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With social media, says the ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding, people ‘are looking for something they can personalize or customize and be part of.’ (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
With social media, says the ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding, people ‘are looking for something they can personalize or customize and be part of.’ (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Royal Ontario Museum makes it to 100. Now, the real work begins Add to ...

That’s an ethos, however, that is unlikely to change any time soon. By some measures, in fact, the Ontario government has been a generous patron of the ROM. While more than $160-million in private commitments were garnered for Renaissance ROM, fallout from the 2008-09 global financial crisis made for a slowing of donor payouts as construction bills came due. As a result, in every year since 2008 the Ontario Financing Authority has been providing the museum tens of millions of dollars in low-interest loans. Moreover, when the projected postrenovation upswing in attendance failed to materialize, the government stepped in with close to $20-million in deficit-reduction grants. (Today, Carding says, “only a relatively small proportion [of the pledges]” remains outstanding; she estimates about $35-million in OFA loans remain on the books, to be paid in full by 2027.)

Meanwhile, Carding plans to open all of the ROM’s doors to the public on May 3 and 4 – for the first time ever. As big as the museum is, an estimated 55 per cent of it – the laboratories, workshops, offices and storage – has been closed to the public at any one time. The open house is part birthday present, part politics. “People are going to be interested in supporting and being proud of things they know about and understand,” Carding predicts. “If most of the research dynamism and the new discoveries and the changing side of the collections is hidden away, why are people going to be interested in them? … I want to be able to make a strong case to government and philanthropies that this is an important part of what we do.”

A little over a year after Carding took the reins, the ROM also reduced its ticket prices, to help maintain attendance in the face of audience complaints that the museum was, in Carding’s words, a place “just for people who could afford a high admission.” Adults can now get in for $16 (it was $24 before); children for $12 (from $16).

Not everyone is convinced those prices are low enough. Lord, now 68, can remember the days of free admission to the museum, when she was a child, and thinks ticket prices remain a deterrent to repeat visits by non-members. And special exhibitions are not cheap to attend: A non-member couple with, say, a 13-year-old daughter and a university-age son would still have to shell out close to $100 to see the museum’s superb new Fordibben City exhibition.

Carding, however, thinks the price decreases have worked. ROM’s audience is more diverse, she says; there are more first-time visitors; and “there’s been a sustained increase” – 18 per cent in 2012-13 – “in the numbers of people coming to see the collections, galleries and the programming,” exclusive of special exhibitions.

‘Bad days’ and high hopes

The history of museums is a history of splits, mergers and occasional dissolutions, and provides little insight into how the ROM’s totem poles and mummified cats may fare in the future. The Natural History Museum in London, for example, was originally a department of the British Museum, which had been founded in the mid-18 century, and only became an autonomous, self-governing institution in 1963 after almost a century of debate. The department had been given its own quarters, separate from the British Museum, in 1881 but even there it was known as British Museum (Natural History). In fact, the museum’s current name came into effect only in 1992.

Dan Rahimi, a 27-year veteran of the ROM, doesn’t think a similar split is likely for his many-tentacled employer “even under financial pressure,” even as, on some “bad days,” he thinks, “we can’t sustain this.” An archaeologist by training and now a ROM vice-president, Rahimi thinks that the benefits of housing the scientific and cultural/historical domains in one space, finally, “are too great. Imagine if we were to do a show on fur as a symbol of Canada: We could have mammalogists tell us about fur itself, historians about the fur trade, textile specialists about the use of fur in both aboriginal and European cultures.” An inter- and intradisciplinary institution, he posits, is nothing if not “a very rich set of possibilities.”

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ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

Children in the museum’s Saturday Morning Club in 1946, sketching armour displayed in Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery. The main-floor hall/gallery links the museum’s original 1933 west-wing building to the 1933 addition (now known as the Hilary and Galen Weston Wing and the Weston Family Wing).

ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

View of the western exterior of the original museum building, taken from the southwest circa 1914.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

Staff standing at the then-main (north) entrance of the original ROM building, 1914. The museum had about 20 full-time employees opening day Mar. 19, 1914.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

View of the original 1914 building, shot from Bloor Street West from the north-west. Note the modest entrance, the Romanesque exterior and Venetian-style windows fronting what is now Philosopher’s Walk, University of Toronto.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

Dancers at the gala 1965 Hungarian Ball in the ROM’s famous Rotunda. The octagonal lobby, with a gold and multi-coloured mosaic ceiling, was part of the addition completed in 1933. For more than 70 years the Rotunda, its doors facing east toward Queen’s Park, served as the museum’s main entry.

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