Friday, May 30, 2008

Renaissance ROM a Cautionary Tale

I used to love the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) until their make-over project began. Called “Renaissance ROM”, the rebirth is like how ghastly corpses in horror movies jerk up for one last gasp before actually keeling over. As the project has pretty much wound-up now, any hope that the ROM could ultimately redeem themselves have been dashed.

So I have been seething in my dislike, not for the new architecture, whether the rather-ugly exterior and the wasted, sterile interior spaces with uninspiring, throwback to the 19th-century new exhibit presentations, but mostly for the general disrespect for museum visitors that the management of the ROM clearly has.

TVO’s Agenda recently aired a special on Toronto’s 2007 architecture (you can watch it via podcast or read the blog on their Episode page). They were inspired by this year’s Pug Awards, the awards for Toronto’s ugliest new architecture (which you can vote for online – their website is cool and effective, unlike most of the nominated buildings).

The dislike of most of the TVO panelists for the ROM inspired me to do this blog. There was one panelist who liked the ROM but even then he admitted that defending it was like “defending a child molester”.

I was thinking about what went so horribly wrong and realized that the ROM’s project problems are ones I see with website launches/relaunchs. So here are some cautionary tales for us all:

1) Don’t let the designers talk you into something too flashy
Projects of this nature do need to be visually-pleasing and grab attention, but architecture (or homepages) should fulfill its functions. A main goal of this project was to increase exhibit space, yet this project added only a small amount as the pyramids have lots of wasted space - are all sizzle and no meat. So it is design for design’s sake, but yet glass pyramids are so overdone for the past 20 years, it’s not even good design, it’s clichĂ© and boring. I’ve seen plenty of examples of good design that serves function, but sometimes designers need to be reigned in a little (even if they are “stars”). Or if you’re going for style only, make sure it’s damn good.

2) Have adequate plans.
Libeskind submitted his plans for the building on hastily-drawn napkins – and it seems planning did not progress far from that. The Crystal is not very crystalline as Canada’s climate was not considered and the all-glass crystals were soon changed to partial glass. It’s important to do some research and really know what you’re getting into before proposing a project, let alone giving it the green-light.

3) Not thinking of your visitors first
The ROM seems to me to be too inwardly-focused, to the point that the project seems all about pleasing themselves and their peers rather than their visitors. Clearly, they decided to go with Libeskind with his cocktail napkins because of his stature (no doubt receiving external pressure to pick a star) and once this route was chosen, any desire to put users first seemed to go out the partially-glass window. The role of users seems barely considered and the design hasn’t impressed anyone I know either. The internal spaces are sterile and the pathways lack drama. Yet, it’s not just in the architecture that the ROM has forgotten its visitors, as they have turned their back on one of the major client groups, families. Families represent a significant portion of ROM’s visitors, yet they built only one family bathroom and they took away the nursing area. The kids’ area is small and dull. The dinosaur gallery is now just a “collection of bones” as one TVO panelist indicated, with the jagged, small spaces crammed with bones piled on top of each other. In all galleries, the things kids and adults enjoy (and that inspire learning) such as recreations, multimedia and interactive exhibits are almost completely gone. Signage has been kept to a minimum (because there’s no space in the crystals to hang them, I presume) and the few remaining signs are only for those with an applicable degree. I’m sure the curators enjoy this presentation - the visitors don’t. Organizations often make websites reflecting the company’s intentions and structure, but I believe a lot of this is done due to not knowing better. The ROM used to know how to be user-centric, but now instead they have disdainfully decided to create a museum for themselves and their ilk.

4) Making tasks hard to do
Here’s when you know there’s a problem – they made finding the gift store difficult. You can walk by it and not notice it at all. It’s almost impossible to find the cafĂ© (not that many would want to – it’s all brie and arugula, now). So when even making-money isn’t a primary goal of the ROM, you know there’s a problem. Navigating around the museum is problematic. This could be aided by decent signage, but there’s no pathways built in to either aid finding your way or to create a sense of exploration. Building task-oriented structures, whether buildings or websites, isn’t glamorous – but when visitors can’t do what they need to, they get frustrated and the company misses opportunity to make money.

5) Not fulfilling the ultimate goal
The overarching goal for this was to make the museum a destination and thus attract more people. Instead they get mediocre architecture that isn’t awesome or unique enough to draw people (Why didn’t they talk to OCAD – now that building has drawing power) and once inside, the lack of drama or whimsy will make the building instantly forgettable. The row upon row of glass-boxes in the galleries and their family-hostile attitude will not inspire locals.

Good projects go bad for many reasons; this project is just so spectacularly bad, it’s hard to comprehend. With its huge cost and years of effort, there’s no excuse for fouling up so badly. So there’s comfort in knowing that even if you are part of a dubious project, it definitely could be worse. My ROM membership expires in two days; I won’t be renewing or likely returning.

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