A must-see, the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, is Canada’s largest and most diverse museum, holding a vast hoard of fine and applied art drawn from every corner of the globe. What’s more, the permanent collection is supplemented by an ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions, several of which have attracted rave reviews. The ROM comprises two distinct sections: the original building, a substantial and serious-minded stone structure facing Queen’s Park and a large and flashy extension, known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, whose six crystal-shaped, aluminium-and-glass cubes march along Bloor Street West. Lee-Chin, a wealthy businessman, footed the bill, but the design was the brainchild of Daniel Libeskind. There’s no disputing the visual impact of the cubes, but they have made the interior of the ROM rather hard to negotiate – be sure to pick up a floor plan at reception.
The museum spreads over five main floors: Level B2 is used for temporary exhibitions; Level 1 holds a superb collection of native Canadian artefacts plus several galleries devoted to East Asia, particularly China; Level 2 is a mix of geology and natural history with the dinosaurs the star turn; Level 3 is more ethnographic, with pride of place being the ancient Egyptian collection; and Level 4 is devoted to textiles and costume.
Level 1: the old ROM entrance hall
The domed and vaulted old entrance hall of the original ROM building is an extravagant affair, whose ceiling is decorated with a brilliant mosaic of imported Venetian glass. Bolted into the adjacent stairwells are four colossal and stunningly beautiful totem poles. Dating from the 1880s, and the work of craftsmen from the Haida and Nisga’a peoples of the West Coast, these poles – the tallest is 24.5m – are decorated with stylized carvings representing the supernatural animals and birds associated with particular clans.
Level 1: the early Canadian galleries
Next to the old entrance hall, rooms 105 and 106 hold much of the ROM’s early Canadian collection, which is strong on furniture, silverware, ceramics and glass. Here also is the iconic Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West. The British general James Wolfe inflicted a crushing defeat on the French outside Québec City in 1759, but was killed during the battle. West’s painting transformed this grubby colonial conflict into a romantic extravagance, with the dying general in a Christ-like pose, a pale figure held tenderly by his subordinates. West presented the first version of his painting to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1771 and it proved so popular that he spent much of the next decade painting copies.
Level 1: the First Peoples gallery
The First Peoples gallery (rooms 107 and 108) is outstanding, its large glass cabinets examining each and every one of Canada’s major native groupings, the exhibits supported by clear and concise descriptions and apposite quotations. Particular highlights include a rare buffalo war robe, recording the owner’s bellicosity on the Canadian prairie; some wonderful West Coast masks and ceremonial headdresses; a dozen or so paintings by the artist-explorer Paul Kane; and, most remarkable of all, the war bonnet and war shirt of Sitting Bull, who fled over the border into Saskatchewan shortly after defeating General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. During his exile Sitting Bull gave his bonnet and shirt to a Mountie – hence its appearance here.
Level 1: the Chinese collection
The ROM’s world-class Chinese collection, concentrated in rooms 103 and 104, spans six millennia, from 4500 BC to 1900 AD. Key parts of it are devoted to Chinese temple art, including three large and extraordinarily beautiful Daoist and Buddhist wall paintings dating from around 1300 AD. Other key exhibits in this section include a remarkable collection of tomb and temple figurines, comprising a couple of hundred ceramic pieces representing funerary processions of soldiers, musicians, carts and attendants. There is also a fabulous cabinet of snuff bottles, some carved from glass and rock crystal, others from more exotic materials, such as amber, ivory, bamboo and even tangerine skin. The most popular component of the Chinese collection is, however, its Ming tomb. The aristocracy of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) evolved an elaborate style of monumental funerary sculpture, and the ROM holds the only example outside of China, though it is actually a composite tomb drawn from several sources rather than an intact, original whole.
Level 2: the Dinosaurs
Among the assorted natural history galleries on Level 2, the highlight is the Dinosaurs section, which holds the ROM’s splendid collection of fossil skeletons, the pick being those retrieved from the Alberta Badlands, near Calgary in western Canada. The Badlands are the richest source of dinosaur fossils in the world, having yielded over three hundred complete skeletons and 35 dinosaur species – ten percent of all those known today. Among the accumulated beasties, look out for the pig-sized, super-armoured armadillo and the rampant Albertosaurus, a Jurassic-period carnivore of large proportions and ferocious appearance.
Level 3: the Egyptian collection
The ROM is strong when it comes to ancient Egypt, owning several finely preserved mummies, including the richly decorated sarcophagus of Djedmaatesankh, a court musician who died around 850 BC. Even more unusual is the assortment of mummified animals, including a crocodile, a hawk and a weird-looking cat. There is also the intriguing Punt Wall, a 1905 plaster cast of the original in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. The events depicted on the wall occurred in the year 1482 BC, and represent a military expedition to Punt, which lay south of Egypt near present-day Somalia.