SONSI in the World Cultures Department @ the ROM

Photo © Steven Potter

Photo © Steven Potter

On a cold, grey Saturday earlier this month, a small group of SONSI members and their guests took part in a rare, behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Ontario Museum. Our Guide for the day was Associate Curator of New World Cultures, Justin Jennings. After checking in with Security and clipping on our ID tags, Justin led us up to his office on the 4th floor. The ROM was actually closed that day in preparation for their 100th Anniversary Dinner Party, but our group wasn’t going into the public part of the museum anyway.

Stop #1 on the tour was a meeting room where Justin gave us a brief overview of the ROM’s collection of artifacts, how and when they had been acquired and where they are stored. The fourth floor is home to some of the 200,000 artifacts from the western hemisphere; others are stored at remote sites. He also provided some perspective on the enormous challenges that he and his staff face in preserving these objects; e.g. the risks of damage due to infestations, humidity or exposure to bright lights, etc. Other challenges include the logistical, legal and cultural issues associated with moving these kinds of objects across international borders. I asked Justin, “How much of the ROM’s collection is actually on display?” His reply, “About 1%”.

Our second stop on the tour was a very large room that served as storage facility and work area. One of Justin’s staff had prepared a table full of artifacts for us, some dating back to 500BC. These items became the focus of a lively discussion, including such topics as: the costs and benefits of using scientific illustrators on archeological digs, the technical advantages of hand made illustration over photography (and vice versa) and various scientific methods for determining the age of these artifacts. If we had been given a quiz at the end of the tour it certainly would have included our new word of the day: thermoluminescence – “the determination, by means of measuring the accumulated radiation dose, of the time elapsed since material containing crystalline minerals was either heated or exposed to sunlight” (six syllables you might be able to use at your next dinner party). This technique has enabled ROM Staff to determine that some items in the collection were actually recent fabrications. One of the younger guests asked Justin, “So how many of your pieces are fake?” (The full reply is too long for this article; safe to say, more than a few.) Other marvels on display in front of us were hand carved “birdstones”. The ROM has the largest known collection of these amazing pieces. Justin explained how they may have been attached to atlatls as counterweights to improve the speed and range of the throw.

One of the most interesting items on display was a published record of a dig, circa 1964-70, with amazingly detailed drawings (pen & ink) of the very same artifacts that were on the table in front of us. We moved throughout the room with Justin opening selected drawers and cupboards to give us a peek at the ROM’s huge abundance of artifacts; all carefully numbered and cataloged; some wrapped in acid-free cotton or clear plastic protectors. One of these massive cabinets was built on site by the ROMs Carpenter and made of solid Walnut. Most of the newer storage cabinets were heavy gauge steel and every door was sealed with a rubber gasket to keep out humidity, bugs, etc. We moved on to several other rooms where artifacts are stored, repaired, photographed and prepared for exhibit. The sheer number of artifacts was absolutely mind-boggling. Rows and rows of shelves, cabinets, and drawers with bows, arrows, headdresses, baskets, full size canoes and countless pieces of pottery in various stages of re-assembly.

Everyone enjoyed the tour and we thanked Justin for being so generous with his time and sharing his understanding of the ROM’s collection with us. More info on Justin, his publications and other work at the ROM is available here.

– Steven Potter

See more photos of this event.

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