Historicist: How the ROM Became a World-Class Museum

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Historicist: How the ROM Became a World-Class Museum

After Sir Edmund Walker decided to make a museum, he needed to build a team of people dedicated to making the dream happen.

One of Charles Currelly's big contributions to the success of the ROM was making the museum a place that welcomed children to learn and play. Photo by Bruce Reeve in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

One of Charles Currelly’s big contributions to the success of the ROM was making the museum a place that welcomed children to learn and play. Photo by Bruce Reeve in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Disclosure: An academic version of this article appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2006

The story of how the ROM became a world-class cultural institution stretches from Toronto to China and covers major cultural shifts that shunted Canadian Methodism from piety to social engineering, the rise of the Toronto plutocracy, and the importance of a randomly placed postcard, among other things.

Sir (Byron) Edmund Walker (1848–1924) may have been an top-flight banker (CEO of the Canadian Bank of Commerce; we know it now as CIBC), but we remember him today as a founder-general of some leading cultural institutions: the Art Gallery of Ontario (originally the Art Gallery of Toronto, to whom he also donated his remarkable collection of Old Master drawings); the National Library of Canada (now Library Archives Canada); the Champlain Society, and, of course, the ROM. Walker’s rise to the top was covered in last week’s Historicist instalment.

By 1899, Walker had grown intent on founding a new cultural institution that would reflect Toronto’s arrival on the global scene. Toronto already already had a provincial (in both senses of the word) museum. It was tucked away in the Toronto Normal School, in space now occupied by Ryerson University. The museum was largely a collection of arrowheads, rocks, and ploughs, and it was run by David Boyle, a largely self-taught schoolmaster and geologist who had worked his way up. Boyle’s virtues might merit a plaque in his home town of Elora; but they weren’t enough to impress the Toronto plutocracy who would help bankroll Walker’s new museum.

As a prominent governing board member of the University of Toronto, Walker knew something of the humanities and their practitioners, and he had heard of a man named Charles Trick Currelly (1876–1967), an archaeologist who was friends with his son. Walker had the vision for the museum, but he needed a partner who would be able to make it a reality.

Walker first wrote to Currelly on September 9, 1902 when he was searching for Egyptian scarabs. Currelly, who had gained the favourable notice of renowned British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, was a go-to man for scarabs.

Charles Currelly. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Currelly. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The offspring of a comfortable Ontario Methodist family, Currelly had been the protégé of Victoria College’s president Nathanael Burwash, and a friend to Burwash’s son Ned. Currelly was connected. One of his cousins, John Treble, had married the only daughter of Hart Massey, of the Massey-Harris (later Massey-Ferguson) farm implement fortune.
By November 5, 1902, Currelly and Walker had moved on from scarabs and were writing about the bargains to be had in Greek antiquities.

Currelly’s mastery of the glamorous trade of the archaeological dig (as well as his ease in acquiring for his patrons objects found there) endeared him to a generation of rich Torontonians. He entertained caravans of them as he added a fillip of connoisseurship to their winter sojourns in Egypt. A party graced by Mrs. H.D. Warren (married to the founder of Dominion Tire and Rubber, later a member of the ROM board of directors for decades, and one of its most reliable benefactors) and Edmund Osler (the richest man in Canada) passed through Currelly’s dig at Deir el-Bahri in 1909, and were thoroughly charmed. Warren even handed over some cash on the spot to pay for the colouration of a plaster cast Currelly had made of a tomb wall.

The plaster cast of Pharoah Hatshepsut's voyage to Punt from her tomb at Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

The ROM’s plaster cast of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s voyage to Punt from her tomb at Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

This lay in the future. Soon after their first correspondence, Walker came to understand that Currelly was the man he had been seeking. The two began confiding.

The Royal Commission report that Walker had help produce and that recommended the establishment of a university museum, called for consolidating a number of existing collections. Chief among these was Victoria College’s, which Currelly had helped assemble. Currelly could head the new museum’s archaeological department, which would showcase the world-class material that Walker wanted. The prospect of this job likely relieved Currelly’s anxiety about returning to Toronto. For despite the courtship by overseas institutions that he regaled his correspondents with, Currelly did wish to return to Toronto. Petrie—his original sponsor in archaeology—had shown himself lacking in moral fibre. “[Petrie] has never learnt that honesty is the best policy,” Currelly wrote to Burwash on March 29, 1904. Nonetheless, Petrie would later commend Currelly to Burwash, urging further funding for the young man’s enterprises in a letter of December 8, 1907.

Edmund Osler c. 1912. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 1291.

Edmund Osler c. 1912. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 1291.

Currelly had previously written to Burwash hoping for a job at Victoria College. He had been elected to the Royal Geographical Society, and named a scholar at the British School at Athens. He still hoped, as he wrote to Burwash on March 29, 1904, that Victoria College might set aside “a small place for me.” Many of his purchases came from funds disbursed by Burwash for the Victoria College museum. As anybody wise in the ways of the world understands, Currelly’s letters to Burwash bear an evangelical tone not found in his concurrent notes to the resolutely secular Walker. To Burwash, Currelly confided that his future lay “in Canadian Methodism.” His own “mastering wish is that it be in Victoria College.”

Walker and Currelly each knew their role in the play that they were staging. Let other Canadian museums stick to the native, the home-grown, the geological. The ROM would go international, taking Toronto’s seat among the collecting nations. Moneyed Torontonians were learning step up when it came to supplying Currelly with funds for the treasures for the ROM.
When Ontario Premier Sir James Pliny Whitney complained to a delegation headed by Walker about museum expenditures (Walker and his rich benefactors wanted the province to pay for the building), then the other Edmund, who was the richest man in Canada, stepped in. Edmund Osler, chair of the Conservative caucus, and an early Currelly bankroller, barked to Whitney, “That’s all right…you give it to us, and if there’s any objection from the House, I’ll pay it out of my own pocket.” Whether or not the story is factual in every detail (certainly Osler could have covered the ROM’s tab without straining), it conveys that Toronto’s rich wanted this museum as badly as Walker did.

Burwash at Victoria College had been instrumental in assembling Currelly’s first group of patrons and the college’s collection of objects served as the starter kit for the new museum. So it was fitting that Walker wrote to Burwash in 1909 about the sense of relief he felt, and his gratitude:

“I recall the morning when you consented to the material collected…by Currelly, and other material collected by friends and saved by Victoria, passing into such a general Museum, and I may say that the encouragement received at that time had a very great influence upon me in persisting in what has been a long wearisome struggle.”

Walker may himself have been religiously indifferent, but the Toronto elite were not. Methodism, the Methodism whose doctrinal content had by this time declined from religious ecstasy to ethical system to secularist social concern, was as responsible for the ROM as any interest in archaeology. The social gospel and the education gospel alike fostered a cultural institution that spoke to the need for enlightenment about the past and the consequent social elevation for the future. Shortly after the foundation of the ROM, one very wealthy Methodist, Chester Massey, wrote to another, N.W. Rowell, that “Up-to-date businessmen are not going to give liberally to a church whose institutions are not up-to-date, and who do not turn out up-to-date men.” Both were also supporters of the ROM. Massey’s philanthropic sister Lillian Massey Treble (she had married a cousin of Currelly’s) once remarked that Currelly’s interest in Middle Eastern art and artifacts was planted during the Sunday Bible classes her husband taught. Not all the developing museum’s movers and shakers were Methodists (Osler, for example, was Anglican), but Methodism, its emphasis on cultural outreach, and its belief that good works could strengthen faith, played a major role in the ROM’s foundation.

Within that matrix of wealth, civic pride, personal ambition and religious conviction, Walker found in Currelly a man who ran an up-to-date museum and a cultural builder smart enough to stipulate that the ROM had to be along a streetcar line. The museum opened March 19, 1914.
Currelly set up the Saturday morning classes, long before anyone else in the country found them fashionable, which ensured the ROM’s future by inspiring children. He was also the broadcaster who used the airwaves to tell stories from the museum’s collections. His 1956 memoir, I Brought the Ages Home, shows how he thought of his role: to bring all of culture and history to Toronto.

A Chinese tomb flanked by two lions (now at the Avenue Road entrance) in the ROM in 1933. Photo by Alfred Pearson in the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 9773.

A Chinese tomb flanked by two lions (now at the Avenue Road entrance) in the ROM in 1933. Photo by Alfred Pearson in the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 9773.

In due time, the public, when they thought of the ROM, immediately thought of Currelly’s archaeology division. Only the dinosaurs attracted greater attention, and the chair of that department lacked Currelly’s PR skills. Currelly kept on courting the Toronto elite who formed his funding base. The baskets of local apples shipped to friends of the museum overseas, the Manchurian walnuts imported for well-wishers to plant, the small gifts (from funds donated for acquisitions) strategically bestowed on cabinet ministers and other governmental players: all helped bring the ages to the ROM.

Currelly had performed a remarkable job in acquiring Egyptian antiquities, but they alone would never place the ROM among the top museums and complete the transmission of Walker’s legacy. If ROMA (cable address of the ROM, Dept. of Archaeology, Currelly’s department) were ever to assume its imperial destiny at the centre of the five museums on the administrative flow chart, because the ROM was originally split into five departments treated as separate museums, then some new treasure would have to come to light.

The process that made the ROM into something more than a repository for rocks, dinosaurs, and mummies began in late 1918, after a buried tomb opened and a great exhumation began. The resurrection man was George Crofts (1872–1924). It took shape with an encounter that Currelly considered—along with his own meeting with Petrie—”one of the two most important things that have happened to me and [the] museum.”

George Crofts, not a resident of Toronto, but a great agent for change here, helped make the ROM a world-class repository of Chinese art and artifacts. Crofts was the black sheep of an Anglo-Irish ascendancy family from the Cork district, but he never returned to Ireland once he left. We know that by 1896 he had established himself and his trading operation in Tientsin (now Tianjin), a treaty port dominated by the commercial agencies of the Western powers who had divided up China’s economic life among them. The photos of Crofts’s operation display an impressive factory with a spacious courtyard in which stacks and stacks of hides could be sorted and sold. This story, like so many others in Canada, started off in the fur trade.
Crofts walked into Currelly’s life by a stroke of luck. It began with a postcard. During a visit to Britain on the eve of the Great War, Mrs. H.D. Warren had delighted Currelly by spontaneously purchasing a terracotta figure of a luohan, an image of a Chinese sage, on behalf of the ROM from the dealer S.M. Francks. Another patron, Sir Robert Mond had been financing an expert in colour photography. At Currelly’s suggestion, one of his photos became a promotional postcard, available at various Toronto souvenir outlets.

Crofts bought the postcard in the gift shop at the King Edward hotel on a 1916 visit to Toronto. Crofts knew lots about statues because he had reinvented himself as a dealer in antiquities, after a railway cutting had opened a raft of treasures near his factory. He had been one of a stream of middlemen, the next-to-last link in the chain that put the luohan in the hands of Warren, who then gave it to the ROM.

Crofts had the opportunity to drop in on Currelly on a trip to Toronto in 1918. The director was showing a visitor around the ROM, and failed at first to realize the importance of the itinerant who had dropped off his business card. Crofts had strolled in “to see what else we had in the museum.” Once Currelly deduced that commerce as well as connoisseurship powered Crofts’s interest in the art objects he sprang to the chase. He sought out Crofts at his hotel, where—in what would become Crofts’s standard way of doing business with the ROM—the dealer displayed photographs of various objects and quoted a price for them. The bargain rates he suggested flabbergasted the director. Crofts had a train for Montreal to catch in an hour. Currelly boarded the train as well, and the two men hit it off.

An incomplete listing of the ROM’s acquisitions from Crofts runs to 400 single-spaced, typewritten pages listing thousands of items. His stunning 20-page, leather-bound catalogue volumes—they generally run to roughly 20 colour-photographed objects per page—appeared before Currelly at frequent intervals. It was always understood that Crofts sold to ROM at a deep discount. He had an eye; not only are some of his acquisitions the pride of the ROM, but the University of Pennsylvania’s Chinese collection owes much to him as well. The citation for his honorary LL.D. in 1922 from the University of Toronto terms him “a recognised authority on both early and later works of art.” The ROM’s credit was always good at Crofts and Company in Tientsin. He remained thoroughly personal and enthusiastic when piquing Currelly’s interest: “[I have found for you] the most wonderful little horse in the world,” he wrote to Currelly on October 29, 1919. Even amid serious reverses in his day job of fur trading, Crofts sought to reassure the ROM, apologizing for his inability to extend his usual liberal credits.
He seems to have performed his miracles for the ROM both for the glory and out of regard for the art. The savvy trader in him had to have realized that this provincial museum aspiring to higher status furnished a very likely vehicle for his own aspirations; the tide floating the ROM could lift his boat too. Crofts granted the ROM favoured status in his trading network; the ROM in turn called the items that he sold them “The George Crofts Collection.”
“I can only look on this chance as an act of providence,” wrote Currelly years later.

An epitaph from the tomb of Sir Duo and Lady Zhao from the George Crofts Collection at the ROM. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

An epitaph from the tomb of Sir Duo and Lady Zhao from the George Crofts Collection at the ROM. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

But the randomness happens within a determined field. History had placed Walker, Currelly, and Crofts within an imperial system. Like the vast majority of middle-class Canadians of his era, Currelly saw himself among the “good Imperialists,” as he put it in a letter to Crofts. The three men and their joint enterprise functioned easily within that system; in that cohesion lay any imperial system’s strength. Croft’s East Asian material would spiral in synergy with the ROM: the objects that he came up with strengthened the ROM’s claim to superior status within Canada. And thus the objects themselves acquired a higher cultural value.

Walker’s financial writ and personal connections extended to London, where he was knighted. He could fund Currelly’s Egyptian purchases for the ROM through an account at his bank’s overseas branch in London. The Toronto elites who visited Currelly’s dig at Deir el-Bahri brought him the gift of patronage. That patronage swelled as a by-product of their tourism through the British protectorate of Egypt, a colonial dependency that had very little to say about the dispossession of its material heritage.

China, in the early years of the 20th century, was no less integrated than Toronto into this imperial system. Crofts traded in a “treaty port” where his business enterprises enjoyed imperial protection. As Crofts’ degree citation from the UofT explains, it was imperial commercial enterprise—the opening of a railway that had to cut through early tombs and thus opened up an array artifacts—that spread the world of Chinese art and archaeology before Crofts.

One of the lions near the former main entrance of the ROM. Photo by -Astin- in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

One of the lions near the former main entrance of the ROM. Photo by -Astin- in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

No single Crofts purchase is more eye-catching than the two temple dogs flanking the ROM’s former (soon-to-be-reinstated) entrance. Former ROM employee Jeannie Parker described how those 15-ton objects made their way from Beijing to Toronto. They started life in the garden of a local grandee. Then they were grabbed as loot by the Russians when the imperial powers smashed the Boxer Rebellion. Then Crofts got hold of them when the Russian regime fell. At the same time, the old Chinese regime had fallen too. Now a system in flux threatened the enterprise of cultural looting, as Crofts warned Walker in a letter of October 17, 1922. Haste was necessary.

Crofts warned the French embassy (though not the Chinese government) that bumping his stone creatures over the streetcar tracks in front of the embassy in Beijing might create a nuisance.

The boundaries of empire, and the wealth and power generated within that imperial system, included Toronto. In this world order, people assumed that antiquities could be snatched from one place and deposited into another without provoking an uproar.
Currelly wanted his new museum to lie along a streetcar line. In fact, it also lay at the junction of another and wider set of forces humming their way through Toronto: a new commercial elite’s announcement of its arrival; culture as a mark of civic status; the presentation of art objects within settings imposing new—often arbitrary—meanings on them; the attempt to fix the past into a discernible pattern through the acquisition and arrangement of cultural objects; the tensions between public accountability and private endowment. All the questions that come into play whenever any museum issue hits the headlines now happened here back then, and it’s all because of the institution built by Walker, Currelly, and Crofts.


Material from: Charles T. Currelly, I Brought the Ages Home (1956, 2008); Charles T. Currelly papers, ROM Library; Nathanael Burwash correspondence, “Egyptian Exploration 1902—1909,” Victoria University Archives, University of Toronto; Eileen Diana Mak, “Patterns of Change, Sources of Influence,” PhD dissertation, UBC 1996; George Crofts papers: Far Eastern library, ROM Correspondence: Registration department, ROM; Jeannie Parker, “In Search of the Su Wang Fu,” Rotunda Summer 1992.


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