The Royal Ontario Museum didn’t know what to expect when it began organizing its new exhibit, Canada Collects: Treasures from Across the Nation (October 6–January 6). Where usually a curator arranges carefully selected artifacts into an intellectual framework that brings out their larger meaning, for this exhibit, the ROM invited institutions and private collectors from across the country to contribute an object of their own choosing. With over 70 items from 50 contributing institutions and collectors, it is the most complicated exhibit the ROM has undertaken, and the only time these items will be displayed together.
The result is an eclectic mix of objects and artifacts that present Canadian culture and history in a refreshingly original way. At first glance, a giant, 445-million-year-old trilobite fossil; a nineteenth-century Cree wedding dress collected by Paul Kane; and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s original, hand-scribbled manuscript of Anne of Green Gables assembled in the same exhibition may not seem to make a lot of sense. As lead curator Ken Lister points out, “These juxtapositions form one of the compelling features of this exhibition, where objects chosen by individual collectors blend together in a composition that maps Canadian passions.”
Arranged in roughly chronological order, the exhibition presents pinpoints of Canadian history, rather than an exhaustive exploration of our past. This lets each visitor to be guided by their own tastes in order to come away with a completely different experience. If Lawren Harris’s Mt. Lefroy painting or Trudeau’s birchbark canoe don’t grab your imagination, there’s also the original 1709 Hudson’s Bay Company map; heart-wrenching Chinese poetry written onto fragments of walls in a West Coast immigration centre; and plenty more to let you envision your own version of Canada. Canada Collects is only one part of the broader A Season Of Canada program happening at the ROM.
The Shapeshifters, Time Travellers and Storytellers exhibit (October 6–February 28) uses the expansive peaked ceiling of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal to showcase Brian Jungen’s Cetology (2002), an enormous bow whale skeleton crafted out of plastic patio chairs. This exhibit links the contemporary with the historical by incorporating evocative objects from the Museum’s Aboriginal collections with multi-disciplinary works by eight leading contemporary Aboriginal artists.
Also recently unveiled is a new permanent gallery, the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada, featuring 560 pieces arranged thematically to explore Canadian history through its decorative and pictorial arts. Furniture on display ranges from Thomas Nisbet’s colonial works, to Karim Rashid’s contemporary sofa. Paintings include works by Cornelius Krieghoff, Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, and—the highlight—Rex Woods’s commercial graphic and cover art for the Canadian Home Journal in the 1930s and 1940s.
Finally, Charles Pachter’s ironic re-imaginings of Canadian icons—in this city, the best known is on the walls of College Station—are being digitally projected in the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court (October 6–February 28).
The diverse range of Canadian artifacts and icons on show during A Season of Canada raise some questions about how we choose to represent Canada. How are national icons established and how do they evolve over time? Are they necessary? What function do they serve? On November 28, Canadian Icons, one of a range of Canadian-themed evening lectures, will feature a panel discussion investigating these very questions.
For full details see the ROM’s website.
All images courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.