New permanent gallery of Canada’s decorative and pictorial history opens October 6, 2007

Toronto - The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is proud to further the story of Canada’s cultural history by unveiling its new permanent gallery showcasing the country’s rich decorative and pictorial arts. The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada opens to the public on Saturday, October 6, 2007 as part of the ROM’s Fall 2007 A Season of Canada.

The spacious, light-filled Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada reshapes the way Canada is presented at the ROM, showcasing the country’s best collection of early Canadiana in a thematic fashion. The Gallery’s loft-like, open design allows visitors to move freely around the 882 square-metre (9,500 square-foot) space according to their personal interests. Symbols, emblems and images of Canada, and what they suggest about changing ideas of Canadian “identities”, play a key role in this vibrant new permanent gallery.

"The Royal Ontario Museum completes its Canadian Suite of galleries on the main floor with the opening of the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada,” says the ROM’s Director and CEO William Thorsell. “With this beautifully restored space in the Weston Family Wing, the Museum continues the story of early Canada, its people, the artistic quality of its decorative and pictorial arts, and is finally able to display the ROM’s growing contemporary collection.”

The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada is the latest new gallery to open in the ROM’s historic Queen’s Park building as part of Renaissance ROM, the Museum’s expansion and restoration project. Located on the main floor of the 1933 Weston Family Wing, to the south of the beautifully restored Rotunda, this Gallery forms a complement to the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples, in the Hilary and Galen Weston Wing opposite, which opened in December 2005. This also completes the re-installation of the ROM’s two most prominent collections, those from Canada and East Asia, on the renovated main floor.

The majority of exhibits cover the period from the early years of European settlement to the beginnings of the modern industrial era, and reflect mainly Canada’s French and British cultural heritage, with broad representation prior to 1850. While the focus is on Canada’s colonial past, modern Canadian furniture and decorative arts are displayed for the first time, reflecting a new direction in building the Museum’s collections. The approximately 560 artifacts on display are organized into exhibits that reflect the strengths of the ROM’s holdings to help better understand the past. The exhibits focus on landscapes, portraits, genre and marine paintings, and the different decorative arts: furniture, silver, ceramics and glass. They disclose select aspects of early Canadian social, economic, political, ethnic, religious, and even personal history.

The ROM’s Canadian collection is richest in the historical decorative and pictorial arts, and also includes historical artifacts, church sculpture and modern design, among others. Furniture from New France and Lower Canada (Quebec), and Upper Canada (Ontario), inspired by the styles of France and England, along with a thematically diverse collection of pictorial arts, form the most significant body of artifacts in the ROM’s collection of early Canadiana. The ROM’s decorative arts collection help to understand how Canadians lived and where they came from, the evolving nature of Canadian identity and Canadian-ness, and the on-going contributions of successive generations of immigrants.

"The ROM’s early Canadian decorative arts are a treasure unequaled anywhere both in their breadth and quality,” says Ross Fox, Associate Curator, Early Canadian Decorative Arts, Department of World Cultures. “The gallery presentation reflects this richness in a rethought approach where artifacts serve as narrow windows into a past which survives only in fragments. The goal is to encourage visitors to envision aspects of the past for themselves, albeit with the assistance of label text, without depending solely on the reconstructions of a curator and an artificial story line.”

Arlene Gehmacher, Curator of Canadian Paintings, Prints & Drawings, Department of World Cultures continues: “The paintings in the Canadian collection, now beautifully restored, have usually been appreciated for their documentary aspects as well as their narrative content and as a way to illustrate the history of Canada. While the paintings can continue to function in the same way, their new organization and presentation allows them to be appreciated on their own, as works communicating ideas of Canadian society, history or identity (national, regional, personal) within their own category.”

At the entrance to the gallery, visitors are greeted by a 19th century oak, mahogany, and maple wooden Wine Cellaret, a storage chest and cooler for wine, with carved beaver and maple leaf motifs -- two iconic symbols of Canada and its historic fur trade industry rooted in both tradition and cliché. Contemporary Canadian artist Jin-Me Yoon’s thought-provoking Souvenirs of Self, a large chromogenic print on Plexiglas, commands visitors’ attention inside the Gallery’s main entrance; beyond that, the famous historical painting The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West (1776 with studio assistants; retouched in 1806) draws visitors into the main display room. Other highlights include silver by Laurent Amiot of Quebec City, furniture by famed cabinetmaker Thomas Nisbet of Saint John, New Brunswick (the largest collection outside of New Brunswick), glass from the John and Mary Yaremko Collection of Canadian Pressed and Cut Glass, imported and domestic ceramics from the 19th century, and the finest early Montreal English-style furniture anywhere.

Upon entering the Gallery, visitors will be drawn to the freestanding diagonal wall extending down the centre of the exhibition space. Featuring landscapes on one side, and portraits on the other, visitors are encouraged to reflect on the significance of both land and individuals in shaping their understanding of Canadian identity and history. Oil on canvas works such as Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron’s landscape Table Rock, Niagara, circa 1850, Dr. Oronhyatekha by Frank M. Pebbles (American, 1839 – 1928) and George Townshend, the 4th Viscount and 1st Marquess Townshed attributed to Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755 – 1828) highlight these themes. Marine paintings, ship portraits, genre scenes, and commercial illustrations are located elsewhere throughout the gallery.

Reflecting Canadian life during the 18th and 19th centuries are numerous views of Canada from land and sea. Scenes of social life and portraits, says Gehmacher, “are more than a physical likeness of a sitter. Comportment, attire, setting, and attributes can indicate an individual’s profession, social status, or personal accomplishments at a given moment in time.”

The display of many familiar ROM artifacts has been revitalized in a more direct and contemporary presentation. An example is the revamped, deconstructed installation of the popular Bélanger Room from Quebec with its exceptional early wood panelling, from about 1820. Its new openness permits better appreciation by visitors. The Gallery labels and information panels reflect the most up-to-date research and are a reference resource in themselves. A unique approach is found on some of the gallery labels, where in some cases three separate people comment on the relevance of a given artifact. For instance, Iroquois/Onondaga artist, curator, and cultural critic Jeff Thomas, political columnist Chantal Hébert, and ROM curator, Arlene Gehmacher all comment on the iconic painting The Death of General Wolfe.

Nestled within the Gallery of Canada, the 69 square-metre (750 square-foot) Wilson Canadian Heritage Room provides a dedicated space for changing exhibits of fragile and light-sensitive works. The inaugural exhibit is Six Elegant Views, a fascinating set of engraved scenes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence produced in London in 1760. Intended to underline Britain’s imperial power, they do so less through bald depictions of military events than through idealized landscape imagery.

At the south end of the new Gallery, the ROM’s growing collection of modern Canadian furniture and decorative arts is displayed for the first time, alongside a comfortable lounge. A featured piece is a stunning red sofa by Cairo-born, Canadian-raised contemporary designer Karim Rashid, acquired specifically for this exhibit. Also in this area is a display of commercial artwork by Rex Woods, one of Canada’s premier illustrators whose stylish work entered the homes of thousands of middle-class English-Canadians as magazine illustrations from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Throughout the gallery, visual and thematic cross-connections, some conspicuous, others nuanced, interweave the exhibits to produce a fresh and rich vision of Canadian culture past and present.

The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada is one of the feature components of the ROM’s Fall 2007 A Season of Canada. Celebrating the inaugural year of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the ROM presents Canada Collects: Treasures from Across the Nation, featuring approximately 70 vital objects from leading Canadian institutional and private collectors, on display in Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall on Level B2 from October 6, 2007 to January 6, 2008. Also opening is the thought-provoking exhibition Shapeshifters, Time Travellers and Storytellers, presented by BMO Financial Group, in the new Roloff Beny Gallery, featuring 25 new and exciting works from eight leading contemporary Aboriginal artists, on Level 4, October 6, 2007 to February 28, 2008.