19 October 2009

Royal Ontario Museum

So if you're reading this and and are planning on visiting Toronto in the next few months, do go visit the ROM to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.  It does an amazing job of contextualizing the scrolls and explaining that era of Roman/Jewish history, which can get pretty confusing.  My favorite part of the whole exhibit was the part about preserving the scrolls and explaining how they prepared them for exhibition.  Unfortunately, there were no photos allowed so I haven't got any to show about how it was designed. The exhibit is a blockbuster, and as far as blockbusters go, this one was really well done.

They had recently reinstalled their Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth's Treasures and it was beautifully done, with really nice lighting and also a lot of natural light in the galleries.

There were also informational touchscreen kiosks in the gallery, which were cool and nonobtrusive but could have been done without.  Personally, I'm not a huge fan of kiosks in museums, but sometimes they're awesome (Musée des arts-et-métiers, for example).  The really well-done and well-integrated kiosks were part of the ROM's Must-See Treasures - and I'm so glad to see that some of them are available on YouTube:

Visiting the ROM (and also the Bata Shoe Museum) was really good for giving some perspective on how to respectfully handle Native Americans/First Nations in a museum setting, because I think it's possible for American museums to get caught up in NAGPRA and also in the culture the USA has developed in the way it responds to Native Americans, which is still essentially very imperialist and not very ideal - even as so many museum professionals work very hard to honor Native Americans and try to help to improve less-than-ideal situations.  This brings me to the reallyfamous painting at the ROM, which is Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe, one of the cornerstones of (North) American Art History.  It is a controversial painting, full of eurocentric meaning and propaganda.  ROM obviously recognizes this, and presents video of the Plains of Abraham, and three critical views: one from Jeff Thomas, a Iroquois Onondaga artist, curator and critic; another from Chantal Hébert, a Canadian political columnist; and finally Arlene Gehmacher, ROM curator of Canadian Art.  It's always nice to see multiple critical views, and it makes me so happy to see labels attributed to specific writers instead of an unseen-omniscient-curator voice in museum labels.

I'd also note here that folks from the USA don't really use the term North American very often, whereas Canadians use it all the time.  This shows how American-centric/USA-centric we are wired to be, when on the other hand Canada has a completely different perspective on the same situation, of course.

Without going into a load of detail, the ROM had some of the best explanation of Greek pottery that I've ever seen.  And let's be honest, we've all looked at a lot of Greek pottery in a lot of museums, but how often are we really helped to understand what we're looking at?  A little bit is all it takes to really appreciate this fine art, and they did a great job.

Just a final comment on the architecture: Daniel Libeskind's addition was at moments unsettling and sometimes competed with the contents of the museum -- when the architecture competes with the objects in a museum setting, then it becomes a question of priorities: which is more important, the contents of the museum or the museum building?  And my response is emphatically that the objects inside are more important.  The chair? Uncomfortable.  The atmosphere in the Spirit House? Also uncomfortable.

Overall, however, we had a great visit - most of the day, a marathon of a museum visit, and like all great museums, screaming to be revisited, because as I write this, I am reminded of all that we didn't get to see.

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