Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ROM Review - Part 1: The Nature of Diamonds

If you live in Toronto you know all about the ROM - the Royal Ontario Museum - that big 'ol building that looks more like the Fortress of Solitude than Toronto's most eminent museum. If you've ever been to the ROM, especially as a kid, you probably remember one thing: dinosaurs. What child hasn't stood awestruck at the feet of the Great Tyrannosaurus Rex, even if it's all a reconstruction made from casting? Maybe you remember the bat cave with its suspended, stuffed creatures, hung from the ceiling and posed mid-flight? Going back as a adult, it's actually not as cool as when you were a kid, but I digress...

The ROM has a couple of exhibits on now - "The Nature of Diamonds" and "Ancient Ukraine: Mysteries of the Trypillian Culture". I went with my lady-friend because, hey, what's more romantic than going to a museum on Valentine's Day. It turned out that we weren't the only ones who had a little bling in mind - it seemed like everyone decided that Valentine's Day - conveniently a Saturday this year - is a great time to check out the goods they can only afford to look at and dream of. Yes, everybody loves diamonds, but not everybody (well, at least the two of us) loved the exhibit.

"The Nature of Diamonds" stats off innocently enough, with some panels on what diamonds are, how they form, and how to find them. This would be all well and good if there wasn't a massive line up which snaked throughout the majority of the exhibit. Only later did I realize that people weren't actually taking the time to learn about Kimberlite, the Mir Pipe, or how microdiamonds can be created from meteor impacts, but rather that they were stuck in line - forced to pay attention to the underlying science, one might argue - as they stood in the slow-moving queue leading to an apparent "vault" contianing some of the flashiest bling you've ever set eyes on, including the massive Incomparable Diamond, a whopping 4o7 carats (890 pre-cut) - that's pretty chunky, about a thounsand times the size of your average diamond ring diamond.

The Incomparable was flanked with some other high-class bling from some of the finest jewelers, but all these were exhibited inside a tiny vault-like area, which made seeing them sort of annoying. The whole exhibit seemed to funnel people into this little polygon in the middle of the room whose faux security was clearly for show - the walls of the "vault" didn't even go to the ceiling!

Anyway, the rest of the exhibit focused on the history of diamonds, essentially a survey of their historical cultural importance. Like most histories, this tended to be one of those Rome -> Islam/India -> The West narratives I'm getting immensely sick of. Western Europe apparently forgot about diamonds (for the most part) between the ancient world and early modern times, so it becomes necessary to discuss India (where there were tons of diamonds) for a bit. However, as soon The West rediscovers them, everyone else is ignored. This is pretty much the same narrative you frequently get for philosophy, medicine, and knowledge in general, and I'm sick to death of the Rest of the World being ignored or, at best, treated as a place holder for Western knowledge. Also, no mention of the cultural implications of diamonds in Africa, which I'm sure is fascinating in its own right.

Another big missing chunk of history was the economic and political role diamonds played (and still do). Diamonds help understand South African colonialism and the massive diamond industry there (big enough to result in the Big Hole at Kimberly, South Africa), for example, and their present currency for African conflicts (Blood Diamonds). Also, the history of De Beers and the modern diamond industry is fascinating, though I'm not sure De Beers, the company who holds (or at least used to - or so it claims) a worldwide monopoly on diamonds, would, as a sponsor of the show, be too keen on airing it's fair share of dirty laundry.

So much for museum layout and history. The exhibit seemed to finish off with a brief depiction of how diamonds are used in industry, which might have been the most interesting part of the exhibit (with the possible exception of the display on the supposed healing powers of diamonds). It seems that the ROM is getting a new gem hall, or something like that, and their gift shop, which conveniently stands between you and the stairway, seems to be peddling quartz crystals and amethysts in anticipation.

In general, the main problem with "The Nature of Diamonds" was the fact that the exhibit cast its net too wide. If you're going to talk about the physics of the things and their uses in industry, then do so. If you're going to talk about their history, than that's fine too (as long as you get it right, of course). If you want to talk about the history of the diamond industry, fashion, or of a specific diamond, then that's also OK, but it was too much, too disorganized, and too poorly laid out for me to appreciate.

Several hours and two sore feet later I felt a little let down. Is this what the ROM's come to? Are museums really this superficial? Am I being too demanding? Maybe I'm just too old for this kind of stuff, and most likely too overly educated - academia makes cynics of us all.

That's when I decided to visit the top floor (by way of stopping by the dinos and bat cave, of course), and saw an exhibit that changed my mind.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

  1. It was quite the letdown and I walked away not having learned anything other than the possibility of a young Indian girl slaving away in poverty despite discovering the Incomparable. It didn't seem like anyone else was disappointed with the exhibition but perhaps it's because they weren't vocal about it. It's such a shame that the exhibition didn't enlighten people to appreciate diamonds for their unique characteristics and the craftsmanship involved beyond their propensity to be "sparkly."