Royal Ontario Museum and Guggenheim Museum Essay

            Museums are stereotyped as dusty repositories and container vans of ancient documents and artifacts.  They hold the heritage and ancestral pieces which reveal the true identity of a country or even a particular place.  While the history of collecting is long and complicated, they are relatively a recent institution and yet they have already witnessed dramatic transformation (cited in Forster, et al., 1998, p 6).  Grand theatres came before these unprecedented establishments, which primarily showcased selected priceless works of art, while it was the railway transport system that followed them.  Later, museums became more flexible in accommodating collections of photography, cinema and video as well.

Evolution of Museums

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Several alterations to the traditional image portrayed by museums took place towards the latter part of its inception.  The introduction of the loan exhibition is a breakthrough, although not all museum administration immediately followed suit.  It provided additional knowledge in art by changing the public’s perception of it.  As proof to museums being heir to the theatrical buildings, the idea of food chains was adopted.  There was a time when Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was termed as McGuggenheim, suffering from the McDonald’s syndrome because of its origin as a “franchise” of the legendary New York Guggenheim Museum.  It is only one of a growing number of Guggenheim branches in a family of franchise museums that spreads from St. Petersburg to Berlin, Las Vegas to Venice, and soon to Rio de Janeiro (Guasch & Zulaika, 2005, p 57).  This strategy of linking museums across continents has been extremely successful such that pieces of art are not only displayed in their permanent home, but are rotated to be shown in different locations to different audiences.  This innovation was plagued by criticisms.  Of main concern are the dangers and risks of travelling works of art which were immediately presented with a solution in the forms of modern methods of conservation and shipment.  Since 1977, with the opening of Beaubourg Museum in Paris, museums have not only served as art exhibitions and presentations but they also became catalytic agents of urban transformation (Forster, et al, 1998, p 9).  With museums revolutionized, including the nature of its operations come the reinvention of the vessel that contains them – its architecture.

Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Frank Gehry, one of the most prestigious international architects is the author of Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain as commissioned by Tomas Krens, head of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  His other works include the Schnabel House in California, Winton Guest House in Minnesota, Millennium Park in Chicago, Experience Music Project in Seattle, Pavilion for the Performing Arts in Concord, Berlin’s museum (rehabilitation only) as well as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  Born in Toronto, Canada in 1929, Gehry, a deconstructivist architect got his earliest inspiration from his father who was fond of creating ordinary things out of the unusual materials, i.e. an American flag made of fruits and vegetables as well as a papier – mache horse that was light as a feather but strong enough to let it stand alone (Lazo, 2005, p13).  Gehry is noted for his employment of minimalistic sculpture and new construction materials and techniques in most of his works.

Guggenheim Museum, located close to two more similar institutions, the Fine Arts Museum and The Rekalde Exhibition Hall was the definite answer to an economic shutdown in Bilbao.  During the 1980’s, shipyards and steel plants closed because of arising competition from neighboring areas thus increasing unemployment rate.  To address these problems, the local government built everything, from the Zubizuri Bridge, railway station, shopping center to the Euskalduna Convention Center and Music Hall, in order to prove their city works and exists.  They even expanded the airport and port and developed the Abandoibarra riverfront.  But the ultimate trick was calling upon the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to host one of its franchise museums.  The agreement is that the host city pays the building costs and franchise operation while the artistic direction falls into the care of New York (Zulaika, 2003, p 90).  Zulaika (2003) also wrote that

In relation to the global galaxy of museums initiated by Krens, the usual deal was to take the original name and a license fee of $20 million (p 112).  Bilbao also had to pay for the name and expertise of the starters, and then vast amounts for construction, the purchase of new works of art, the arrangements of exhibits, and operating and insurance costs (p 113).

The Guggenheim effect as it was termed was responsible for reinstating the city’s reputation and announcing it to the world.

Located in a marginal site, between a river, a railway, a bridge and a new town, the museum is a head turner because of its swooping metal forms and reflective materials in a volumetric proportion and scale.  Undulating and zigzagging forms make up the exterior.  The structure is both a perfect match as well as a perfect stranger in its site.  The building, a rhythmic organization of concrete, steel, limestone, and titanium (considered a new building material at that time), was described by critics as overdone, overweight and out of context.  Gilbert-Rolfe & Gehry (2002) wrote:

The construction utilized a local type of stone from a small quarry in Granada and it featured a good job in animating volumes rather than emphasizing weightiness and thickness through the use of thin cladding, titanium, and light reflecting surfaces such as glass, which was made to project solidity rather than being the least dense of all the materials used because of its fragility (p 106).

The flowing yet complex interior spaces, primarily dominated by weightless screens and vaults, were designed not to accommodate permanent exhibits but provided the leeway for flexible and easy installations through expansive gallery spaces and stages.  The materials, specifically stone and glass connect the outside to the inside, including a natural element – the Nervion river.  The museum, which was conceptualized with the aid of CATIA (Computer-Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Program), a program initially designed for airplane fuselages, exudes movement and fluidity.  While inside the premises, whether in the elevator or in the car park, one can be disoriented because of the extreme use of movement through curved surfaces that are not in right angles, as there are minimal vertical ones employed mainly in doors and walls.  According to Kleiner and Mamiya (2008):

The building with its assymetrical and unbalanced forms, and the irregularity of the main masses – whose position change dramatically with every shift of a visitor’s position – suggests a collapsed or collapsing aggregate of units (p 1012).  Atop the building is a group of organic forms called metallic flower while in the center is an atrium, serving as the focal point of the three levels of galleries radiating from it.

According to Guasch & Zulaika (2005), Krens’ ambitions of a global museum for Guggenheim in Bilbao are summarized in the Guggenheim Consortium: All a museum needs are great collections, great architecture, a great special exhibition, a great second exhibition, two shopping opportunities, a high-tech interface via Internet, and economies of scale via a global network  (p 16).

Gehry’s work in Bilbao was showered with praise as well as criticisms.  Certain issues were raised and addressed during the symposium “Learning from the Guggenheim” held in April 2004 at Nevada Museum of Reno as attended by various experts on the field.  Several important persona namely Jon Azua, Javier, Viar, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, John Welchman and Beatriz Colomina, Serge Guilbaut, Ery Camara, Joseba Zulaika, etc. tackled issues from the museum’s civic catalyst function, effect on co-art institutions, sculptural architecture, international chain of museums, management of local politicians versus a central office in Manhattan and so much more.

The strategic linkage of international museums is advantageous in the form of easy solicitation of sponsorship from public and private sectors.  According to Guggenheim curator Dennison, this is the idea behind Krens’ success.  Corporations want to invest in a museum that has branched out worldwide so their markets too, will become worldwide.  The Provincial Council of Bizkaia and the Basque Autonomous Government are the institutional supporters of Guggenheim although it is generally autonomous in its financing and regulatory undertakings.  Guasch & Zulaika (2005) further stated that,

Since Guggenheim is already part of an existing chain of museums, with its general objectives, aims and collection as well as its strategic isolated location, the museum has been freed from any risk of interference with the contemporary section of the Fine Arts Museum (p 104).   Guggenheim museum has thirty-one sponsors and fourteen thousand of Friends of the Museum Service while clients range from Spanish and foreigner, constituting 90 percent of its visitors; the remaining 10 percent are members of the Basque Autonomous Community.  Close to 100, 000 people visit monthly, half of this comes from outside the Basque community (p 97).  Another issue is the collection of the museum, which was initially provided by the New York and Venice but lately the former has been amassing its own collection through funds and sponsors (p 108).

The Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, two of Gehry’s most admired works, have similarities.  Both were situated in areas that have become derelict urban zones, where there is much traffic and the abundance of trade centers (Forster, et al., 1998, p 9).   Just like the museum which brought back Bilbao’s reputation, the concert hall also aimed at revitalizing or even creating a new Los Angeles downtown area.  Movement typically describes Gehry’s works as well as context.  All his buildings fit perfectly into their individual site even in the craziest sense.  Forster (1998) described Gehry’s architecture as sculptural as seen from the architect’s bodily movements while moulding and conceptualizing them.

There is disorder, randomness and disequilibrium, three main characteristics of the deconstructivist architecture of Gehry, in the architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.  But somehow these have been interwoven gracefully and made to perfectly complement one another.  This definitely put Bilbao in the world’s center of attention.  Museum expansionism as a response to the “bigger picture” that is staged in them is also very evident.

Frank Darling and John Pearson’s Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum, more commonly tagged ROM, in Canada is one of the three major cultural institutions in Toronto, together with the Art Gallery of Ontario and Ontario College of Art and Design (Arthur&Otto, p xiii).   And just like its co-institution in Bilbao, it is an important aspect of urban development and pride.  Located at the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road, the museum is accessible to the public.  Designed and originally built in 1914 by Frank Darling and John Pearson through the enactment of the Royal Ontario Museum Act, it was inaugurated by HRH the Duke of Connaught, governor general of Canada.  The finances were split between the government and University of Toronto (Friedland, 2002, p. 247).  Presently, the building has been operating as an independent institution since 1968 when it was under the care of the school.  Close proximity to the school was the main consideration in choosing the museum’s site – an undeveloped area, far from the business centers.

The ROM, considered as North America’s fifth biggest museum is also an attention-stealer.  The relationship between history and tradition with technological advancement and innovation is very much evident in the contrasting architecture employed during different periods.  Architects Darling and Pearson chose the style that was popular in North America during its time – the Italianate Neo-Romanesque.  The building is characterized by heavy massing, surrounds and mouldings, decorative eave brackets and cornices, as well as arched windows.

The building has accommodated several extensions.  The first, by Chapman and Oxley, was the construction of a wing along Queen’s Park, exhibiting a Byzantine-inspired, glass mosaic ceiling rotunda and entrance.  It deviated from the Italianate style by utilizing less arches and more patterns.  Just like the economic shutdown experienced by Bilbao, a great depression also befell upon the museum’s hometown during this time, such that the construction created jobs for the unemployed.   Queen Elizabeth II Terrace Galleries is the next expansion.  Done by architect Kinoshita, the design is modern with the use of concrete, glass, pre-cast concrete, etc.  The most important extension is the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal by Daniel Libeskind, a deconstructivist architect also.  The primary materials were crystalline-form clad, glass, and aluminium.  The former, which opened in June 2007 is 100,000 sq.ft., offering half of this area to gallery space.  The etymology of the name is likewise taken from its five intersecting volumes, which are reminiscent of crystals (  To enable the guests and visitors to reflect about the exhibitions they have just experienced, the building offers a “Spirit House”.  The Stair of Wonders, purely intended for vertical circulation, describes the fourth crystal and offers additional exhibit spots in the landing.  Several features distinguish the new building namely a retail shop, three restaurants, one of which is situated in the fifth crystal as well as a spacious entrance lobby.  The building has atriums in all of its floors; of note is the Gloria Hyacinth Chen Court, which separates the new construction from the original heritage building.  This new extension boasts of stunning windows, constituting 20 percent of its facade, whose primary purpose is to link the interior, the Museum itself, with the people in its exterior.  With the addition of the Crystal, the museum is reintroduced to the public with new and world-class quality exhibitions and amenities.

            The latest extension is very much a Libeskind mark, as observed in his other works namely the Jewish Museum in Berlin, London Metropolitan University Graduate Center, and Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum. Like most structures which are bound to either be appreciated graciously or mocked varyingly, the Crystal had its share of criticisms.  Architecture critics said the building was oppressive, hellish in nature; others criticized the idea of starchitecture (also associated with the Guggenheim museum), the use of architecture in attracting and generating tourism and economic benefits.

The success of the building of the Guggenheim museum and ROM proved the productive capacities that are now at our fingertips; creativity coupled with technology has far reaching effects.  It also sparked a new hope for cities or even countries in decline especially in looking for alternative solutions to address national problems, especially in terms of their economies.  Guggenheim Museum is a monument to the added role that museums now play today. Museums are not merely collections of art but rather avenues for economic and cultural transformation through tourism and urban renewal. Museums are also no longer just identified by their collections but also by the architecture and the city in which they lie.


Arthur, E.R. and S.A. Otto.  Toronto, No Mean City.

Forster, K.W., F.O. Gehry & R. Richter. (1998). Frank O. Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao Museao: Guggenheim Bilbao Museao. Edition Axel Menges.

Friedland, M.L. (2002).  The University of Toronto.  Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.

Gilbert-Rolfe, J & F. O. Gehry. (2002).  Frank Gehry: The City and Music. Routledge.

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