We got a sneak peek at the Royal Ontario Museum’s treasure trove of undisplayed artefacts this week, ahead of a big reveal on a new TV show, Museum Secrets. If you think the exterior of the infamous Crystal is hard on the eyes, try looking past all the jagged edges to what’s inside the museum—deep inside the museum. It helps.
Toronto-based production company Kensington Communications set out to explore the back rooms of world famous museums—including the Louvre, the Cairo Museum, and the ROM—in their new series for History Televison. When the show’s executive producer, Robert Lang, and his team went searching through the inner workings of the museums, he knew exactly what he was looking for: undisplayed artefacts, unexplored theories, and unknown stories about famous museum pieces. And he found lots of them.
Behind the glass cases filled with glass-eyed critters at the ROM, there’s a network of hallways alive with stories and their tellers. The corridors of the private sections of the museum—the areas hidden behind doors that need a magnetic pass card, just like the ones used to access most offices—wind around behind the public galleries. This private part of the museum has the same look and feel as Robarts Library: plain grey cement walls and painted metal doors. (It even “smells like school,” remarked our photographer.) The museum is, after all, a centre for research and discovery, and not just a collection of displays for the public. In fact, the ROM was controlled by the University of Toronto from its inception in 1912 until 1968, when it became an independent institution.
In the museum’s back-room offices and labs lurk the enigmatic curators who know the collections and their stories best, and who tell them with such flair that the relics almost relive their past glories. Watching Corey Keeble, a curator specializing in arms and armour, show off a fifteenth-century crossbow, wrestling the bow out of its dust case like the sturdy weapon it is and not some fragile antique, gives us a new perspective on the ancient items.
The opportunity to touch artefacts as if they aren’t on the verge of crumbling also gives curators a new perspective. Archaeological scientist Rob Mason showed off some eight-centuries-old things in the museum’s collection, explaining that researchers had no idea what the hand-sized, highly-fired ceramic stoneware pieces were used for. There were over a dozen theories, from water pipe to sports equipment to hand grenade, but it wasn’t until replicas were made for the show that the curators looked at the pieces in a new way. Any imperative to coddle them was removed, and so researchers used a natural grip to hold them and found themselves “gripping the heavy thing like a cricket ball.” This discovery, based in human instinct and not in studied fact, led them away from the water-pipe theory—but not without a trip to Kensington Market’s Hot Box Cafe to test it out—and towards the more probable theory the things were weapons.
The adventure almost makes us wish the museum’s curators could take time from their research to wander the public gallery sharing their knowledge and infectious enthusiasm. But the research must go on, and luckily—so does the show.
The ROM episode of Museum Secrets airs on History Television on January 20 and includes the tale of two mummies, the question of bomb or bong, and how the ROM realized, after almost fifty years, that it owned the second most complete sauropod specimen in the world: ninety-foot-long Gordo.
Photos by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist