12. Crystallizing the ROM Controversy





“The objects [in the ROM] return to the status of treasures displayed in order to satisfy our way of seeing; objects to be ranged over, not thoughtfully considered and deciphered."


The controversy surrounding the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal (henceforth the Crystal) at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has focused too closely on the building itself, its spaces and materials. I will argue that the Crystal represents a commitment to a global commercial culture, and I will consider how this commitment has affected the way objects are displayed in the ROM. Until now, the controversy surrounding the Crystal has been focused mostly on the design of the building, and the consequences of that design for the collections housed by the ROM. I will review these controversies and clarify their relevance to what I see to be the more pressing issue: that the Crystal evidences our government’s priorities regarding the strategies that it has taken toward promoting Canadian culture. These priorities are reflected in both the design of the Crystal and the artifacts that it contains, and represent the most controversial aspect of the Crystal. These priorities are the aggrandizement of Toronto’s retail culture and the redefinition of the ROM’s collections in accordance with an aesthetic suitable to consumer culture.

The Crystal is the centerpiece of a $256 million dollar renovation project, which included the refurbishing of most of the ROM’s existing galleries and the expansion of the ROM store and restaurants (Browne, 142, 143). The Crystal cost $135 million, and replaced the Terrace Galleries, which were built in 1982 (Browne, 143). After it was decided that the Crystal would replace the Terrace Galleries, the final plans for the new building made many think that the Crystal would not be as “crystal-like” as they had thought (Browne, 141). What many people had believed would be translucent building, clad in opaque or semi-translucent materials, was revealed to be covered mostly in anodized aluminum (Ibid.). After this change in plans, the media coverage surrounding the renovation focused mostly on design issues.

The two critics who have hitherto determined the agenda of issues surrounding the design of the Crystal are Lisa Rochon and Mark Kingwell. Lisa Rochon writes for the arts and entertainment section of the Globe and Mail, and published the first and most dramatic of many articles condemning the Crystal. Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, and has written and spoken about the Crystal in a variety of different forms and settings.(1)  Their focus has been on the decadence of the architectural style, and the poor quality of the interior design. Rochon mentions the three elements of the Crystal that have dominated the controversy surrounding the new building in her article “The Crystal Sheds no Light”: the change to the exterior cladding from some unspecified translucent material to anodized aluminum; the stark, impractical interior of the Crystal; and the arrogance of the design and its mastermind, Daniel Libeskind (R1). The first of these three issues (the change from glass to aluminum) does not go beyond a criticism of the Crystal’s design to consider the role of the crystal in defining Toronto’s cultural landscape. Rochon’s article is something of a straw man, but deserves to be recognized for a few reasons. 

Rochon turns the Crystal into a pseudo-event, making Torontonians believe that they are being made privy to the sly dealings of Libeskind’s design studio, which dupes its clients with flashy model diamonds only to build massive gray geodes in their place (R1). Criticizing Libeskind and the ROM’s staff for not understanding that a glass building would not work for protecting precious, light-sensitive artifacts from a Canadian winter is meant to make important decision-makers look thoughtless. Belittling important public figures with pithy remarks can be damaging to the public’s engagement with the institutions that define Toronto’s cultural landscape. Richard D. Anderson has argued that political participation is negatively affected by mudslinging (38), and it is plausible to assume that representing important cultural decision makers as flakey and irresponsible may have a similar effect on participation in Toronto’s main-stream institutionalized culture. 

The use of aluminum on the outside of the Crystal has persisted as a theme in criticism of the ROM, and has distracted from other issues. When media sources set the agenda of issues surrounding a topic in an irresponsible way, the public discourse around that topic suffers (Anderson, 36). Rochon’s criticism is an example of sensational journalism. Her work has contributed to an inappropriate agenda of issues surrounding the Crystal controversy, and to a demeaning misrepresentation of important cultural decision-makers.

The importance of having a star architect involved in the Crystal project is an issue much closer to the controversy that I wish to bring to the fore. Mark Kingwell summarizes this issue well, asking: “are the monumental conceptual works [like the Crystal] living up to the responsibility of public money and public attention, or are they large-scale con games feeding the self-indulgence of a new breed of installation artists, the architect as seer?” (43). Kingwell notes that Toronto is seeking to be noticed globally as a culturally significant city (57).  The audacity of buildings like the Crystal conveys the dynamism and energy that a lively city should possess. 

In contrast to the supposed link between Libeskind’s style and the cultural dynamism our city needs, Kingwell has pointed out several other consequences of the forces of innovation at work in the Crystal. Kingwell notes that the interior of the Crystal makes displaying objects difficult because all the walls in the Crystal are slanted (60). Rochon has also criticized the interior of the Crystal as being disorienting and bleak (R1). And this is not an unfounded criticism. I’ve found that the lack of right angles in the Crystal makes it hard to orient myself, and the combination of bright white walls and florescent lighting can easily give you a headache. The attention that the Crystal and Libeskind brought to Toronto was privileged over making a practical space that is pleasant to be in. 

The interior space of the Crystal is relevant to more than the artifacts and visitors who will inhabit it. The privilege given to the grandeur and profile of the Crystal and its maker over the functionality of the space is a sign of a broader shift in focus in Toronto’s cultural institutions. Barbra Jenkins explains that the Crystal is evidence of the municipal government’s effort to attract creative workers to Toronto (170). Creative workers being that group of well educated workers, so important for the production of intellectual property, who make up the core of any advanced commercial economy according to Richard Florida’s economic theories (4, 5). New, awe-inspiring architecture will raise the standard of living in Toronto by adding to its cultural life (Jenkins, 178). 

Rather than simply acting as a tourist attraction, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the ROM is designed to act as the centerpiece of a lively creative community; which will attract intelligent, well-educated workers looking for a city that can accommodate their interests. A high standard of living may help bring innovative people to Toronto, boosting the creative core of the city’s economy (Jenkins, 178). Jenkins expands on criticisms that only pay attention to the design of the Crystal. Jenkins takes into consideration the relation of the Crystal to economic policy and she explains how the Crystal may not help foster local music and other independent arts sectors; seeing as a new building will produce very few (if any) new jobs for cultural workers  (174, 176, 182). Jenkins has touched upon the fact that the Crystal is evidence that mainstream institutional culture has been privileged over kinds of culture that could also help Toronto develop as a creative city. I will consider further what kind of cultural scene is being created and promoted in Toronto.

By focusing on the building itself, critics have mostly ignored the significance of the strategies that the government has adopted in an effort to achieve a higher standard of living in Toronto. Those strategies are a commitment to building on a massive scale; both in terms of monies and the number of projects being undertaken. The significance of those strategies being that Toronto’s most valuable cultural institution has become a grandiose performance of power designed to pander to the desires of a monied elite. The Crystal is more a display of wealth that seeks to establish a relationship with a new global citizenship who move in a space occupied only by the rich, rather than a place focused on communicating with Canadians in a context that is designed to appreciate their unique perspectives.  The first aspect of this criticism must be understood in light of the Crystal’s place Toronto’s retail landscape. The second aspect of this criticism relies on an appreciation of how ROM CEO William Thorsell’s approach to appealing to a global culture-seeking community has compromised the museum’s ability to orient its exhibits with the aim of engaging with the unique cultural perspectives of Torontonians and other Canadians.

The Crystal coalesces two post-millennium architectural trends.  The first is that the new museums – like the Crystal addition and other museums designed by star architects – have come to define a space of aesthetic discourse that often seeks to defy the specificity of political or social places in favor of expressing commonalities that transcend political, maybe even temporal, specificity (Becker, 157). Carol Becker explains how the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain and international Biennales are often examples of how the space of Western aesthetic discourse can find its place in any country in the world (157). Becker is keen to note that the people who occupy these spaces are often wealthy Westerners who, having the luxury of following these transnational sites of contemplation form place to place, “take the best from each location and move on” (159).  

The second trend in post-modern architecture evidenced by the Crystal is the fluidity of the transition between urban context and the built space of a structure. Fredric Jameson outlines this phenomenon in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The elucidation that Jameson tries to convey is best understood as an opposition between modern building techniques and some characteristics of recent commercial structures. Where modern architects attempted to create buildings that existed beside and despite hectic urban spaces, the postmodern structure aims to join with and replicate the urban environment (Jameson, 81). Jameson makes his point with reference to malls, in particular the Eaton Center in Toronto, while specifically excluding buildings by Gehry, which are similar to the Crystal (80, 81). Jameson excludes buildings by Gehry in favor of buildings more closely linked to the new scale and pace of contemporary capitalism. However, the distinction between the Eaton Centre and the Crystal seems less drastic in light of a few similarities.

The narrative that the ROM has sought to impose on its visitors has shifted to the exterior rather than the interior. Instead of being focused exclusively on the gallery spaces, the ROM’s new addition has been spatially oriented in relation to Bloor Street to create a second narrative that exists beside and despite the galleries. The Crystal is what William Thorsell has devised to bridge “the moat on Bloor” (i.e. the old terrace galleries) (Browne, 138). To whom is Thorsell reaching out? The answer is: the ROM’s neighbors on Bloor, the retail giants. Kelvin Browne notes in his book Bold Visions that Thorsell had imagined the ROM to be “not exclusively about the housing of objects, or the educational use of them, but about creating an institution that people want to visit perhaps for no other reason than that it’s a pleasant spot to have lunch” (139). Browne’s assessment emphasizes Thorsell’s desire to blur the boundary between the commercial strip and the museum. Not only has Thorsell moved the front entrance of the ROM to Bloor street, but he has also included street level access to the ROM store and put the entrance to C5 (the ROM’s five–star restaurant) in the Crystal’s courtyard, before any of the gallery spaces. Libeskind even acknowledges a common attitude taken toward the museum space: to replicate in miniature all aspects of nature or culture (and in the case of the ROM, both) (Browne, 149). The ROM manages not to leave out any aspect of western culture, and, much like the Eaton Centre, recreates all aspects of the urban experience in miniature.                

It is clear that the ROM needs to make extra money because of cuts to its operating budget (Jenkins, 182). But because so much effort has been put into the façade of the Crystal and so much emphasis on the products that lie directly within its entrance, it becomes clear that the ROM has become a location designed for one–stop shoppers from around the world. By investing so much money in the Crystal and the other high–profile renovations in proximity to the ROM (The Gardener Museum, The Royal Conservatory of Music) the municipal government has added to a plan to revitalize Bloor Street that has been an ongoing project for years (Hume, A9). The commercial heart of Toronto, Yorkville and Bloor west of Yonge, has begun to spread into the museum. Monumental museum architecture of the twenty-first century has become a hallmark of commercial space in Toronto. The clothing brand and the museum brand have become spaces that reoccur from place to place throughout the world, and Toronto is no different.

With regards to the Crystal’s similarity to the transnational art scene as described by Becker, it is more informative to look at the affinity of Thorsell’s vision of the ROM’s curatorial mandate to the aesthetic ethos that seeks to defy cultural specificity in order to determine the extent to which the Crystal has aligned itself with both globalized commercial and aesthetic interests. Thorsell has decided that the ROM should be devoid of any narratives that “dumb down” the ROM’s collections, and instead to privilege the objects, letting each artifact speak for itself (Browne, 139). This vision has lead to the demolition of the award–winning Dynamic Earth Gallery, and resulted in fewer labels and more artifacts throughout the ROM’s galleries. Thorsell believes the ROM’s collection should be one that caters to an adult audience, and these changes reflect that belief (Browne, 139). 

Thorsell’s aversion to narrative seems shallow seeing as the ROM has exchanged the interior narrative of the traditional didactic museum space for the external narrative that functions in conversation with Bloor Street and a wider commercial community. The Louvre of nineteenth–century France opened its doors in a display of grandeur that situated Parisians in a narrative of cultural development, which also signaled a political development of a nation–wide democratic system (Duncan, 306, 307). The Crystal opens the walls of the ROM in a display of grandeur that situates Torontonians in a narrative of commercial development, which signals a political development in a global capitalist economic system. That political development is that the politics of culture have been brought to a new stage within this economic system. The Crystal is a political act through which Torontonians have consented to the centrality of consumerism in their new creative city. The exclusion of technologically savvy galleries as well as those focused on youth education suits this new consumer hot spot nicely. An internal narrative of cultural development is not needed for a museum whose façade acts as central point of a commercial arcade spanning three city blocks. The objects return to the status of treasures displayed in order to satisfy our way of seeing; objects to be ranged over, not penetrated and deciphered.

Arguably the most pressing controversy surrounding the Crystal is whether the Ontario government has taken the correct approach to achieving the vivacity of cultural life in Toronto that will to attract young and well educated workers to our city. Jenkins has been keen to observe this, and to the extent to which Kingwell and Rochon have noticed the emphasis on surface evident in the Crystal, they too have seen aspects of its place in a larger economic culture. Jenkins does shift away from a focus on the design of the ROM, but her mention of Toronto’s local music scene falls short of a more in depth consideration of the link between the Crystal and the profile and centrality of Toronto’s retail culture in the city’s larger cultural landscape (174, 176, 182).

To what extent does the Crystal represent a commitment to branding Toronto’s Bloor Street as the as the cultural center of Toronto for the sake of aggrandizing participation in a transnational retail culture? Are Torontonians content to gawk at the neutral gorgeousness of our mute treasure collection, which speaks in the language of surface and the desire for significant form, for the sake of satisfying William Thorsell’s desire for a more mature ROM? This controversy will determine how much more of this place, our city and the cultural institutions that define it, we are willing to sacrifice to the space of Western global commerce and transnational aesthetics. I believe that the ROM evidences the role our government believes culture should play in a political strategy to position Toronto and as globally significant economic center. Whether our representatives have chosen the correct role for culture (the role a massive work of art and a nice place to shop) in their attempt to make Toronto relevant to a global community of intelligent young workers is an important aspect of the crystal controversy. 


Works Cited

Anderson Jr., Richard D. “The Place of the Media in Popular Democracy.” Critical Review: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Politics and Society 12.4 (1998). 481–500. Print.

Becker, Carol. “The Romance of Nomadism: A Series of Reflections.” Art Journal 58.2 (Summer 1999): 22–29. Print.

Browne, Kelvin. Bold Visions. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2008. Print.

Duncan, Carol. “From Princely Gallery to the Public Art Museum: The Louvre Museum and the National Gallery, London.” In Representing the Nation: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1999. 304–331. Print.

Florida, Richard. “The Transformation of Everyday Life.” The Rise of The Creative Class. New York: Basic Book, 2003. 1–17. Print.

Hume, Christopher. “ROM Plaza will Bring Bloor St. New Life.” Toronto Star. 25 Aug. 2007. A9. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” In Postmodernism: A Reader. Ed. Thomas Docherty. New York: Columbia University Press: 1993. 62–92. Print.

Jenkins, Barbara. “Toronto’s Cultural Renaissance.” Canadian Journal of Communications 30.2 (2005). 169–186. Print.

Kingwell, Mark. “Monumental-Conceptual Architecture.” In Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2008. 41–61. Print.

Rochon, Lisa. “Crystal Scatters no Light.” The Globe and Mail. 2 June. 2007: R1. Print.



1. Kingwell’s chapter in Opening Gambits, entitled “Monumental-Conceptual Architecture” is reviewed above.  Kingwell provides the following supplementary publication information to this chapter of Opening Gambits.  His information evidences the presence of Kingwell’s thought in both academic discourse and popular publications.  “Monumental-Conceptual Architecture,” Harvard Design 19(Fall 2003/Winter2004).  A polemical version of the argument was published as “Redesigning Toronto: the $195-million scribble,” Toronto Life (June 2004), pp. 34-46.  Combined and abridged as a talk, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, University of Toronto, 2004.



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William Lockett is a fifth year student with a background in Comparative Literature and Culture and Philosophy.  His paper on the Royal Ontario Museum reflects his love of heritage, and his interest in Canada’s cultural industries.  William hopes to continue to explore an interdisciplinary approach to arts and visual culture in the future.