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.

Toronto Illustrated ’57

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on December 11, 2010.

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Toronto from Lake Front.

Toronto, “The Queen City,” has many attractions for its citizens as well as for the thousands of tourists and others who visit it each year. It occupies a fine site by the shores of Lake Ontario, has beautiful residential areas and public parks, many handsome financial and industrial buildings, a good transportation system and a wide range of high-class retail stores, equal to the best found anywhere. It has an abundant supply of cheap hydro-electric power and natural gas and a large airport with worldwide connections. It is also a centre of cultural life with its churches, University, colleges, museum, art gallery, Conservatory of Music and technical schools. Its social service organizations receive generous support of the citizens each year.

With those words, editor James Cowan introduced the 1957 edition of Toronto Illustrated, an annual guide for visiting businesspeople and tourists. Following greetings from Metropolitan Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner and Mayor Nathan Phillips, the guide provides a heavily illustrated selection of noteworthy events and sites around town.

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The cover features a northward view along University Avenue, with Richmond Street along the bottom.

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Pre-9/11, the United States Consulate on University Avenue seems bare without its concrete barriers and security precautions.

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Continuing north, the newest attraction at the Royal Ontario Museum was a presentation of the story of creation in the geology gallery (seen above on the right; the Ming Tomb is on the left). Access was far more affordable than now: free, except on Wednesdays and Fridays when it cost a quarter to get in.

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The lone map in the guide points out the locations of local attractions and landmarks, including many that have faded into history. Given special attention is the three-year-old subway line, which is described as “the world’s newest and most modern.”

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Break time! Care for shopping and entertainment along Yonge Street near Dundas Street? For those looking for modern touchstones, the Imperial is now the Ed Mirvish Theatre, while the southwest corner of Yonge-Dundas Square occupies the site of the Downtown.

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A view of the western harbour, featuring sites still around (the Tip Top factory, the Island airport) and long demolished (Maple Leaf Stadium). Absent, but not for much longer, is the Gardiner Expressway: the section between the Humber and Jameson Avenue opened the following year and was extended to York Street by 1962.

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Quick, name the first ongoing Shakespearian festival in Canada. Stratford? Nope. Try the yearly selections of the Bard’s works staged outdoors on the grounds of Trinity College, presented by Earle Grey and his wife Mary Godwin. Actor/director/producer Grey staged his first production (Twelfth Night) at what is now the north end of the quadrangle at Trinity in 1946. The festival officially began three years later and featured a mix of experienced British actors and rising local talent—among the Grey company’s alumni were Timothy Findley, Lorne Greene, Don Harron, and William Hutt. The magazine notes that “it is a joyous and unforgettable experience to pass an evening watching one of these great plays being performed under a starlit sky, while a sly moon peeps over tower or turret.” Grey’s slate for 1957 included The Tempest (whose opening night was marred by rain and faulty lighting in the backup venue), The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.

Despite the higher prestige of the Stratford Festival, Grey’s festival appeared to have a promising future. The following year, funding was secured via grants from the city, province, Canada Council, and the Atkinson Foundation, and a new three-level stage was constructed on the west side of the quad. The promise of productions to come didn’t last long—following the death of Trinity College rector and longtime supporter R.S.K. Seeley, his successor declined further use of the site for productions. After an unsuccessful search for a new site, Grey and Godwin returned to their native England.

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Also spotlighted was the new home of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind on Bayview Avenue. The site’s mix of libraries, offices, and residences had been officially opened by Governor-General Vincent Massey the preceding April. Tenants of the Clarkewood residence were relieved to have private bedrooms after having lived in dorms in the CNIB’s former residence on Sherbourne Street. Among the amenities was a ‘Garden of Fragrance” that included metal Braille plates to identify the flora in the flower beds. The new facilities were judged to be “a fine tribute to the noble cause which they represent.”

After brief surveys of the city’s past and present, the editorial staff looked ahead to Toronto’s future:

At no former period in its history has Toronto witnessed such rapid development as at present. The central area is undergoing great changes, old office buildings are giving place to large modern structures, commercial buildings are moving out to the suburbs or are undergoing “face lifting”; family residences, with their lovely gardens, places of gracious living in Victorian days, are being replaced by apartment blocks of strange design—the city is changing with the times. Other developments planned include the following: the creation of a large civic square, adjacent to the present city hall, to be flanked with a large modern civic building, court house and other public buildings; an up-to-date civic auditorium at the corner of Yonge and Front Streets; completion of the Regent Park Housing development providing 1,289 units of modern sanitary housing; the extension of Eglinton Avenue East to connect with Scarboro Township; an extension of the present subway on the line of Bloor Street; an expressway across the southern part of the city near the lake front; diagonal highways to connect with the north-eastern and north-western areas of the city…in addition, the opening up of the St. Lawrence Seaway to permit the entrance of ocean-going ships to the upper lakes will greatly increase shipping and call for the enlargement of the Port of Toronto.

Additional material from the Summer 2005 edition of Trinity Magazine and the February 21, 1956 edition of the Toronto Star. All illustrations derived from Toronto Illustrated.

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.

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.

 

 

Celebrating Carnival at the ROM

Originally published on Torontoist on July 27, 2012.

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Carnival mas band costumes designed by Brian Mac Farlane. Left to right: Time (2011), Mad Cow (2010), Dragon (2010).

Tucked in a corner beside a giant photo of a dinosaur, it would be easy for Royal Ontario Museum visitors to pass by the small exhibit near the main entrance. But a glance in the right direction reveals a quartet of eye-catching costumes crafted by Trinidadian Carnival outfit designer Brian Mac Farlane. From a traditional “mad cow,” to a stark depiction of departed souls, the costumes reflect the historical and social commentary which infuses Mac Farlane’s work and forms the core of the museum’s latest tie-in exhibit with the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival.

Carnival is a pre-lent festive season that is celebrated around the world, but especially in Trinidad and Tobago and on other Caribbean isles, where the event culminates in giant parades the day before Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, participants in those parades wear elaborate, colourful costumes, like Mac Farlane’s.

Opening to the public on Saturday, “Carnival: From Emancipation to Celebration” features a gallery of sketches of Mac Farlane’s thematic designs over the past three years. Since beginning his career as a teenager in the early 1970s, Mac Farlane has won numerous awards for his Carnival work in Trinidad and Tobago and has been tapped to provide presentations for international events like this year’s Olympics. Looking at the sketches, one can see why his work has earned such prestige. His designs are attention-grabbing, and layered with symbolism.

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Sketch by Brian Mac Farlane for Aphotic costumes, 2012. According to the interpretive notes, these outfits project “a sense of hopelessness and despair” that people feel when they are “rendered powerless by the negativity that surrounds them.”

Take the “Sanctification…In Search Of” series of outfits Mac Farlane produced this year. According to his website, the designs came about as a result of his pain “at the inhumane way in which we treat each other.” Headline after headline regarding crime, the worsening economy, and the fraying of the social fabric led Mac Farlane to create a series of costumes employing the colours of Trinidad and Tobago’s flag: “Red represents our blood; Black represents the darkness, in which we currently find ourselves; and White represents cohesiveness and unity that form part of the solution.” The result is outfits that range from demonic figures draped in blood and darkness, to lighter figures embodying patriotism—which seems appropriate given this year’s celebration of the golden anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Great Britain.

Besides Mac Farlane’s work, the gallery also features images from the past 45 years of Toronto’s Carnival celebrations (though don’t go looking for any reference to the festival’s former name, which the organizers are now legally prohibited from using). Video clips include thoughts from the likes of Toronto Raptor Jamaal Magloire on the meaning of the celebration. One drawback to the exhibit is how it’s split up. It’s unfortunate that Mac Farlane’s costumes are one floor away from the sketches they grew from. Rather than being almost hidden away in a corner, the full-size outfits could have formed a focal point in the centre of the exhibit’s main second-floor gallery.

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It appears there were at least two other pictures I took that were considered for the final piece. Unfortunately, I do not have descriptions on hand, so you’ll just have to gaze at the artistry of these works.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Dodo Lives!

Originally published on Torontoist on May 29, 2017.

Vintage Ad #241: The Dodo Lives at the ROM

Source: Toronto Life, November 1975.

It’s a big week for the Royal Ontario Museum, with the public unveiling of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal days away. Will any of the displays added to the new galleries over the next year wrest the claim of “most unusual exhibition” title from today’s ad?

Probably, since Animals in Art’s claim appears to be hanging artwork in the ROM instead of, say, the Art Gallery of Ontario. The works advertised sound as if they could have fallen comfortably within the realm of the ROM’s natural history collection.

Here’s a follow-up idea: there are natural museum history displays around the world of animals in their habitats that are now so old that samples can be shown as period art, depicting man’s view of the natural world in the mid-20th century. Incorporate a history of representations of nature in art and institutions. All it requires is a catchy name and suitable corporate sponsor (note the lack of one here).

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

“It’s just a wonderfully extravagant moment for Toronto.”–William Thorsell, CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, 2007.

“The Crystal’s interesting. I think it will be interesting to hear people’s opinions. There’s going to be strong opinions on both sides.”–Toronto Mayor David Miller, 2007. (source for both quotes)

Has it really been a decade since the ROM Crystal opened? Ten years on, Daniel Libeskind’s sketched-on-napkins design remains a controversial addition to the city’s landscape. Two years after it opened, the Star reported that it finished eighth of a list of the 10 ugliest buildings in the world by the Virtual Tourist website (which the Crystal has outlasted). In 2015, a Globe and Mail investigation revealed how some donors still hadn’t paid their contribution to the ROM’s overall mid-2000s renovations. This year, the museum all but admitted the Crystal’s flaws by announcing plans to reopen the former main entrance on Queen’s Park.