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Ten years, one huge Crystal, zero regrets

William Thorsell photographed inside the ROM earlier this week.

Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

Consensus." "Functional." "Sensible." At times, William Thorsell practically spits these words out as though afraid they will leave a bad taste in his mouth.

Over the past decade, the now-departing director of the Royal Ontario Museum has steered the 96-year-old Toronto institution through a radical and sometimes controversial revamping on the strength of his charm and energy, but also his conviction that great things are by nature controversial, challenging, even disruptive.

Thorsell, 65, was once described by late Globe and Mail writer Val Ross as "in love with the shock of the new," a description he wears happily. His critics have said he took that passion too far in spawning the jagged, incongruous Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a glass-and-aluminum addition, unveiled in 2007 as part of a major revamping of Canada's largest museum, at the busy corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road.

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But Thorsell's tenure is perhaps also defined by an equal love of the oldest part of the ROM: its artifacts. He resisted taking on more glitzy exhibits that have made their way into some major world museums - stuff along the lines of the Guggenheim's 1998 Art of the Motorcycle show or the Brooklyn Museum's 2002 Star Wars exhibition. Instead, he insisted that the ROM's permanent collections, ranging from its ever-popular dinosaurs to its wide-ranging Chinese artifacts, remain its best assets.

When he was appointed in 2000, the Alberta native's appointment was hailed as both visionary and outside-the-box, coming as Thorsell did from a background in newspapers (he was editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail for a decade starting in 1989). In his own eyes, the museum had been "in retreat."

As he prepares to depart a decade later - his final day is Aug. 27 - he says he is comfortable with his legacy, and defiant in the face of insults hurled at his creation: Although it drew its share of laudatory reviews, the Crystal has also been derided as "like the after in the before-and-after pictures of a structural collapse," its cladding dismissed "rather like a tin can." The museum's own director of gallery development, Dan Rahimi, has said that architect Daniel Liebeskind "didn't design this building based on the collections."

To Thorsell, the $300-million renovation (if not the particular form it took) was all but inevitable. "It's just true. Something had to happen. I just happened to be here for a decade when something was going to happen," he says.

To some extent, Thorsell feels the Crystal's place in the ROM's recent remake has been overstated. He points out that only about $135-million went into building the museum's new addition, that most of 27 new galleries are in the original part of the building, and that the museum is still "80 per cent boxes."

But there's no doubt that the pugnacious grey angles jutting out over the bustling city sidewalk are the most public face of Thorsell's tenure - and he appears pleased about that. He decries Toronto's "very cautious" and "contextual" buildings as passé, and goes as far as calling for 10 more Crystal-like "intrusions" into the landscape, particularly on the waterfront. Thorsell, in fact, suggests that an absence of controversy over a ROM redesign "would have been a major sign of failure." Part of his impetus, he adds, was to "liberate the vaults," bringing artifacts stuck in back rooms into more inviting galleries.

He adds that "city building" was also a major factor in choosing Libeskind's design over proposals by the likes of Vancouver's Bing Thom and Turin's Andrea Bruno. "The idea that we could plant this provocation down … and say, 'This city's coming back, and we're going to come back with a real verve and a bit of risk, and we're not pulling a punch here,' that was a tremendous opportunity." (And, it's worth noting, Condé Nast Traveller magazine named the Crystal one of the "new seven wonders of the world.")

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Thorsell's vision made Liebeskind, who has notably commented that "neutrality is not a value," his ideal partner, and the architect's fantastical design was gradually dragged into reality - sometimes kicking and screaming. There were very public hiccups and budget overruns during the Crystal's construction, seen as major setbacks at the time: concerns over whether the structure's many angles could cause dangerous buildups of ice and snow; difficulties in getting the elaborate steel structure to support its own weight; and the decision to drastically change the Crystal's cladding, replacing swaths of glass with anodized aluminum.

Thorsell now plays down these "puzzles" as part of the fun of the creative process, pointing out that the ROM raised enough money to cover them. And, he insists, public opinion is tilting in the Crystal's favour, although he says he would "always argue for" the renovation, no matter how many stood against it. Such conviction, he adds, takes the sting out of all the criticism. He grins wickedly when remembering the abuse he has taken: "I've stood on the street across there having my coffee, looking at the building, and people have yelled terrible things at me walking by - mostly people in sensible shoes walking really fast, you know."

The hard numbers seem to back up Thorsell's confidence. The museum has drawn more than one million visitors in each of the last two years, up from about 650,000 before the rebuild. He also boosted attendance with major temporary exhibitions, such as last year's record-breaking Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World and 2004's Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum.

As well, he made important acquisitions, including the world's largest mass of rare meteorite and a six-metre-long ichthyosaur. True, the ROM is still well short of the 1.3-million to 1.6-million annual visitors Thorsell had predicted it would see, but he says that target remains realistic if flagging tourism numbers ever pick up.

What he doesn't want to see is intellectual compromise in the name of boosting attendance. When he arrived, Thorsell found the board had in mind "a much more populist approach" to programming, while "mine was a little bit more traditional." He has remarked that he was not running a "theme park," and stood firm against whispers that his museum is old-fashioned.

"The [Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York]are not empty, and they're not filled with Disneyland. They have lots of faith in their collections. So my view when I came here was that there is absolutely no reason for the ROM to show a lack of faith in its collections," he says.

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Still, he acknowledges that multimedia technologies have revolutionized gallery narratives and that the ROM must use them more as its focus moves from "hardware to software," building on additions such as the interactive Digital Gallery, stocked with video projectors and touch screens.Thorsell now feels it's "the perfect time" to leave, but is finding it harder than he expected. He has signed on for two terms as a distinguished senior fellow at the nearby Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, to "get my intellectual machine running up to that level again." And he won't rule out one day joining the Munk Centre full-time. His phone has been ringing for months about possible options, he says, but he intends to savour "the first time since grad school that I don't know what's next."

The museum's next steps are up to Thorsell's successor, Janet Carding, plucked from the Australian Museum in Sydney and arriving in September. The 45-year-old from England has left Torontonians waiting to see what she has in store, having put off interviews and played her cards close to her chest. Whatever she brings to the table, Thorsell hopes the ROM will continue to nurture one characteristic of his watch: a feeling of being ever in flux.

"I hope they don't feel that because it's been such a dynamic decade - for better or for worse - that it's time for consolidation. We're moving here," he says. "We're moving."

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Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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