and transit projects around the city. While there are many people who offer reasoned, carefully thought-out arguments for and against new construction plans, they are often drowned out by those driven by fear, innuendo, and sound bites. The result over the past year has seen ugly battles in neighbourhoods stretching from Humbertown to the Beach.

There is little space left within the city to develop the classic single-family homes that characterized Toronto’s neighbourhoods until the middle of the 20th century. To cope with an ever-increasing population, the city needs to build up. This does not mean 45-storey towers everywhere: smaller-scale projects like the proposed six-storey condo causing havoc in the Beach provide one solution. Yet, to hear the loudest opponents of that project, even a small condo will destroy the community’s character.

What these people forget is that Toronto neighbourhoods have changed before: Jarvis and Sherbourne streets were once the preserve of the ultra-wealthy, Cabbagetown was a slum, Liberty Village was industrial, and the suburbs were farmland or small settlements. Even if they benefitted from a wave of gentrification that shaped their neighbourhood into the comfortable community they know now, these people expect things to remain static. Like it or not, the “villages” they live in are part of the city and cannot stay removed from its overall infrastructure issues.

The true ugliness of the loudest NIMBYs emerges when the economic homogeneity of their neighbourhood is challenged, prompting fear of what even a slightly more economically diverse neighbourhood might mean. At one community meeting regarding Humbertown recently, one proponent of a proposed residential development was told to “get a job” when he argued it would keep area prices affordable. That kind of fear is ugly, and unfair.

In these cases all parties—tenants, homeowners, developers, designers, activists, and bureaucrats—need to put kneejerk, defensive, and reactionary responses aside and work together, to arrive solutions that benefit whole neighbourhoods in the long run. Painful as the process can be, it’s better to work the kinks out of a development proposal than obstinately block it, and better to accept that change is a healthy part of life in a healthy city than to reject even small alterations to the landscape as gross betrayals.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2012’s other heroes and villains.

 

2013 Hero: Church Street Parklets

Originally published on Torontoist on December 30, 2013.

A parklet is, as the name suggests, a teeny tiny baby park. Generally an extension or reuse of existing space, like a sidewalk or a parking spot, it’s a small sliver of the street that’s used to provide greenery and public enjoyment. As we observed earlier this year: “The idea isn’t to promote recreation. Instead, the goal is to reclaim space for pedestrians and idlers and bring vibrancy back to streets that have been dominated by automotive traffic. Building a parklet is a means of creating a sidewalk cafe atmosphere, even—especially—in places where there aren’t any sidewalk cafes.”

A series of parklets was installed this summer along Church Street, in Church-Wellesley Village, as a test run for similar street infrastructure initiatives planned for World Pride in 2014. Backed by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) and the local BIA because of its constructive use of public space and potential to boost local businesses, the project found sponsors in Home Depot and a carpenter’s union. They were installed in a flash, as well: to observers like the Star’s Christopher Hume, their speedy implementation marked a break from the city’s traditionally timid approach to such experimentation.

Beyond offering lounging space from which to watch the city pass by, the parklets offer a glimpse of how we can make streets more amenable to all. Traffic flow improves when fewer drivers block the road with complicated parallel-parking manoeuvres; friends running into each other can move into a parklet to talk without disrupting the pedestrian flow or inducing sidewalk rage.

We’d be happy if similar initiatives to reclaim public space spread across the city. While there’d inevitably be complaints that losing a handful of parking spots would provoke a disaster of St. Clair-ish proportions, we suspect most people would latch on to the parklets—perhaps then, most complaints would take the form of sighing over filled seats.

UPDATE: While parklets didn’t return to Church Street after 2013, they made summer appearances on Elm Street for several years.

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Goad’s map of Corktown area, 1884. 

2013 Hero: Corktown Common

Originally published on Torontoist on December 31, 2013.

The appeal of Corktown Common is as simple as getting to hear the rhythm of frogs who live there. The chorus of croaks emerging from its marshes on a hot summer night temporarily transports you from a heavy construction zone to somewhere far from the city lights.

Though the park won’t be finished until 2014, the sneak preview we enjoyed this summer demonstrates how aesthetic, environmental, and recreational needs can be realized and met in a space Torontonians can be proud of. Adults appreciate the effort Waterfront Toronto made to create a varied green landscape; kids can run wild up and down the knolls, glide down the built-in slides, or go for relaxing swings; cyclists riding the Don or Martin Goodman trails are able to fill their water bottles or take a stretch. (We also recommend just lying on the grassy field and staring up at the clouds). When residents move into the condos rising to the west, we imagine the park will become a community gathering place, an oasis amid the desert of concrete and glass.

July’s intense downpour tested one of the park’s major purposes, which is to function as a berm by protecting downtown from the effects of flooding along the Don River. It passed the test, holding back the waters that trapped commuters and motorists in the lower Don Valley.

Corktown Common demonstrates the viability of Waterfront Toronto’s efforts to improve our lower shoreline, do so in a way that’s enjoyable as well as functional—and in the process, increases our excitement about the many other projects they still have in the works.

UPDATE: It’s still a great park.

I don’t remember the reason why I didn’t contribute a villain in 2013 – either I was nearing my fill of the City Hall gong show by that point, or felt it was better to stick to positive contributions.

Roundups of 2013’s other heroes and villains.

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Grounds of Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre, May 2015.

2014 Hero: The Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2014.

The need for an institution such as the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, which opened in September, was brought into relief during this year’s municipal election. Anti-Muslim incidents, including sign defacing and slurs, underlined the usefulness of a bridge-building complex. Though bigoted louts probably won’t venture near it, the complex’s role as a cultural centre has great potential to, according to its mission statement, “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Through education, research, and collaboration, the Museum will foster dialogue and promote tolerance and mutual understanding among people.”

Though controversial in some circles for bringing about the destruction of John B. Parkin’s 1960s modernist Bata Shoes Head Office, the complex at the Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway has the potential to become a new architectural landmark—much as Mies van der Rohe’s iconic steel and glass Toronto-Dominion Centre did after replacing the Beaux Arts–influenced Bank of Toronto headquarters 50 years ago. Like that project, the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre has architectural heavy hitters behind it, including Fumihiko Maki, Charles Correa, and Moriyama and Teshima.

“Don Mills once was a locus for innovation in architecture and planning,” Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic noted, “with offices and warehouse buildings designed by some of Canada’s top architects in the 1960s. That modernist legacy has been badly diluted by new buildings, but the absurdly fine quality of the museum and Ismaili Centre will set a new standard.”

The items displayed in the museum, which has been touted as the first in North America devoted solely to Islamic art, literally provide a colourful take on the culture. Among the most impressive items are painted, lavishly illustrated manuscripts. Cross-cultural influences stand out, whether through works inspired by local cultures or in Iranian paintings that would not have looked out of place in Renaissance Europe.

For once, Toronto may have received just the kind of world-class institution it covets.

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Fort York, 1885. Toronto Public Library.

2014 Hero: The Fort York Neighbourhood

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

For years, it seemed as if Frederick Gardiner had had the last laugh. Though attempts to move Fort York to make way for the Gardiner Expressway failed during the 1950s, the historical site’s location, hemmed in by traffic jams in the middle of an industrial neighbourhood, did it few favours. But thanks to recent developments, the old military grounds now sit at the heart of a revitalized area of the city.

The big news from Fort York itself was the opening of its new visitor centre in September. Though still incomplete, the structure offers a visually stunning space for exhibits and other educational activities. The result of a partnership between Vancouver’s Patkau Architects and Toronto’s Kearns Mancini Architects, it has been described by the Globe and Mail as “part building, part landscape” due to its string of steel rectangular panels.

This year’s edition of Nuit Blanche took advantage of the space within the fort’s grounds (even if the entrances did create bottlenecks), as well as nearby parks such as Canoe Landing. These green spaces offer a place of respite for visitors and incoming residents amid the condo towers rising nearby—and more are in the works, including Mouth of the Creek Park. The chain of parks creates public space and pedestrian corridors, even if the Ford administration did manage to stymie progress through actions such as delaying the construction of a bridge to Garrison Common.

To serve the community’s creative, intellectual, and social needs, the Toronto Public Library opened a two-storey branch across from the fort in May. The branch offers amenities such as a digital innovation hub (complete with 3D printing) and architectural features such as wooden ceiling beams that honour the area’s historic wharves—and it has filled the large library desert that was created by the closure of the Urban Affairs Library in 2011.

While the neighbourhood emerging around Fort York will experience growing pains, it seems poised to integrate itself at last into the fabric of the city.

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Cartoon of Olivia Chow by Andy Donato, originally published in the Toronto Sun.

2014 Villain: Not-So-Latent Bigotry on the Campaign Trail

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

“Diversity Our Strength.” Toronto’s official motto reflects our idealized image of the city as a shining beacon of multiculturalism and tolerance. Yet, as Rob Ford’s mayoralty proved, a significant segment of the population finds bigotry and divisiveness palatable.

Public displays of intolerance marred the recent municipal election campaign. During the mayoral race, Olivia Chow faced a steady stream of slurs about her ethnicity. Some questioned her speaking ability, referencing her accent and the slow speed of her talking—the latter the result of partial facial paralysis. During a debate at York Memorial High School, a heckler told Chow to go back to China. The Sun lowered the conversation by publishing an Andy Donato cartoon depicting a Mao-suited Chow riding the coattails of her late husband Jack Layton (the paper lamely defended it by claiming it always depicted NDPers in the garb preferred by historic Chinese dictators). Whatever your opinion of Chow’s campaign, these attacks were despicable.

So too was the anti-Muslim bigotry that reared its head in ward races. Running in the heart of Ford Nation, Ward 2 candidate Munira Abukar saw her campaign signs defaced with messages such as “Go Back Home.” In Ward 10 (York Centre), TDSB trustee candidate Ausma Malik was targeted by opponents who tried to depict her as a supporter of fundamentalists. Candidates also reported car window smashings and garbage tossed on volunteers.

In the wake of these incidents, front-running candidates had little or nothing to add. As Torontoist’s Desmond Cole observed, “If diversity is our strength, why do political candidates believe they will lose ground for publicly condemning racism?” Pandering to the basest instincts of some voters encourages the ignorant and intolerant and demeans our public discourse—and so does remaining silent.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2014’s other heroes and villains.

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The City, June 18, 1978.

2015 Villain: Paul Godfrey

Originally published on Torontoist on January 4, 2016.

Since debuting as a fresh-faced, twenty-something North York city councillor in 1964, Paul Godfrey has, for better or worse, played a key role in shaping modern Toronto. Since early crusades against “sip n’ sex” at fast food drive-ins, Godfrey has rarely shied away from controversy. During half-a-century in the public eye, he became a consummate networker and backroom operator, especially in local Conservative circles. He often jokes about a line his mother told him as youngster: “When you have your choice in life between smart and lucky, take lucky all the time.”

That luck produced an impressive string of top-level jobs: chairman of Metropolitan Toronto, publisher/CEO of the Toronto Sun, president/CEO of the Blue Jays, chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, chair of the board of trustees of RioCan, and now president/CEO of Postmedia. But his track record has sometimes raised questions regarding whose interests he works for. This is a guy who promoted amalgamation, Mel Lastman, and our desperate need for a casino.

This year was not one of Godfrey’s better ones. His ham-fisted support of the Conservatives during the federal election campaign made a laughingstock of the country’s largest newspaper for the Tories regardless of the opinions of local editorial staff. Andrew Coyne resigned as comment editor of the National Post after a column was spiked for his support of another party. Reeking of desperation, the front page of the chain’s papers bore a Tory attack ad during the final weekend of the campaign. Readers and employees were disgusted, while the competition (including Toronto Star chair of the board John Honderich) had a field day attacking Godfrey’s disregard for freedom of the press.

While Postmedia newsrooms were slashed and its papers hemorrhaged circulation, Godfrey and other officials didn’t exactly share in the pain. A total of $925,000 in bonuses was paid to its top six executives, some of which stemmed from the acquisition of Sun Media, which closed this spring. The optics of these payments, including the $400,000 given to Godfrey, did little to improve Postmedia’s optics in an industry in crisis. He was paid a total of $1.76 million for his trouble, thus living up to his mother’s adage about luck.

Godfrey has enjoyed a long run wielding the levers of power. It’s time to turn them over to somebody else.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Godfrey is still at Postmedia, where he continues to draw a healthy paycheque.

Roundups of 2015’s heroes and villains.

I declined to contribute to 2016’s batch, which proved to be the final edition. By that point I was only writing Historicist for the site, slowly edging toward my decision to leave Torontoist for good.

What would a 2018 edition of Heroes and Villains look like? A few candidates would be obvious. Doug Ford would be high on the villain side, for any number of reasons. I put out a call for suggestions via Facebook and Twitter, and here’s what came back:
2018 Heroes
Ulli Watkiss
Tanya Talaga
Kyle Lowry
Austin Matthews
Overdose prevention activists
Candidates in the 47-ward council race
Chanty Marostica
2018 Villains
Doug Ford
Ontario Proud
Dean French
Faith Goldy
Giorgio Mammoliti
Sidewalk Labs
Sky Gilbert

Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picturing the Americas at the AGO

Originally published on Torontoist on June 17, 2015.

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Wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase.

The press kit for “Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic” is filled with numbers. In the 118 works on display, created by 85 artists and collected from 51 institutions in 11 countries, sharp-eyed viewers will note 116 birds and 105 horses lurking within the frames.

Scheduled to coincide with the Pan American and Parapan American Games, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest major exhibition spotlights painted interpretations of the landscapes of the Americas, covering a timeline from the dawn of the United States in the late 18th century through the Second World War. These pieces show, according to the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art Georgiana Uhlyarik, how the artists were “trying to understand how the environment shapes them, how they find themselves in this new place, and how ultimately they end up shaping the environment and understanding that they have to find a new way of belonging to this place.” Or, as Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari put it in 1924, “until we have shaken off the stupor that befogs us, we will not be able to perceive the beauties of our own earth and sky, nor the poetry of our own traditions, nor the greatness of our mission…[to] create the work of America.”

The exhibition’s 13 themes touch on topics ranging from landscape-painting techniques developed to capture landscapes unknown to those of European origin, to the depiction of railways as part of the environment. There’s an underlying narrative about how these works were used for deceptive or exploitative purposes, such as romanticizing the land to promote immigration or depicting the wealth of natural resources ready for investors to capitalize on.

That sense of exploitation carries over into the last, Toronto-centric portion of the exhibition: a wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase, the treaty where the Mississaugas signed over much of the land the city currently sits on. There are no paintings of landscapes accompanying the deal, just cold hard maps and signatures. The Toronto Purchase can stand in for the many treaties (or outright land grabs) made with indigenous cultures by colonial officials across the Americas over the period covered by the exhibition.

Of the artists represented, the most familiar will be those from North America. Canadians on display include Emily Carr, Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul Kane, and members of the Group of Seven, while from south of the border come pieces by Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe, and Grant Wood. Works from Latin America provide some of the exhibition’s most revelatory works, from José María Velasco’s depiction of indigenous Mexicans walking in front of ruins in Oaxaca, to Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral’s playful postcard-style depiction of monkeys in a tree.

Following its Toronto engagement, the exhibition will continue to follow major sporting events in the Americas. After a stop at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, these works will be displayed at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo on the eve of Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Shadows of Pompeii

Originally published on Torontoist on June 11, 2015.

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Bronze of a woman fastening her peplos, positioned in front of an animated display of Mount Vesuvius erupting.

The cloud first appeared in Pompeii in the early afternoon. As the day wore on, the shower of pumice and other debris spewing out of Mount Vesuvius increased. People were crushed to death in their homes as the barrage of volcanic rock caused their roofs to collapse. By the next morning, escape was impossible, as the cloud gave way to lethal pyroclastic flows of ash and gas. Those remaining in Pompeii suffocated or burned to death. Covered over, the city buried in 79 AD became a tomb which wouldn’t be explored until the 18th century.

But while Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano covers the lethal aspects of the disaster, it also provides a rounded portrait of what life was like in the city before Vesuvius exploded. Over 200 artifacts tell the story of its people and their lifestyles.

There’s plenty of humour on display, playing into the bawdy, debauched imagery surrounding aspects of Roman life. Interpretive panels depict the Roman equivalent of graffiti, including a gladiator match drawn on a tomb. Panel titles play off modern culture, from “Better Homes and Villas” to “Sex in the City.” The latter, tucked into a corner of the exhibit, includes a fresco of the god Priapus shown weighing a generous physical endowment.

There are also scenes which resemble everyday life in the modern world. Whether it’s a painting of a woman fixing her hair while holding a hand mirror, or a display of cookware, these artifacts make it easier for visitors to relate with the Roman world.

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While light or bright colours dominate the displays through its initial sections, the backdrop turns black when you reach those covering the disaster. One of the few surviving bronze statues haunts the viewer thanks to its placement in front of an animated recreation of the eruption. Even more haunting are plaster casts of animal and human victims depicting their final expressions.

Though the exhibition officially opens on Saturday, there are several tie-in events on Friday night. Outside, the crystal will become the canvas for a multimedia show depicting the disaster, climaxing with the eruption at 10 p.m. Inside, those attending Friday Night Live can check out the exhibition. The evening’s title—“Toga! Toga!”—suggests the possibility of homages to John Belushi amidst the demonstrations, entertainment, and talks.

Contemplating Aga Khan Park

Originally published on Torontoist on May 26, 2015.

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“The garden has for many centuries served as a central element in Muslim culture,” the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismali community, noted at the official opening of his namesake park yesterday. “The holy Koran itself portrays the garden as a central symbol of a spiritual ideal—a place where human creativity and divine majesty are fused, where the ingenuity of humanity and the beauty of nature are productively connected. Gardens are a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal, and where the eternal meets the hand of man.”

Serving as the linking element between the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre buildings opened in September 2014 (and nominated as one of the year’s heroes by Torontoist), the Aga Khan Park is the ninth green space the religious leader’s cultural trust has built, joining parks in cities such as Cairo and Kabul.

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Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic based the park’s design on traditional Islamic gardens he visited in India and Spain. The result is a 6.8-hectare site dominated by black reflecting pools that mirror the surrounding buildings. More than 20 species of plants have been incorporated into the garden or line its walkways.

Even with the buzz of heavy traffic on Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway, the site has great potential to become a setting for the introspective. Beyond offering pause while visiting the grounds, we imagine it may provide weary commuters a chance to soothe their frayed nerves.

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During his speech at the opening ceremony, the Aga Khan touched upon the importance of green space in urban environments. “Too often in recent years,” he observed, “urban architecture—under pressure from urbanizing rural populations, greater human longevity, and shrinking budgets—has neglected the importance of open spaces in a healthy city landscape. We keep crowding more buildings into dense concentrations, while short-changing the enormous impact that well-designed open spaces—green spaces—can have on the quality of urban life.” His speech also touched on the importance of making cultural connections in a diverse city, and was laced with humour about the immigrant experience for Ismalis who settled in Canada.

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Also present was Premier Kathleen Wynne, who unveiled a ceremonial plaque with the Aga Khan. “The park brings its own unique style and its own atmosphere to this beautiful corner of the city,” she noted. “This is a true 21st-century space, one that’s steeped in history but that speaks to our modern vision of a global, inclusive, and peaceful society.”

Wynne announced the signing of an agreement where the Aga Khan’s agencies will collaborate with the Ontario government in establishing educational initiatives promoting diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. Proposed programs over a three-year period include seconding up to 10 teachers to Aga Khan Academies, granting post-secondary tuition waivers to 30 students from Kenya, India, and Mozambique, and running educational policy forums.

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Guided tours of the park will commence on June 2. Upcoming events include musical performances, film screenings, and, on July 5, a Pan Am Games torch relay stop.

Pop-Up Goes the Museum

Originally published on Torontoist on August 29, 2014.

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Advertising Card for Massey-Harris Co. Ltd, Head Office Toronto, Canada, 1895. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.

The term “pop-up” conjures images of hip retailers and restaurants occupying temporary storefronts. But the concept is spreading to other fields, too. Among those jumping on the bandwagon is Toronto Museum Services, which is involved in two kinds of pop-up program.

The first, a collaborative effort between Museum Services and Heritage Toronto, will open Saturday in conjunction with the unveiling of a historical plaque commemorating the Massey-Harris plant that once stood at King Street West and Strachan Avenue. The pop-up will feature ephemera related to the plant, which was the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the British Empire.

For Heritage Toronto plaques and markers co-ordinator Kaitlin Wainwright, display items such as anniversary pins and colour advertising cards show what it was like to work for Massey-Harris years ago. “We can learn about a company not only from what it did in the past, but how it remembers and celebrates itself,” she says. “Given that the presentation is taking place where much of the facility stood, it makes sense to bring artifacts to a place where there is a geographical connection.”

The display may prompt visitors with connections to Massey-Harris to share their personal stories. The potential for that kind of public participation and knowledge sharing is the driving force behind the second kind of pop-up program in which Museum Services is involved, which offers visitors the opportunity to display artifacts of their own. As Museum Services defines it, a pop-up museum is “a temporary exhibit created by the people who show up to participate. It works by choosing a theme and location, and inviting people to bring something on the topic to share.” Cities across Europe and the United States have already taken to this concept—the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has posted a video that explains how it works. Interactive events, often held in public spaces, allow institutions to bring out items long unseen by the public. Ilena Aldini-Messina, supervisor of program design and development for Museum Services, says pop-ups foster public engagement with local history and “make it a participatory experience rather than doing an exhibit from a curator’s perspective.”

A pilot pop-up, “Toronto Treasures,” ran at the Market Gallery on June 6. Alongside displays of City-owned artifacts such as subway-related buttons, 15 people set up tables to share their own treasures. Show-and-tell items ranged from decades’-worth of local baseball memorabilia to a jar of marmalade made in Toronto that shaped one woman’s view of the city as an industrial powerhouse during her childhood in Alberta. The experience was educational for the displayers and visitors: a man who brought a scrapbook commemorating a 1978 Blue Jays game where singer Ruth Ann Wallace was booed for singing “O Canada” in French learned that Wallace later married Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

For the upcoming holiday season, there are plans for a toy-centric pop-up. Though a location hasn’t been confirmed, Spadina Museum seems a likely choice, as it houses a large collection of toys. Beyond that, ideas include marking Valentine’s Day and other occasions ripe with objects and stories to share.

Happy Centennial, Royal Ontario Museum!

Originally published on Torontoist on March 19, 2014.

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The News, March 19, 1914.

As with any major building preparing for its grand opening, work on the Royal Ontario Museum went down to the wire. “A corps of charwomen polished, scrubbed, and dusted,” the Star observed the day before the museum greeted its first official visitors, “and unfinished exhibits were being rapidly and accurately fitted into their places.” That there were still unopened boxes in the basement didn’t faze anyone.

One hundred years ago this afternoon, just after 3 p.m., around 1,000 dignitaries attended the ROM’s opening ceremony. It was the culmination of years of planning, and of assembling artifacts drawn from private collections, provincial holdings, and the University of Toronto’s museums.

The museum was a joint partnership between the province and the university, which agreed in 1910 to split the $400,000 construction budget. A sense of the new institution’s direction was outlined by archaeology director Charles Trick Currelly the following year:

From the first the material has been gathered together with definite scientific aim, i.e., to show the development of handicraft in the world. It thus becomes a text book of the development of civilization on its mechanical side, and is in no sense a dilettante collection of pretty things or an accumulation of “curios.” There is not a curiosity in the collection, and practically not an object that is isolated, but each thing fits into a place in a series that has been carefully thought out. There are many gaps, but there is reasonable hope that these will be filled up in the future, so that the visitors to and students in the museum will have a continuous picture of the world’s civilization from the rude Palaeolithic implement found on the Libyan desert or deep in European gravels, right down to modern times.

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Royal Ontario Museum building, circa 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3046.

By the time the museum was ready to open in 1914, its purpose had been refined into three roles:

The collection and exhibition of objects of every kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of Ontario, and thereby to aid in a knowledge of what is able to contribute to science and industry; Collection and exhibition of objects of any kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of the world, and the history of man in all ages; Such other objects as may be authorized by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.

The ROM originally served as an umbrella institution for five museums that operated semi-independently until the 1950s. Its components were dedicated to archaeology, geology, mineralogy, natural history, and palaeontology. Collections that had been housed in various locations on the U of T campus and at the Ontario Provincial Museum at the Toronto Normal School (located on the present site of Ryerson University) were brought under one roof, in a building designed by noted architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson.

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A pair of early ROM acquisitions. Toronto Star, February 14, 1914.

From the start, the ROM was bursting with artifacts. Preview newspaper articles boasted of the 60,000 specimens held by the palaeontology museum, including ancient trilobites found in New Brunswick and fossils discovered in the Don Valley Brick Works. The papers waxed poetic about “the mystic art of the embalmer in ancient Egypt” and offered photos of items described as “Old German instruments of torture.” Officials admitted it would take another year to finish labelling the displays. Among the early exhibit donors was Sir Henry Pellatt of Casa Loma fame, who could perhaps have used his collection of arms and armour to fend off creditors a decade later.

The official opening ceremony began with a speech by Sir Edmund Walker, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, on the development of the museum. He portrayed its gestation as the result of a labour of love by the directors of its component museums. Walker also observed that because North Americans were generally more concerned with material things, our museums took longer to develop than those in Europe.

After remarks from U of T president Robert Falconer, the podium was turned over to the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. It was a busy day for Queen Victoria’s third son, as his dedication of the ROM was sandwiched between a visit to the Boy Scouts’ provincial headquarters and the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates at High Park. Besides praising the museum, the Duke mentioned two dignitaries unable to attend due to illness—his wife (he thanked the guests for their best wishes), and Premier James Pliny Whitney (who was recovering from exhaustion and a heart attack).

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After opening the ROM, the Duke of Connaught spoke at the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates in High Park. Sir Henry Pellatt is standing at the back. Photo taken March 19, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8092.

The audience applauded the Duke’s concluding remarks:

I conclude by expressing my hope and belief that interest in the museum will not be allowed to flag in the future, but that this institution will ever be a pride to the citizens of Toronto, and will keep pace and size with the growth and development of the city.

That evening, more invitees listened to speeches and toured the building. Within days, Currelly reported to Walker a sharp rise in donations. “Men from all over the province have been coming to see me,” Currelly noted, “to say that this was what they have been waiting for all their lives, and that they are anxious to assist in any way that is possible.”

Such growth made future expansions inevitable, beginning with the additions along Queen’s Park opened in 1932-33. The original building now serves as the ROM’s west wing, housing its Asian collection on the main floor.

Additional material from The Museum Makers: The Story of the Royal Ontario Museum by Lovat Dickson (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1986); the December 7, 1910, March 17, 1914, March 19, 1914, and March 20, 1914 editions of the Globe; the March 20, 1914 edition of the Mail and Empire; the February 14, 1914, March 18, 1914, and March 19, 1914 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 20, 1914 edition of theToronto World; and the March 1911 edition of University of Toronto Monthly.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The next day, I wrote an article on renovations to the museum’s exterior.

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The Royal Ontario Museum hopes that you’ll mark its centennial by giving it a little love.

To kick off its new “Love the ROM” fundraising campaign, the museum celebrated its 100th birthday yesterday morning by announcing its plans for the coming year and offering hints of upcoming renovations to its Bloor Street entrance. Dubbed the “Welcome Project,” the plans call for changes to the museum’s lobby and the installation of an “outdoor gallery” running along Bloor Street from Philosopher’s Walk to Queen’s Park.

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The outdoor performance space nestled between the Michael lee-Chin Crystal and Philosophers’ Walk. Image: Hariri Pontarini Architects.

Designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, whose other projects include the Shangri-La Hotel and One Bloor, and landscape architect Claude Cormier, the “outdoor gallery” will include more greenery to make the ROM crystal’s gateway seem less sterile. The renderings feature a performance space west of the front door—a space the museum hopes to use for collaborations with nearby institutions like the Royal Conservatory of Music. We suspect the rows of seating will also provide a place for classes and tour groups to gather before they hop back on their buses. The space will be named after one of the new fundraising campaign’s lead donors, ABC Group of Companies CEO Helga Schmidt and her late husband Michael. Work on the lobby is expected to begin later this year, with the outdoor space following in 2015.

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An overhead, nighttime conceptual rendering of the ROM’s entrance. Image: Hariri Pontarini Architects.

The ROM also announced plans for a new gallery dedicated to early life on the planet, and an event called “ROM Revealed,” scheduled for first weekend of May, that will allow the public to explore the museum’s labs and other behind-the-scenes spaces rarely open to patrons.