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culture

Happy Centennial, Royal Ontario Museum!

One hundred years ago today, the museum opened its doors.

Front page, the News, March 19, 1914

Front page, the News, March 19, 1914.

As with any major building preparing for its grand opening, work on the Royal Ontario Museum went down to the wire. “A corps of charwomen polished, scrubbed, and dusted,” the Star observed the day before the museum greeted its first official visitors, “and unfinished exhibits were being rapidly and accurately fitted into their places.” That there were still unopened boxes in the basement didn’t faze anyone.

One hundred years ago this afternoon, just after 3 p.m., around 1,000 dignitaries attended the ROM’s opening ceremony. It was the culmination of years of planning, and of assembling artifacts drawn from private collections, provincial holdings, and the University of Toronto’s museums.

The museum was a joint partnership between the province and the university, which agreed in 1910 to split the $400,000 construction budget. A sense of the new institution’s direction was outlined by archaeology director Charles Trick Currelly the following year:

From the first the material has been gathered together with definite scientific aim, i.e., to show the development of handicraft in the world. It thus becomes a text book of the development of civilization on its mechanical side, and is in no sense a dilettante collection of pretty things or an accumulation of “curios.” There is not a curiosity in the collection, and practically not an object that is isolated, but each thing fits into a place in a series that has been carefully thought out. There are many gaps, but there is reasonable hope that these will be filled up in the future, so that the visitors to and students in the museum will have a continuous picture of the world’s civilization from the rude Palaeolithic implement found on the Libyan desert or deep in European gravels, right down to modern times.

Royal Ontario Museum building, circa 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3046.

By the time the museum was ready to open in 1914, its purpose had been refined into three roles:

The collection and exhibition of objects of every kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of Ontario, and thereby to aid in a knowledge of what is able to contribute to science and industry; Collection and exhibition of objects of any kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of the world, and the history of man in all ages; Such other objects as may be authorized by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.

The ROM originally served as an umbrella institution for five museums that operated semi-independently until the 1950s. Its components were dedicated to archaeology, geology, mineralogy, natural history, and palaeontology. Collections that had been housed in various locations on the U of T campus and at the Ontario Provincial Museum at the Toronto Normal School (located on the present site of Ryerson University) were brought under one roof, in a building designed by noted architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson.

A pair of early ROM acquisitions  Toronto Star, February 14, 1914

A pair of early ROM acquisitions. Toronto Star, February 14, 1914.

From the start, the ROM was bursting with artifacts. Preview newspaper articles boasted of the 60,000 specimens held by the palaeontology museum, including ancient trilobites found in New Brunswick and fossils discovered in the Don Valley Brick Works. The papers waxed poetic about “the mystic art of the embalmer in ancient Egypt” and offered photos of items described as “Old German instruments of torture.” Officials admitted it would take another year to finish labelling the displays. Among the early exhibit donors was Sir Henry Pellatt of Casa Loma fame, who could perhaps have used his collection of arms and armour to fend off creditors a decade later.

The official opening ceremony began with a speech by Sir Edmund Walker, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, on the development of the museum. He portrayed its gestation as the result of a labour of love by the directors of its component museums. Walker also observed that because North Americans were generally more concerned with material things, our museums took longer to develop than those in Europe.

After remarks from U of T president Robert Falconer, the podium was turned over to the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. It was a busy day for Queen Victoria’s third son, as his dedication of the ROM was sandwiched between a visit to the Boy Scouts’ provincial headquarters and the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates at High Park. Besides praising the museum, the Duke mentioned two dignitaries unable to attend due to illness—his wife (he thanked the guests for their best wishes), and Premier James Pliny Whitney (who was recovering from exhaustion and a heart attack).

After opening the ROM, the Duke of Connaught spoke at the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates in High Park. Sir Henry Pellatt is standing at the back. Photo taken March 19, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8092.

The audience applauded the Duke’s concluding remarks:

I conclude by expressing my hope and belief that interest in the museum will not be allowed to flag in the future, but that this institution will ever be a pride to the citizens of Toronto, and will keep pace and size with the growth and development of the city.

That evening, more invitees listened to speeches and toured the building. Within days, Currelly reported to Walker a sharp rise in donations. “Men from all over the province have been coming to see me,” Currelly noted, “to say that this was what they have been waiting for all their lives, and that they are anxious to assist in any way that is possible.”

Such growth made future expansions inevitable, beginning with the additions along Queen’s Park opened in 1932-33. The original building now serves as the ROM’s west wing, housing its Asian collection on the main floor.

Additional material from The Museum Makers: The Story of the Royal Ontario Museum by Lovat Dickson (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1986); the December 7, 1910, March 17, 1914, March 19, 1914, and March 20, 1914 editions of the Globe; the March 20, 1914 edition of the Mail and Empire; the February 14, 1914, March 18, 1914, and March 19, 1914 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 20, 1914 edition of the Toronto World; and the March 1911 edition of University of Toronto Monthly.

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