Royal Ontario Museum shines light on new Crystal

The famously ambitious Royal Ontario Museum expansion that started out as a few scribbles on a napkin will open its doors to the public this weekend.

Public invited inside to explore the ROM's new addition

The famously ambitiousRoyal Ontario Museum expansion that started out as a few scribbles on a napkin will open its doors to the public this weekend.

The expansion project's lead donor and namesake, investment executive Michael Lee-Chin, admitted he was initially 'most reticient' about the design of the Crystal. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Members of the public will get their first chance to step inside the ROM's new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal on midnight Sunday. The bare interior of the controversial addition will be on view for 10 days.

Investment mogul Michael Lee-Chin, the lead donor of the $270-million ROM revamp, called the Daniel Libeskind-designed addition "a quantum leap from tradition and the past to the future."

"It's a building that is bold, certainly let's not tiptoe around [that]," the Jamaican-born CEO told reporters gathered for a media tour on Thursday, when hardhats, sawdust and scaffolding were still in abundance all around.

"I must say that initially, when I first saw the design, I was most reticent," admitted Lee-Chin, who donated $30 million to the Renaissance ROM project in 2003.

"As I became more comfortable with it, and having read more about Daniel, he gave me confidence … And today I feel like a father who has just had a child."

The sprawling five-floor addition, inspired by the museum's gem and mineral collection and jutting out over Toronto's Bloor Street, will add more than 56,000 square feet of new gallery space to the historic venue, which first opened in 1914.

Media tour the Institute for Contemporary Culture exhibition space on the fourth floor of the ROM's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The new building has made headlines both for its over-the-top crystalline design as well as for the complexity of actually executing Libeskind's vision in steel, glass, aluminum and concrete.

Touted as having no right angles, the addition indeed offers all sorts of off-kilternooks and crannies, sharp corners and veering planes, with windows slashed into the outer sides and roof.

The Crystal's new galleries will house a host of collections, including:

  • Contemporary exhibits.
  • Textiles and costumes.
  • Artifacts from South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas and Asia Pacific.
  • Dinosaur skeletons and mammal specimens.

Restaurant on top

A lounge-like restaurant dubbed Crystal Five sits atop the new addition, with its large windows looking south towards the CN Tower.

Located underground are both a family-friendly, market-style restaurant and an airy, 18,000-square-foot exhibition hall that will house travelling exhibitions, starting this weekend with a display of Japanese paintings from the 17th through 19th century entitled Drama and Desire.

The expansion sits slightly apart from the existing museum, with the heritage facility's brick walls peeking through voids and corners of the dramatic new Crystal.

"Yes, the building is ambitious — no doubt about it. But I think Toronto deserves nothing other than an ambitious building," the world-renowned Libeskind said on Thursday.

"I have a very close relationship with this building because Toronto is not an abstract location for me. I lived here on many occasions … My wife is a Torontonian."

Despite his Toronto connections, his design's radical departure from the original museum's traditional architecture has drawn both enthusiastic fans and harsh critics locally. However, museum director and CEO William Thorsell is taking all the varying opinions in stride.

'Real art always pushes the boundaries,' ROM director and CEO William Thorsell said in reference to architect Daniel Libeskind's controversial design of the Lee-Chin Crystal. ((Adrian Wyle/Canadian Press))

"Art is always disorienting when you first seenew things," said the former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief, who has helmed the museum since 2000.

"Real art always pushes the boundaries somewhere else. It often confuses or disorients people.

As the public gets a chance to explore the addition, however, Thorsell is anticipating that more people will come around to a design he bills as "expressionist art on the outside and minimalist on the inside."

"I think it's important to give the public an opportunity — once in the history of this building — to see it in its own curves, as the work of art that it is," he said.

"When people have a chance to come through and see the logic of the building in a sense, the nature of the building from the inside … and then they see how it relates to the street, really when they get up close to it, I think a lot of people will suddenly get it."

Gala dinner, party scheduled

A gala dinner and party in the new Crystal — attended by about 1,000 of the ROM's donors and supporters — will officially kick off the opening weekend festivities on Friday night.

On Saturday night, ROM officials will stage a free outdoor concert, hosted by actor Paul Gross and featuring appearances and performances by the likes of pop star Eva Avila, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, rapper K'naan, fiddler Natalie MacMaster, comedian Jean Paul and Canadian icons Gordon Pinsent, David Suzuki and Jann Arden.

After the concert, Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean will join Libeskind, Lee-Chin and Hilary Weston — Ontario's former lieutenant-governor and chair of the museum's renovation campaign — for the official dedication of the building and the doors will open for public tours beginning at midnight straight through until Sunday evening.

The Crystal will remain open until June 11, when the doors will again close so that museum officials can then begin installing artifacts into the new galleries.

The facility will reopen beginning this December with the dinosaur galleries, with additional sections in the Crystal scheduled to open every few months after that.