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A visitor explores the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Dec. 12.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

In the early years of this century, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum decided it was time for renewal and expansion. The ROM was determined to do something big and bold, something that would bring throngs of paying guests through the doors and help cover the museum’s rising costs.

This was the era of the “starchitect,” and it chose one of the leading stars in the architectural firmament to guide the project. Daniel Libeskind won a design competition with his bold plan for a new wing that would jut out from the original building like a glittering, sharp-edged stone. The architect said the idea came to him after he toured the museum’s gem and mineral collection. Inspired, he scrawled some drawings on paper napkins at a family wedding.

The ROM’s leaders and benefactors swooned. Here, surely, was genius. Dubbed the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal in honour of a philanthropist’s gift, the dramatic new wing was certain to put the ROM on the international map, doing for Toronto what Frank Gehry’s startling Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao or I.M. Pei’s elegant glass pyramid did for Paris and the Louvre.

No one seems to have said: But Daniel, how is this going to work? With all of those sharp edges and sloping walls, how are we going to create usable spaces for our exhibits? And how does this thing connect to the rest of the building?

The project went ahead, and 3,500 tons of steel and many millions of dollars later, the new wing opened on June 2, 2007. It was, and is, a disaster.

Opinions on the look of the thing differ (I don’t mind it myself), but, as a building, it simply doesn’t work. The entrance on Bloor Street is unimpressive and hard to find. Visitors go in through a set of automatic sliding doors like you might expect at your local Walmart. Once inside, they find themselves in a cramped entry space leading to a giant atrium.

The galleries upstairs, reached by white-walled stairways that feel more like fire escapes, are a jumble of acute angles, bridges and weird, empty corners. It’s just about impossible to find your way around them. The museum’s famous dinosaur collection, a kids’ favourite, is all but lost up there.

Museums need big rooms with space for their exhibits and high walls on which to hang things. The Crystal simply doesn’t have any. Big visiting exhibitions are relegated to the windowless basement, reached by another one of those spooky, white-walled staircases.

It is to address these failings that the ROM is undertaking yet another big renovation. The last one was called Renaissance ROM. This one is called OpenROM.

The “transformational” $130-million, three-year project will give the Crystal a new, more impressive entrance, with a roof to protect visitors from the ice and snow that slides off its sloping sides. It will also create a brighter atrium with a glass roof; a “lily pad” staircase with wide landings to help people get to the upper floors; and a big overhead portal in the entranceway ceiling, called an oculus, which will offer views of the dinosaurs above. The project will even level the gradually sloping floor that makes some visitors unsteady.

At its big launch this week, project leaders were pained to say it was not a repudiation of the Crystal, but it’s hard to see it as anything else. The museum will get only one fairly small new gallery for its $130-million. Most of the money will go to what is essentially a cosmetic makeover, a reno of a botched reno.

Is it worth all that money? Part of me feels they should have just blown up the cursed Crystal and started all over from scratch. But that would have cost the earth, while drawing expletives and possibly lawsuits from all the white-haired worthies who opened their wallets to pay for Mr. Libeskind’s crystalline folly.

No, they have made the best of a bad job. The new reno recognizes what went wrong with the old one and fixes at least some of it. The experience of entering and navigating the museum from the north should improve. The new interiors envisioned by Hariri Pontarini Architects look lovely, with a much warmer, more open feel. The outside will get a new water feature and fountain.

I love the ROM in my bones. I started going to the museum’s Saturday Morning Club as a kid. Roaming the museum’s hushed galleries opened my eyes to a wider world.

Since the Crystal opened, I haven’t been able to go back without grinding my teeth. I’m looking forward to the day when I can walk those wondrous halls again.

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto unveiled a $130-million overhaul of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. The renovation will heavily alter the entrance on Bloor Street, as well as create a larger main lobby and event space. The museum will remain open through construction, which starts in February and continue for three years.

The Globe and Mail

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