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First Person My life-long love affair with the Royal Ontario Museum

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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We have been partners for more than 80 years, surely some kind of record for romance these days. I confess to having been the more ardent suitor, while the Royal Ontario Museum plays a passive role in our relationship. The ROM may be reserved in expressing affections, yet I have always been rewarded with love when I approached it. My passion began when, as a six-year-old, I skipped up the new steps facing Queen’s Park accompanied by my stylish aunt – the one who danced the Charleston with such abandon that observers were left speechless.

At the top of the steps, the huge oak doors opened into a rotunda that combined elements of castle and cathedral, made of varying shades of marble and stone and crowned with a luminous ceiling of gold. In the centre of the floor lay a giant sunburst, its rays reaching out to mythical animals in each corner. The ceiling, tiled with golden glass, was painted with bright symbols, so that looking upward brought a burst of pure joy. It was only much later that I discovered this 1933 addition to the museum had been a make-work project during the Great Depression. In order to give work to the greatest number of people, the men could only work half-day shifts, excavations were to be done with pick and shovel, not machines, and all the stone and marble used must be quarried in Ontario. So this magnificent work of art contains marble, sodalite, sandstone and limestone from Bancroft, Queenston and the Credit Valley, as well as the broken dreams of many who had been abandoned by the economy.

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Finally, at 70, I am the person I wanted to be when I was five

Our first stop was always at the dinosaurs; then and now, they are my favourite destination among all the extraordinary displays the museum offers. I am still fascinated by their vast lengths, supported by limbs like tree trunks, culminating in serpentine necks that seemed to go on forever and, in some cases, topped with ridiculously small heads. Over the years, I came to feel at home in their weird presence. I even shed a tear for the poor creature who had become trapped in a tar pit, and whose dying struggle was on display. As a child, I wondered at the skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Today, Gordo the Barosaurus, one of the largest of the dinosaurs at 27 metres in length and weighing over 33,000 pounds, takes our breath away. To the amazed delight of paleontologists worldwide, this skeleton was rediscovered in 2007, in storage at the ROM and reassembled as the most complete specimen of its kind in existence.

One of the games I played with my patient aunt was running up and down the staircases that surround the West Coast totem poles. Round the majestic figures of the eagle, the killer whale, the shark, bear and beaver I raced, feeling both bewitched and terrified. What if they came to life? When I questioned how these giants were squeezed into such small spaces, my aunt said that God Himself must have lowered them into the stairwells. Later, I discovered that this miracle did not come from divine intervention but by the ingenuity of the craftsmen who built the stairways around these sacred objects during the construction of the new wing. The totem poles had been purchased from the Nisga’a and Haida people and transported from British Columbia by rail.

A visit to the Egyptian exhibit was also mandatory so we could pay tribute to the mummy, a rather regal-looking relic, whose name was then unknown. Through the use of modern technology and new interpretation of tomb symbols, she was identified in 2014 as Nefret-Mut, a singer and musician. In my youthful mind, I had ascribed to her the position of queen of the museum, and it seemed only right to greet her at each visit to discuss the colourful artifacts around us. I was especially drawn to displays of miniature figures depicting life on the farms and in the homes. I saw them then as dolls, created to help us understand how people lived in the ancient world, but now I know them to be grave goods, interred with the dead to assist them in the next world.

I confess that I neglected my relationship with the museum during my university years, although the only unpleasant event I associate with the ROM took place in those days. I have a phobic fear of birds, implanted at a young age by a brutal encounter with an enraged goose, whose goslings I was chasing. A boyfriend at the time had the idea that I could be cured of this phobia by undergoing some deep exposure to birds. I mistakenly gave this amateur psychologist the benefit of the doubt and agreed to walk through the avian gallery of the museum with him. Case after case of stuffed birds terrified me, but I was truly petrified by the emus, ostriches and storks. After that horrifying immersion, I ended the relationship. But I continue to have one with the ROM, conditional upon never again having to encounter the gallery of birds.

I may have had brief flirtations over the years with other museums, but the ROM still claims my heart. Later in life, it’s been my delight to bring my four children (and now grandchildren) to the museum. My latest adventure at the ROM was a celebration of my 90th birthday. My husband, son and daughter and two granddaughters enjoyed an enchanting encounter with jewels, rich embroidery and golden vessels from India, we also found time to marvel at the massive, delightfully menacing dinosaurs, the magical totem poles and the impressive mummy. A wheelchair has replaced the skipping feet of earlier years, but the new delights on display merge with my enduring joy in the beauty of this museum. Some romances never die.

Rose Marie Jaco lives in London, Ont.

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