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The Royal Ontario Museum is vowing to ‘really focus our thinking about visitors.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
The Royal Ontario Museum is vowing to ‘really focus our thinking about visitors.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Life after the controversial Crystal: So what's the ROM’s next move? Add to ...

For seven years, the Royal Ontario Museum has represented itself with a colourful symbol that incorporated the sharp angles of the Crystal, the controversial $300-million extension the museum unveiled in 2007. In the words of the New York consultant who has been asked to redesign that logo, the philosophy was simple: “Build it and they will come.”

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Trouble was, they didn’t come – at least not in the huge numbers that advocates of the Crystal, designed by star architect Daniel Libeskind, had predicted: Projections of 1.4 million annual visitors streaming through the doors are proving unrealistic, as total visits remain around a million.

Now, as the ROM begins the countdown to its 2014 centennial, the museum is shifting gears: addressing the reality of stagnant attendance and a sometimes awkward building by starting a new conversation with visitors. “The ROM is investing in this … We are really ramping it up. There is a mandate to communicate better with the public,” says Dan Rahimi, vice-president responsible for programming.

Initially, the museum is trying some window dressing. The black, angular lobby, about as welcoming as the entrance to the Death Star, has since last summer culminated in a cast of a skeleton of the sprawling Futalognkosaurus, the largest dinosaur on display in Canada. Outside the front doors, plans are afoot to soften the sparse plaza on Bloor Street with $3-million in landscaping that had been cut from the original expansion.

Meanwhile, the new, simpler logo, designed by consultant LaPlaca Cohen, features a big round O, into which designers can drop images that reflect the collection – from a shimmering blue globe to antique sculptures or perky lizards. That surface change, however, is heavily symbolic, representing a shift in philosophy and orientation at the museum where British-born Janet Carding took over as director in 2010, replacing William Thorsell, who had overseen the expansion project. Noting that visitors sometimes find the ROM’s offerings, which include both the natural sciences and world cultures, overwhelming and confusing, the museum has reorganized itself into eight broad subject areas. It also wants to increasingly include the public in discussions of both research and exhibitions.

“We want to share what we know and how we do it,” says Rae Ostman, the newly appointed managing director of the ancient-cultures department at the museum. “[It] is to really focus our thinking about visitors, sharing more research and the collections behind the scenes, having a multidirectional dialogue.”

Her department, which is one of the first to launch this new style of programming, is offering an archeology weekend April 13 and 14 in which curators and technicians from the ROM, the University of Toronto and Parks Canada will discuss their field and lab work, while Viking re-enactors will present their dramatic approach to studying that ancient culture, too.

“We want to define the archeology community broadly … It is going beyond the feeling we are the experts sharing knowledge, and making it a dialogue,” says Ostman, whose department has also organized a pub night next Wednesday at a nearby bar, where curator Justin Jennings, a specialist in ancient Peru, will discuss that culture’s brewing techniques and binge drinking.

The other two subject areas to start offering new programming this spring are biodiversity and contemporary culture. The remaining “centres of discovery,” all still searching for funding, are Earth and space, fossils and evolution, textiles and fashion, world art and culture, and Canada. The idea is to both make the nature of the collections easier to grasp and to involve the public through exhibitions, online material and social media – whether the visitors are hobbyists, collectors, schoolchildren or members of an ethnic community whose culture is represented at the ROM.

For the centennial, curators are organizing exhibitions looking back to 1914, but the museum is also asking people to share their ROM memories online, and is launching a broad fundraising campaign with public recognition for small gifts.

The question is whether borrowing notions of transparency and engagement that are now so prevalent in the world at its doors will be enough to correct the awkward spot in which the ROM has been left by a ‘Bilbao effect’ that failed to materialize. The ROM had banked on the notion that an attention-getting building by a big-name architect would produce the kind of international excitement and huge crowds enjoyed by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao after it opened in 1997.

Following delays and overruns – the ROM’s debt from the project currently stands at $37-million – Libeskind’s glass-and-titanium Crystal opened in 2007 to great fanfare and mixed reviews, but the public seemed unconvinced. There was no big bump in attendance, which stood at 950,000 in 2008-09, the first full year of the new spaces following a staggered opening in 2007.

In a good year, the numbers now go over 1 million, but recent highs of 1.1 million in 2009-10 and 2010-11 can be attributed to specific exhibitions about the Dead Sea scrolls and China’s terracotta warriors. The ROM is predicting attendance of 990,000 in the year ending March 31, during which it hosted a major dinosaur show. “What we have discovered is that major exhibits really do bring in the bulk of our visitors,” Rahimi says, explaining that a single big show can account for about a third of annual visits.

Ticket prices, which were raised above $20 in anticipation of people paying more for a bigger experience, were lowered 18 months ago. The drop to $15 for an adult admission seems to be having the desired effect: Paid visits are up 24 per cent.

Visitors have also complained that they find the entrance confusing and inhospitable. In the short term, the ROM has posted the names of those eight new subject areas in bright colours, and installed the dinosaur to add some visual promise to the space; the bigger dream is to reconfigure the lobby with new lighting, new signage and more colour, and to rethink the long ticket counter. Actual structural changes that might widen the space would be prohibitively expensive, Rahimi says.

In the meantime, the ROM has received $2.5-million in Ontario and federal grants to pay for a more mundane but pressing renovation: Workers will start replacing the 80-year-old copper roof on the ROM’s old Queen’s Park wing this summer. Neither starchitects nor social-media gurus need apply.

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