Nothing to Look at: The ROM Shreyas and Mina Ajmera Gallery's Label Design
At the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) there is a gallery located on Level 3 within the ROM Crystal, designed by Daniel Libeskind. After its construction, Christopher Hume from the Toronto Star was one of the few critics who stood by the modern design stating in 2017 that it brings "not just the museum, not just the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road, but the whole city, into the 21st century without diminishing the past" (Azure Magazine, 2017). Unfortunately, this statement exemplifies the Shreya and Mina Gallery's outdated, colonialist, and inequitable display of their collection of Indigenous artifacts from all over the world.
Fig. 1. Map of the ROM showing the galleries in Level 3. Interestingly, the Egyptian and Nubian cultures are separated from the rest of the African cultures. Map Guide (English)(PDF). ROM website. Source.
On a tour held by MUSSA (Master of Museum Studies Association)in 2022, we saw the ROM's new exhibition by Ken Monkman, "Kent Monkman: Being Legendary". The exhibition was beautiful, reflective, heartbreaking, and empowering. Afterward, we decided to view the other galleries at the museum. Our last stop was the Africa, Americas, and Asia-Pacific space. According to the ROM's website, the Shreyas and Mina Ajmera Gallery, which opened on April 5, 2008, features more than 1,400 objects from Indigenous populations that are used to "reveal artistic and cultural traditions including aspects of spiritual and everyday life, clothing, commerce, sacred and secular ritual and art."
As I was leaving the ROM, my mind was occupied with bleak and desolate thoughts about what my future working in museum spaces will be like. The picture was not pretty and I felt very disillusioned about my future career. Inspired by "rogue curator" Armando Perla's speech that closed the 2023 iConference, this review is how I will start my GLAM career. This post will examine the gallery's text labels and diagrams using an accessibility lens. My goal is to demonstrate how utterly unacceptable the layouts are for modern museum standards.
Fig. 2. A picture taken by fashion blogger, Anita Clarke a few days after the Gallery opened. Not much has changed. Most frustratingly, it is still as badly lit as it was in 2008. Published April 14, 2008. Source.
Starting off, the gallery feels more like an attic than a museum. It seems that the curators' goal was to fit as many artifacts as possible. This curatorial style stems from a colonialist tradition that favoured ocular-centric collection practices, meant to showcase the magnitude of imperial power via the number of trophies collected from the "uncivilized" world. As stated on the ROM website, "the collections were gathered between the late 19th century to the present and represent some of the Museum’s founding collections." They apparently also incorporated 19th century museum practices as well. In the gallery, the artifacts are carelessly spread around the space loosely grouped together by a broad geographic region. Most of the collection is in storage, so why bother? My recommendation would be to accentuate a few artifacts and emphasize their importance to the culture. Less is more.
Fig. 3. One of the number-by-artifact labels. The artifact information on the sign is not worth the effort needed to learn about the artifact. Taken November 19, 2022. Courtesy of the author.
Reinforcing this imperialist tradition is the lack of didactic information applied in the texts. In a number of display cases, each artifact is designated a number which leads to a text panel that connects the number to a small description. The numbers game is boring, tedious, and difficult. My analysis of this design choice is that the curators wanted to overcompensate for the lack of quality with quantity. Since they know they do not have enough information about the artifacts' origin and culture to engage with their visitors, they instead filled the space with similarly under-researched artifacts. Emphasizing the cabinet of curiosities origins of museums in the 19th century. There is also a lack of acknowledgment of how the museum acquired the artifacts.
The dimmed, soft lighting made it difficult to read the gallery text. Figure 2 is a photo taken a few days after the Gallery opened to the public which demonstrates how dark the space is. On our tour, we noticed that as time went on, we stopped trying to read the labels. As a result, we and other visitors aimlessly straggled along the museum space, becoming passive onlookers rather than active learners. My recommendation is for the ROM to update the lighting system in the gallery to highlight the collection on display which will induce active learning.
Second, most of the important text labels are near the ground, almost at ankle height. Figure 3 is a photo of me crouching down to read the text. That was the minimum distance I needed to read the text, and I am five feet tall. Anyone above that would probably not bother reading the label, or have to make a great effort to do so. This is an accessibility issue that needs to be addressed as it excludes those who cannot crouch or bend at the waist to read the labels' small font. A recommendation to fix this is to redesign the labels to have larger text or raise the labels to a more appropriate height.
Fig. 4. A photo of me crouching down in order to read the label and maps. Taken by a fellow Museum Studies student on November 19, 2022.
Lastly, and most egregious, are the maps. There is not much to say since Figure 5 speaks for itself. Whoever made the decision to impose red text on a dark blue font was either badly misinformed, did not see the result, or had super eyesight. Those maps are not engaging and definitely not accessible for most of the population. Why not make all the text white? It would be far easier to read. My recommendation is for the ROM to incorporate a colour wheel into their toolkit for future designs.
Fig. 5. A map of Micronesia. The colours used for the text and background are atrocious. There is no contrast. The text disappears into the background. I asked people in my class to read this, and unsurprisingly, no one can read what the text says. Taken November 19, 2022.
As an emerging museum professional from the University of Toronto, I was shocked by the manner in which the museum organized and displayed the information pertaining to these cultures. My peers felt the same as they went around criticizing the gallery amongst themselves. The 15-year-old gallery is a time capsule that demonstrates how Indigenous cultures were carelessly organized, researched, designed, and displayed in Western cultural institutions. Much to my dismay, it seems not much has changed despite the multiple promises and various public relations campaigns highlighting the need for change.