- 2010 - now
Until my daughter, Nicola Woods, began to work at the Royal Ontario Museum as the Rights and Reproductions Coordinator, I had given little thought to what went on behind the scenes to sustain the Museum’s public exhibitions and events. And, despite knowing that museums, in general, are repositories of artefacts, I also had little idea of the extent or the nature of the ROM’s collections. That all changed, however, after I was first escorted as a privileged Visitor, by Nicola, into the working area of the Museum and, in particular, into the studio of Brian Boyle, the ROM’s photographer. That day, Brian unlocked the safe to reveal what I considered to be the most amazing artefact I had ever seen and, moreover, it was free from the customary barrier of museum protective glass. Obviously, touching was out of the question, and Brian put on the white gloves to retrieve a necklace fashioned from 162 diamonds remarkable for their colour, clarity and cut, set in platinum. And there I was, closer to an invaluable piece of jewellery than I had ever been before or was unlikely ever to be again.
Since that first memorable occasion I have had the good fortune to visit Brian’s studio from time to time. Invariably, I have arrived on a day when there were artefacts from the various departments awaiting photography. Although all of them have elicited curiosity and admiration on my part, and none has supplanted the supremacy of the diamond necklace, one other stands out in my memory. At first glance, no touching of course, it looked like a ladle with a long handle. But on closer scrutiny it turned out to be a human skull mounted upside down with a decorative bronze mount to attach the handle. The bronze rim was decorated with stones cut from turquoise and coral. Who had commanded such respect and authority in his or her lifetime to warrant both the preservation of the skull and its embellishment with precious stones? What was its function?
Many of the questions that arose in my mind over the provenance of both the skull and the necklace have since been answered. The necklace was designed and made by Harry Winston of New York and purchased in 1964 by Mrs Rose Torno, a well-known Toronto lawyer with a penchant for both diamonds and pearls. Along with her couture gowns she donated her necklace to the ROM in 1991. It is now on display in the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasure, Gems and Gold section. The Skull Cap Ladle is dated to the 18th-19th century AD and came from Tibet. It was used in esoteric, tantric Buddhist practice, and is now on display in the Sir Christopher Ondaatje South Asian Gallery.
Those visits to Brian’s studio, by giving me an acquaintance with a wide variety of ROM artefacts, have heightened my appreciation of the richness of the ROM’s holdings. One example of that wealth is the current exhibition, The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors where a small number of artefacts from the ROM’s extensive Far Eastern Collection are of sufficient calibre to be on display alongside treasures from Beijing. I also recognize that the museum’s ability to stage such displays depends on the largely hidden work of a dedicated, professional and experienced staff.
My hope is that the ROM continues to retain its reputation as a world-class organization for many years to come. For my part, since moving to Toronto last year, I have become a Member. Now, I have the benefit of visiting and revisiting displays that arouse my curiosity or admiration while making a very small contribution to the continuance of a very fine institution.
Many thanks to Brian Boyle, Deepali Dewan and Nicola Woods