The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life, will help people understand the past, make sense of the present and shape the future
Imagine it if you can. Four billion years ago, your very earliest ancestor emerges into the primordial soup that would later evolve into what we now call Earth. It may have been a micro-organism living around a hydrothermal vent in the ocean. Scientists describe it as the last universal common ancestor, or LUCA, and it’s related to all current life on Earth; it’s your great-granny (or granddad) many million times removed.
Starting this December, you will have an opportunity to meet your longest-lost relatives when Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) opens its eagerly anticipated 10,000-square-foot Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life, which will take visitors on an unparalleled journey from the very start of life on Earth to the period just before dinosaurs ruled the world. Named for philanthropists Jeff Willner and Stacey Madge for their generous support of this project, the gallery is a landmark moment for the museum.
“This is our first major new gallery of this scale in over a decade,” says ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches. “It’s very connected to ROM’s vision to help people understand the past, make sense of the present and come together to shape a shared future. And it fits into our objective to be one of the most distinctive 21st century museums anywhere in the world.”
By presenting the story as a unique, immersive experience using technology that will visually transport visitors back nearly four billion years, the gallery aims to foster a better understanding of the emergence of life by tackling big questions, such as when did life begin, how did it evolve and how did humans come to exist through that chain, according to Mr. Basseches.
“We see the gallery as a game changer that will dramatically affect people’s understanding of life and themselves,” he adds. “It will be both an informative and a catalytic experience.”
Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, ROM’s Richard M. Ivey Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology and lead curator of the new gallery, puts it more plainly.
There are many fossils that tell the story of life on Earth, but we wanted to make sure visitors know that Canada has some of the world’s most important fossil sites, including those recognized as such by UNESCO.— Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, ROM’s Richard M. Ivey Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology
“Hopefully these fossils will give visitors goosebumps in the knowledge that humans and animals alive today were billions of years in the making,” he says.
Dr. Caron says one of the big challenges in curating the new gallery, which is rooted in ROM original research, was deciding what to leave out of the displays.
“It was a daunting task because the fossil record is quite extensive,” he explains. “There are many fossils that tell the story of life on Earth, but we wanted to make sure visitors know that Canada has some of the world’s most important fossil sites, including those recognized as such by UNESCO.”
Dr. Caron points out that there are four Canadian UNESCO World Heritage Sites represented in the new gallery. These sites are particularly rich in fossils and represent some of the most important places on Earth for studying key moments in evolution, such as the origin of multicellularity, the evolution of the first animals and the transition of vertebrate life from the sea to land.
He says fossils tell stories about how deep the connection is between all life forms, and the new gallery is a platform for those stories to be heard.
“We can see ourselves in this gallery, from the very first cells and how they have evolved to the complex cells we have in our bodies today,” he adds. “We are telling the stories not only of where we come from but also the origin of our modern world, including of all the animals and plants that are alive today.”
Dr. Caron says while the gallery will detail Canada’s incredibly rich and diverse geological history and scientifically important fossils, its broader story is far bigger than Canada.
I think the amount of interactivity and the way the gallery has been put together will really strike visitors as something very different; less about displays on walls with placards in front of them, and much more engaging. I’m very excited about that.— Jeff Willner, Chair of the ROM Board of Governors and owner and CEO of TravelEdge Group
“Although the story of life is a universal story that connects all of us, there’s no gallery in the world like this,” he adds. “It’s an opportunity for people from anywhere to not only discover our past but also see into the future by learning about events, like mass extinctions, which changed the world in much the same way as climate change is changing our world today.”
Dr. Caron says construction of the gallery took two years after a multi-year campaign to raise funds entirely from private donors. That’s where Jeff Willner and Stacey Madge came in. The couple donated $5-million towards the new gallery because they believed it was important for ROM to have a new way to tell the story of the dawn of life, using the museum’s extensive collection of Canadian fossils to do so.
Mr. Willner, who is chair of the ROM Board of Governors and owner and CEO of TravelEdge Group, says the donation was a wonderful opportunity to do something quite small in the grand scheme of things.
He was particularly impressed by the teamwork that went into building the gallery and how different it is to typical museum displays.
“I think the amount of interactivity and the way the gallery has been put together will really strike visitors as something very different; less about displays on walls with placards in front of them, and much more engaging. I’m very excited about that,” says Mr. Willner.
The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life at Royal Ontario Museum is scheduled to open on December 4.
For more information, visit rom.on.ca
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