If I had to pick one artifact to study (and it would be so very difficult to chose) I would focus on the architecture of the Royal Ontario Museum: the physical, constructed building itself that (I would argue) defines the public’s access to and interactions with the ROM’s collections.
Even a study of the exterior surface of the building (with its palpable tension between the old ROM building and the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal) presents a fascinating case of the shifting identity politics of a cultural institution over time. In fact, I’m sure that an analysis of the main entrance alone could be revealing, given that it has been relocated twice, with each new addition to the building.
But if resources were not an issue whatsoever, I would love to analyze the entire building, inside and out. The layout, and paths that visitors are encouraged to follow are extremely expressive; and the sharp contrast between the corridors in the early 20th century and the Libeskind wings – and how the proportions of these spaces relate to the human body– are ideological as well as material constructions. I suspect that even the acoustics can have a significant impact on the ways in which visitors relate to the materials on display. Much has already been said about the ideological implications of a museum exhibit’s arrangement, but I think it would also be rewarding to analyze the ways in which the internal architecture encourages or even demands certain exhibition formats or arrangements over others.
I expect that such a study could result in a detailed portrait of this cultural institution’s sense of identity and purpose, of the ways in which the ROM literally constructs its relationship with the public – and how these tacit ideologies compare to the official discourse, and how they’ve changed over the last 100 years.
The layered and grafted architecture of the ROM also constitutes an extension of the historiographical enterprise that is a museum. Reading the Johns article from this week* reminded me that the construction of history is an ongoing and often tacit process, and that what we say we are now always includes a (re)constructed narrative of what we used to be. When major cultural institutions embark on large architectural projects, they can reveal a kind of institutional autobiography, and the new building can be read as a statement on this museum’s narrative and evaluation of its own past.
And on that note, I’d like to end this with a deliciously unpackable statement from the Crystal’s architect:
“Why should one expect the new addition to the ROM to be ‘business as usual’? Architecture in our time is no longer an introvert’s business. On the contrary, the creation of communicative, stunning and unexpected architecture signals a bold re-awakening of the civic life of the museum and the city.”
– Daniel Libeskind
*Johns, A. (2012). Gutenberg and the Samurai: Or, the information revolution is history. Anthropological Quarterly, 85(3), 859-83.