Toronto's McLaughlin Planetarium was shuttered it seemed an entirely
reasonable recession-inspired hibernation; quite like the self-imposed
dormancy that hit Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario, and similar
conditions at the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto Symphony
that threatened programs, space or both. However the Planetarium
has a dubious distinction: It has never reopened; this despite
the fact that its parent institution, the Royal Ontario Museum,
has secured millions of dollars from multiple levels of government
for a very visible expansion project.
The Planetarium is not an issue the Royal Ontario Museum makes
a priority to communicate on -- as if 30 years were an expected
lifetime for a building and endeavour of this nature. And perhaps
30 years is a fair life span given the faddish nature of both
educational programs and exhibition spaces. But then I'm hard
pressed to explain the rejuvenated planetariums of other cities.
We have been told that the ROM has abandoned astronomical programming
to the (ready or not) Ontario Science Centre. This makes as much
sense as downsizing your urns and brocade because other Toronto museums
specialize in such items. Astronomy is the original primordial
Natural History. It oughta be here.
The Royal Ontario Museum originally accepted the planetarium as
a gift from industrialist and philanthropist Col. Sam Mclaughlin.
Here I must be frank: it says much to me that is not good of the
current stewardship at the Royal
Ontario Museum, that they treat their gifted assets in such a
whimsical manner. I realize it may not be for any
single donor to influence the course of a public institution in
perpetuity but it wouldn't kill us to show a little respect to
the philanthropy of old. It sets a good example. "Reusing" a purpose-built space
like the planetarium as a storage room is an utter waste. Doesn't the ROM have access to
offsite storage space for Jove's sake?
passive to the point of neglect on the Planetarium front, the
Royal Ontario Museum has been busy doing other strange things.
Let's start by considering the proposed name change to "ROM" from
the full-length moniker. This seems not quite the inspired proclamation
of a changed self that one assumes in the best-intentioned name-changes.
Naturally it's been rejected by monarchists but the real problem
is not the loss of "Royal" as much as it's the loss of "Museum".
In a truncation which yields a placeless and timeless acronym
the ROM has chosen to edit rather than truly reinvent, to hide
rather than reveal. Certainly there is power in acronyms, but
it's not inherent in those magical capital letters -- FBI and
MOMA impress; KFC and A&P less so. Unless you're a radio station
you can have your full name and your acronym too. In the "ROM"'s
case the 3 orphaned letters seem implausibly over-valued. Judy
Garland was no "FG". IMHO.
The intention of the name change and new logo (which resembles
three carpet swatches) is to lock step with the 'Renaissance ROM'
fundraising where all is reborn through, of course, cash infusion.
But this is unseemly pandering for a museum of natural history
and applied arts in which the fundamental and elemental rocks,
stars and armour are so obviously by definition not new.
The 'newness' or 'rebirth' the ROM is advocating for itself seems
to be not much more than a subjective veil of expensive mediating
'ambience'. This is symbolized physically by Daniel Libeskind's
plan of a large angular crystal structure to link the two older
wings. For the collection, the curators and those who use the
museum, I don't think that this crystal structure is a cause to
be optimistic about any rebirth. As an artifact onto itself it
will require and receive more than its fair share of attention. As a building
it's a classic hotdog stand shaped like a hotdog, or an orange-shaped juice stand: a building shaped like
a subset of itself, a Venturian "duck" as they were known in the 1970s courtesy of Learning from Las Vegas.
These bulidings are classic roadside attractions. Why would Libeskind, who clearly knows this turf, "go there"?
What made Libeskind scribble just so on a napkin? What made his patrons swoon? In context of the
fundraising 'Renaissance', the reason Libeskind's
crystal was chosen is that it agitates most compulsively for its
own cash-fuelled creation. It's a clear and definite logo.
But that's the way the curatorial and management winds blow in
the cultural industries, sports industries, and any industry in
the attendance business. The stadiums and museums both get built
as giant attractions for the previously unattracted. How can the
ROM reinvent itself on its own terms? The honest answer has nothing
to do with Libeskind's crystal. In architectural terms one would
do this: give each department the means to conduct their own evaluations
of architectural needs and let them retain individual design architects.
This includes the Planetarium. Rebuild from the inside in a rational
way. The individualism of each gallery would perfectly suit the
ROM's diverse collection. There
always were ideas in the ether, different ways to enliven the
ROM, both groundbreaking and at the same time very much in step
with the strengths of the institution. "The Crystal" is fine too... if
you're satisfied with that "hotdog stand"...
The ROM's new identity, real or imagined, has has made local headlines
constantly. But the reasons have not been good ones: a transgressive
display of Milli Vanilli-style "authorized forgeries" of Rodin
for example. Another curious watershed was noted when the ROM
dated exhibited pieces "CE" for Common Era rather than "AD".
The first artifact to have itself ceremoniously re-initialed just happened to be a relic from the family of Jesus. Or it might be a fake.
Again the Museum doesn't actually seem to care much for the details.
recently and ominously a renowned mineralogy laboratory in the
basement has been evicted to make room for the shuffle of the
renovations. Nevertheless the excellent exhibitions continue their
parade through the ROM's halls, persuading most of us who have
never heard of the renowned rock lab that when the exhibits work
all else may be forgiven.
so the ROM sheds its inhibitions and discovers its true calling
as a swinger, a crystal-wearing bohemian, a free-stylin' creative
director. But remember how it was the Planetarium which made the
first, the most outrageous and still easily the most agreeable
departure from the ROM's dusty pedagogical formality. It was called
Laser Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon. For select individuals spanning
several generations this was a true theatre of the stars; the
demi-orb of the laser rock spectacle; a rocking, pearly half-shell
of kicked ass and blown mind.
Laser Zeppelin and Laser Prog followed as sure as the Phoenicians
followed King Tut across the courtyard. Laser Grunge and Laser
No Doubt prove that even Laser Rock shows suffer from eventual
loss of curatorial and other vision. Nevertheless, a gilded age
of metallic finery all around.