Tap into childhood wonder with this artist's guide to the ROM
You bet she raves about the bat cave
Let's go to the museum! Over the next few weeks, we'll be discovering Canada's favourite museums and public galleries and sharing little lifehacks for planning your trip right. What are the must-sees? The hidden gems? At every stop, a different artist will be your tour guide.
Visiting a museum can feel like a low-tech alternative to time travel, and that's especially true if you've been checking in on the same dead-eyed dioramas since preschool.
In Jennie Suddick's case, Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum was her all-time favourite field trip destination, and though the ROM's had an extreme makeover since the days of Game Boys and Go-Gurt, she keeps going back. Sometimes, it's for a dose of nostalgia as big as a T. Rex. But as an artist focused on installation work and miniatures — two things she first discovered at the ROM — the place has had a direct influence on what she does, sometimes more literally than you'd imagine. (This installation she made last year with Spark Box Studio? "It's essentially the [ROM's] bat cave," Suddick laughs.) And here are her tips for spending a day there.
Before you go anywhere...
Prep some snacks! Sure, there are places to grab food nearby, but be warned: the ROM is Mink Mile-adjacent, so your cheap-eats options are a basically a hot dog cart and a hot dog cart. "I would suggest packing a lunch," says Suddick — but while the area lacks affordable dining, it makes up for things with scenery. "If it's nice out, eat lunch in the Philosopher's Walk," she suggests. That University of Toronto park is a leafy urban oasis, and it's right next door. Head through the Alexandra Gates off Bloor Street, just west of the ROM's Michael Lee Chin Crystal entrance.
Be a 'grazer'
No, we're not still talking about food. "Grazing" is more of a mindset, and if you've been to the ROM before, Suddick's navigational approach might be especially fun. Here's what to do: once you're inside, just follow your senses, and when something catches your attention, take a minute to consider why you connected with it.
"Quite often, I won't even read the didactic panels. I just want to see all the stuff," she laughs — and in the context of a museum trip, Suddick's definition of "stuff" includes both artifacts and humans. "I'm generally a weird museum grazer where I just want to be in that space, around that energy of people in the museum," she explains. "I really love airports because it's so many people from different places, with different stories, having all these different experiences. In a way, bigger museums and bigger institutions are like that." And the ROM definitely fits the description: it's consistently one of the top 10 most-visited museums in North America.
For the best people-watching, Suddick hangs out in the Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery. It's the expansive lobby space that connects the main floor exhibits, and it's a natural first stop on any given trip. "There's a lot of good energy there, and then I like to wander off into the quieter areas that are really familiar and have that nostalgia value."
Time travel to the '80s...via Ancient Egypt
The ROM has the most extensive array of Egyptian artifacts in Canada, and you'll find roughly 2,000 antiquities (from their 25,000-piece collection) on the third floor. These are the attractions that Suddick always visits.
"I was always really into the Egyptian wing, and that area has NOT changed. It's a very traditional museum display — a very colonial history way of displaying objects — but whenever I go, I want to see that same mummy that's been sitting there since the '80s."
The Tomb of Kitines and the 1905 cast of the Punt Wall from the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut
"The things that have influenced me as an artist, those are the things that I paid attention to as a kid," she says, and these highlights from the Egyptian gallery are a couple of her favourite examples. Both exhibits are life-size re-creations of actual places from antiquity. (Plus, she says the audio feature in the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut is especially good. It provides a bit of the Punt Wall's story.)
"There's definitely nostalgia value there, but I'm really drawn to the ways that museums started to play around with bringing in immersive environments and mixed media to telling stories. There's even little miniature models. And for me, as someone who is a maker, I love going and looking at those models — like, 'How are those made?'"
Brave the bat cave
You'll find more of those old-school "immersive environments" in the Biodiversity area on the second floor, including an exhibit that's brought nightmares (and knowledge?) to generations.
"The bat cave must be mentioned. It's legendary!"
"I couldn't really tell you many facts about bats — even though I've been through the bat cave many, many times. Now, it's actually great. It has a narration that gives it context. But I remember when I was young, it was just a strobe light with bat shapes," she laughs.
"I remember seeing it on The Elephant Show. Like, Sharon Lois and Bram were trapped in the museum overnight and they were in the diorama, and I feel like I can't separate it from this weird Cancon moment."
For those of a different generation, here's what she's talking about:
Even so, it's the bat cave, not "Skinnamarink," that Suddick keeps referencing in her practice. She says it showed her how simple tricks of light can transport someone. An immersive environment can provoke provoke specific moods and feelings, while giving the viewer a unique perspective on the world. "[My] installation work is very much about creating something fantastical or something distant. [...] Something that lets people see something they normally wouldn't be able to," she says.
"I think it's so interesting to see how these big institutions illustrate these various experiences all in one space to people, whether it's the histories of various people and cultures and various lived experiences, or even something like where we wouldn't usually find ourselves, like in a cave, surrounded by bats."
Game-ify the European Galleries
Things like mummies and bat caves would capture any kid's imagination. A gallery packed with hermetically sealed living rooms? Not so much. But a childhood visit to the ROM's Samuel European Galleries taught Suddick a lesson that she keeps with her whenever she's in a museum.
"I have this really distinct memory of going for a scavenger hunt through the European gallery, and I think that brought it to life for me," she says. The game wasn't just about finding treasures hidden in the exhibits, she explains. Players also had to make up stories about every item on the list. "It let me take that next leap of imagining someone being in the space," she says, "and what excited me was trying to connect to histories that weren't my own."
If you need a little help playing make believe, there's a ROM scavenger hunt that's free to download from their website. It's for kids, and according to Suddick, that's perfect.
"Even if you're an adult, see what their [kids'] programming is," says Suddick. "They have all these handouts and takeaways for school groups. Make yourself go back into that frame of mind — of discovery."
Take photos of everything you love
If you like something, take it home with you (figuratively speaking). "I obsessively take pictures of everything, and I always go back and reference them in my work. Pictures of the objects, not the people!" she laughs.
"When you're in a museum, it can be super overwhelming and lots is happening, so if you can't spend time with things, spend time with them later."
Exit through the gift shop, but don't forget to browse
"I always like to take a souvenir from somewhere, so I have a really extensive souvenir collection of weird, kitschy Canadiana, but also from any museum I've travelled to in the world," says Suddick. And while an umbrella that doubles as a Samurai sword isn't everyone's jam, she stands by this tip.
By this point, you've hopefully made a few incredible discoveries inside the museum. Maybe you've even made a mental note to Google a few dozen things when you're home. But will you remember to do it? Don't let your curiosity disappear once you're out the door. "Grab a book in the shop," Suddick suggests. "If there's something you want to learn more about, take it home and explore it later on."
For more info on the ROM, including how to plan a visit, head to www.rom.on.ca.