A sprint through Toronto’s museums

At my goodbye party at my former museum job, I was presented with two official gifts “to thank you for your years of service”:

1: A gorgeous artist-designed bag, which once I pulled out of layers of fluffy tissue paper, I was told I couldn’t actually keep, but I would receive later by mail (I have yet to receive this bag, which maybe is symbolic of my overall experience at that particular place of employment.)

2: A high-level membership to the museum, which I politely thanked them for, all while ungraciously thinking “Why do I want a membership to this place?”

My ungracious thoughts disappeared the next day, when I realized that membership came with reciprocal privileges, including free admission to Toronto’s top museums.

Thanks, in part, to my reciprocal membership, HOB and I tasted several of Toronto’s fine museums. Our trip was short and booked at the last minute, so we weren’t able to do things like visit during uncrowded hours or with a premeditated itinerary, but we certainly enjoyed them. Here’s where we went, saving my favorite for last:

Royal Ontario Museum

The ROM is one of those high-probability-of-exhaustion encyclopedic museums. We needed a plan here and didn’t have one—just stumbled in off the street as much to get out of the sun as to see the exhibits. It is truly full of treasures, and we managed to see a few (along with a bajillion other tourists, most of whom were not wearing masks.)

ROM’s new wing, circa 2007, was designed by Studio Libeskind. It was a neat design, though I occasionally tire museum spectacle architecture.

Inside is an artifact-themed mosaic ceiling, constructed of Venetian glass in the 1930’s.

I have a soft spot for Etruscan art, and we saw some fine examples here, including these funerary vase attachments from 600 BC.

And on to Greece, for this comic actor from 5th century BC, bringing in the pizza to an Attic-style comedy.

The Scarborough Museum is one of those re-created villages that try to bring to life times past. This one is meant to show a snapshot of rural Scarborough from 1914.

While the old stoves and dishes and whatnot only mildly interested me, I was extremely charmed by the young people working in and around the museum. They earnestly engaged visitors and had a special display of multicultural pride flags in honor of pride month. This is the first time I saw an Indigenous “two-spirit” pride flag, which was pretty cool. Also, the museum is free and off the beaten path, so I recommend a visit.

The Aga Khan Museum is part of a larger campus, including the Ismaili Centre (which we also toured).

It has an outstanding collection of Muslim art.

For example: this 16th century Egyptian fountain.

And this 14th century tile from Iran with verses from the Quran.

Along with these exquisite works of art, unfortunately, were crowds of people. Crowds of people, mostly not wearing masks, and—the horror—even touching the art. Hello, security? This stressed me out tremendously.

Ah, but the Art Gallery of Ontario, now that was a perfect museum.

First of all, the Frank Gehry-designed space is lovely and relaxing.

And the staff are friendly, fresh, and informative.

Also, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART, CHICAGO MUSEUMS: they have complimentary admission for all Indigenous Peoples. It is just really incomprehensible to charge admissions fees to someone whose land you occupy.

The AGO is famous for its Group of Seven Canadian landscape painting collection. Believe me, I had every intention of spending a lot of time studying these important works…and then I got distracted by the contemporary art exhibits.

HOB and I were mesmerized by the video installation Death Is Elsewhere by Ragnar Kjartansson. Performed by two sets of twins on summer solstice under the midnight sun in the shadow of the Laki volcano in South Iceland, it should have been cheesy, but it wasn’t, and the music was haunting.

And another winner in the video art genre: Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Lisa is a Maori artist and her video is a kind of continuous diorama showing various Native peoples encountering colonialism. It is reacting to a 19th century French wallpaper print depicting Native Pacific Islanders.

This is one of many works by contemporary Native / First Nations artists on view in the AGO. While more traditional, older First Nations work is always great to see, it is critical that museums in US and Canada work to counter their vile legacy of deliberate culture erasure of Native peoples by showing the art of living Indigenous artists. Yes, of course Native folks have always created art, but they are still here, they are still creating. Not only does the AGO have excellent First Nations art on view, but their interpretive materials are properly respectful, using first voice and tri-lingual wall labels (Native language first, followed by English, followed by French.)

In a brief and unplanned trip, we didn’t get to visit all of Toronto’s museums. If, like us, you have limited time, make the Art Gallery of Ontario a priority.


  1. As you might be aware the Pope made a visit to Canada starting earlier this wk. re the atrocities of the Church and the residential schools for indigineous children.

    Other than too many people at various museums and not enough masking, was there alot of historical stuff at the Aga Khan Museum? I would like to visit soon when I get to Toronto to see family too …after not seeing them for last 3 yrs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad the pope made that visit. Of course, the same atrocities occurred in the US too.

      Aga Khan has lots of historical stuff and it is all wonderful. Textiles, architectural elements—even miniatures, though most Islamic art has a ban on figurative work. The issue, I think, was we visited on an Open Doors weekend, which made it free but crowded. At that time, we had to have a negative Covid test to get back into the US, and so we were really cautious. If we had tested positive, we’d have an expensive quarantine and I’d miss starting my new job.

      I hope you are able to see your family soon—three years is a long time to be away.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, Open Doors would make various places popular.


  2. What’s wrong with cheese? Cheese can be great art too. I’m thinking of you, Leonardo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll take Leonardo’s cheese over, say, Caspar David Friedrich’s, any day,

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting! I wonder what the bag looked like?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Large, colorful and quilted, as I recall from the 30 seconds I looked at it. Designed by a talented artist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe it will show up at Christmas?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Not holding my breath…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Helen Devries · · Reply

    Well, hats off to the AGO….respect in action rather than po faced virtue signalling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, certainly enough virtue signaling going on here in Chicago…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You might have seen Monkman’s paintings in articles:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, I hadn’t seen these before. Thanks for sharing them. This is a great way to use art history as activism.


  6. As always, I feel like I learned something, want to pay better attention to things and had a giggle. But that bag thing is just bizarre. WTF? Good riddance to graceless fools!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Say that last part louder, for the people in the back. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, WOB! I appreciated reading about one of my former hometowns. I liked reading about how the AGO has stepped up in a big way for indigenous people. I didn’t spend enough time in the AGO in my 7 years there, and unfortunately, i didn’t visit the AGO ten years ago on my year-long walkabout. What’s also new to me is the Aga Khan Museum which looks very interesting. Looks like I need to go back to The Big Smoke 😏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were lucky to have lived in The Big Smoke—I’ll wait for your return visit and your super pictures 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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