ROM 100: Charles Currelly and the beginnings of the Museum's first century

Glen Ellis, head of the Royal Ontario Museum Press and executive editor of ROM magazine

Original (1914) ROM, view from northwest.

The Royal Ontario Museum was established on April 16, 1912, by the signing of the Royal Ontario Museum Act in the Ontario legislature and officially opened to the public on March 19, 1914. The first ROM director, Charles Currelly, through his intelligence, charm, powers of persuasion, and stamina, amassed content for the new Museum. The following excerpt from the foreword to the Royal Ontario Museum Press fine edition of Currelly’s memoirs, I Brought the Ages Home, describes that time:

Charles Currelly’s graduation photo, University of Toronto, 1896. Currelly’s memoirs, ROM Press edition.

Dr. Currelly’s course over the next years was remarkable, not only in terms of the wealth of artifacts and specimens he would acquire, but also his adventures—across oceans, deserts, and mountains, through villages and cities. His story is on an epic scale, replete with panoramic vistas and a cast of thousands. He encounters the superstitions and lore of local peoples—the terror of vampires, the dangers of sleeping near bewitched springs, even fear among villagers that he may be the prophesied enchanter. In his mingling he must accommodate local custom to accept with, if not delight, at least not with revulsion, the delicacy of a freshly plucked sheep’s eye rolled in fat. Sometimes he is simply bewildered. When he advises an American clergyman’s wife that her scarab is a forgery, she replies: “Oh, no. I bought it from my donkey boy, who said he stole it from your excavation, and he has such an honest face that I am sure he could not have been lying.” In his accounts of fieldwork, the past sometimes rushes into the present unexpectedly, even horrifically. In Egypt, a worker finds a mummified hand, which upon removal of the wraps reveals “seven gold and jeweled bracelets on the wrist, the earliest worked jewellery that has been found in Egypt. It was the hand of the Queen of Zer.” By contrast, Henhenet, a young wife of Mentuhotep II, is unveiled almost perfectly preserved.

It has been said that Currelly “got his hands in everything: construction of the buildings; designing showcases, galleries, and lighting; unpacking cases in the basement; ensuring the financial security of his staff; collecting and preserving treasures; begging for money; currying favour; courting benefactors; and uncovering forgeries.” Through it all, his respect for antiquities was reverential: “Seeing and touching these marvels of the past was so great that I had a feeling one ought to fast, or to make some peculiar preparation before handling such priceless objects.”

Dr. Currelly also understood the criticality of forests to the wellbeing of the planet. Literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, editor of Currelly’s memoirs, observed, in 1956, that the ROM director had the keenest interest in “the saving of threatened woodlots” and in “any measure that would help to make the trees grow again and the dried-up rivers run again.” Currelly truly lived the Museum’s ideals of understanding and respect for world cultures and the natural world.

GLEN ELLIS is head of the Royal Ontario Museum Press and executive editor of ROM magazine.

The ROM Press edition of I Brought the Ages Home is available at the ROM Museum Store, bookstores, libraries, and online.

Photos: ROM Archives. Excerpted text, Glen Ellis, foreword, I Brought the Ages Home, ROM Press edition.