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A Deep Dive Into the Royal Ontario Museum Architecture

August 23, 2023 By CityPASS

Arriving outside the Royal Ontario Museum, more commonly called the ROM, you'll see an incredible sight: crystalline angles jutting up against the stately brick. The Royal Ontario Museum architecture shows the museum's evolution and how it morphs old into new, creating a unique design that says as much about its history as it does about society overall.

Indoors, the ROM's architectural wonders continue, with gallery halls and exhibits drawing the light or creating intimate, darker spaces. This harmony encapsulates a global-focused museum taking center stage in the 21st century.

The Historical Building's Origins and Evolution

In the early 1900s, influential Torontonians discussed bringing a museum to the city. Two archaeology and nature enthusiasts, Charles Trick Currelly and Sir Edmund Walker, joined forces to convince the Ontario Provincial Government and the University of Toronto to establish the Royal Ontario Museum.

Well-known architectural firm Darling and Pearson designed the ROM's original building, and construction began in 1912. The museum's doors opened to the public on March 19, 1914.

Constructed of buff-toned bricks and terracotta accents, this historic building showed the grandeur and stonework of its day. It faced the University of Toronto and its tree-lined Taddle Creek pathway, later the Philosopher's Walk.

Within 15 years, the ROM had become such a renowned destination that it outgrew its existing structure. A new addition opened in 1933, with a central walkway and east wing facing Queen's Park. Builders took care to maintain the aesthetic of the heritage building, using local stone materials carried in horse-drawn wagons.

From 1978 to 1980, a $55-million expansion introduced additional research and curatorial space, a library, and a six-floor terrace gallery overlooking Bloor Street West.

The Harmonious Integration of Traditional and Modern Design

As the 21st century dawned, a new vision for the ROM took shape. 2002 brought in Renaissance ROM. The goal was to integrate traditional and modern, bridging the gap and inspiring future visitors with an expansive collection of natural and cultural artifacts.

Renaissance ROM brought in $60 million from the federal and provincial governments and an astonishing $30 million from businessman Michael Lee-Chin, who wanted to show his gratitude and hope for the future. The stage was set for a never-before-seen type of design.

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal by Daniel Libeskind

Berlin-based architectural firm Studio Daniel Libeskind was tasked with bringing together the old and the new.

For architect Daniel Libeskind, inspiration came while attending a wedding. He drew his design on a napkin, using that sketch to construct a nearly identical real-life structure. As it took shape, the Daniel Libeskind Royal Ontario Museum addition became known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. It opened in 2007.

This impressive addition is 25 percent glass and 75 percent aluminum cladding, bolted into five prism structures. Co-existing with the original 1914 building and 1933 Queen's Park expansion, the ROM Crystal replaced the 1980 terraced galleries to bring in light and social conversation, creating a luminous beacon in the city.

The Welcome Project

The Libeskind Toronto ROM shows a bold vision, placing this museum firmly on the world stage. However, it lacked the melding of indoor and outdoor space.

With the Welcome Project, the architectural features extended beyond the walls. Hariri Pontarini Architects worked with the ROM Crystal's features to construct a terrace garden and public space with seasonal plants, outdoor seating, and harmonious designs. The Welcome Project also reopened the Queen's Park entrance, restored the attractive stonework, and created new visitor experiences.

Variety of Atriums and Exhibition Vitrines

The ROM began in the Romanesque and Neo-Gothic styles, with later expansions featuring Art Deco and Neo-Byzantine architectural elements. This melding of styles and the modern Lee-Chin Crystal led to the unique Royal Ontario Museum interior seen today.

The ROM's variety of atriums grew more diverse with each architectural expansion. From lofty arches and high ceilings to intricately designed domes and angular shapes, the atriums give you a different feeling depending on your location. These atriums also provide diverse views into galleries, helping you know what to expect from the journey ahead.

Exhibition vitrines, or museum display cases, are likewise varied. While the vitrines of the biodiversity collection invite hands-on exploration, those of the European collections make you pause, giving a snapshot into the luxurious and everyday lives of the past.

Astounding Gallery Spaces

Gallery spaces within the ROM highlight some of the world's largest collections. The museum combines permanent displays and rotating collections to bring a global view of cultural history. You'll find that each gallery space matches the collection, whether intimate and thoughtful or bright and inspirational.

The gallery soars high in the mineralogy collection, with a light-filled interior and rich backdrop highlighting the shimmer of precious gems. When you get to the dinosaurs collection, you walk into the newer addition, where walkway bridges, angled corners, and displays bring you to another time and place.

The Royal Ontario Museum's Diverse Structures

Across the entire ground level, you experience the diverse structures of Canada's largest museum. Enter from the Bloor Street entrance, and you'll walk into the new addition with a street-level retail shop. Ahead, you'll see how the central brickwork contrasts the white, modern walls of the Royal Ontario Museum architecture.

Enter from the Queen's Park entrance, and you'll walk through the Rotunda with its limestone columns, stained-glass windows, and intricate Byzantine-style ceiling. No matter where you explore indoors, old and new co-exist harmoniously.

What Should You Expect When Visiting the Largest Museum in Canada?

A visit to the Royal Ontario Museum brings the world to you. Plan to set aside an entire day to make the most of your time. Each gallery is larger than you think; you'll want enough time to enjoy everything.

Pro tip: grab a map. It's easy to become turned around as you pass through the galleries and different parts of the ROM, so a paper or digital map is your guide to smooth sailing.

To get to the ROM in Toronto, it's best to take public transportation because parking lots are often full.

Experience Toronto's Largest Collections and Impressive ROM Architecture

Get ready for an all-day adventure at Toronto's ROM. Did you know you can save up to off top attractions with Toronto CityPASS® tickets? At the ROM, you can explore incredible galleries, marvel at the architecture, and get your fill of international history and culture.

Lodging in Toronto

Need lodging for your trip to Toronto? Use this map to find the right lodging for you:

Header Image Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum

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