The ROM CAN… well, pretend to be accessible

Premier McGuinty speaking at the opening of the ROM, June 2007.I was a bit distracted this morning when I heard CBC radio news report that McGuinty had made some big announcement at the ROM yesterday. And hearing the words “free access” “Tuesday” and “million dollars” sift through my other tasks at the time, I must say I felt some margin of hope rise up in my museum-cynical soul: Could it be that a free evening at the ROM was actually being reinstituted? That perhaps the museum had woken up to the fact that since much of the collection it manages belongs to the public, the public has a right to see it for free?

Sadly, a little bit of poking ’round the interweb quickly grounded that wild flight of fancy: it turns out that the new Tuesday-access plan only offers free entry to “full-time students attending a post-secondary institution in Canada.”

Those of you working to pay off your student loans? Or maybe not financially well off enough to afford to go to university in the first place? Well, you’ll still have to fork over the usual $20 on Tuesdays. Oh, and on Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Saturday and most of Wednesdays and Fridays too. If you can plan your week around getting a look at the stuff your own taxes pay for, you might want to save up for $10 Friday evenings or try the one hour of completely gratis access on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 5:30.

OK, so there is more a little more on the table than that. Under the ridiculously named “ROM CAN” funding ($1.3 mil in total) the United Way and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship will distribute 1,200 free passes to their user groups each month.

While I think the United Way and so many other hardworking Toronto organizations rock, this still in no way addresses the bulk of the ROM’s mandate, which is to provide equitable access to all Ontarians to their own heritage.

First, there’s the numbers game: according to, in 2001 there were 1,611,505 people living in poverty in Ontario, 771,535 of them in the GTA. So even if all these people are registered with partner orgs (with no double dipping!) it will take 1,343 months, or 111 years, for these people to have had a chance to see the dinosaurs up close. By which time, many will have met the same fate as the dinosaurs.

Second, all this “access outsourcing” the ROM is doing is a bit worrisome. It started with the Museum Arts Pass Program, launched in June of last year, which is essentially administrated by the Toronto Public Library. Now, they’ve passed some more access responsibilities along to the United Way and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. Essentially it’s the arts-and-culture version of Mike Harris’s social services downloading of the 1990s.

I may seem all full of snark, but I think I come by it honestly. I really did have a little, glowing hope earlier today that the ROM was going to turn around and do something really good, take some of the millions of dollars they’ve received of late and do the right thing. Not just a little teeny tiny bit of the right thing, not just bringing in the caterers and the politicians and the press and telling everybody that “hey, look, we’re doing the right thing” but you know, actually doing it.

There are so many other very reasonable access options the ROM has effectively decided against: Free access to the permanent collection. Free access for a day or an evening. Keeping all admission fees at $10 or under. Having concession fees for the underemployed. Admission by donation. The list goes on. Almost every museum in Canada has some combination of these strategies–and has to, in order to keep their funding and their reputation.

By throwing more money at the ROM without keeping them to a truly equitable public mandate, McGuinty is basically encouraging bad behavior in their museum management. Maybe he can abide by that. But I certainly can’t.

Image of McGuinty speaking at the June 2007 opening of the ROM from the Office of the Premier.


  1. It makes sense they are making it free for the only group that doesn’t really want to go.

    Gen Y is notoriously difficult to engage, and U of T students, whose campus abuts the ROM, are the most insular of all, most never seeing the inside of the ROM in their four years of attending the school.

    The ROM does have a really good new media strategy, though.

  2. Frankly, the only reason I rarely attend the ROM (and haven’t seen the relaunch) is solely the price. I’d go more often if it cost less, but I go not at all for the current cost.

  3. Shame there was no mention of museum access in other cities. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Toronto the single most expensive city on the planet Earth for visiting the centrepiece museum? Isn’t there something wrong with that? Something that letting a few students in for free will not exactly address? Just as Pearson is the world’s most expensive airport (landing fees), but no one seems to care, there is a surprising tolerance for this gouging.

    Cities, TTC, museums, airports – exactly how poor a country is Canada when it comes to government funding of anything other than health care? Think about that while you pay the world’s highest prices (plus GST!) for transit fares, airline tickets, ROM admission….

  4. Kevin:

    Back when I went to U of T, the ROM had a policy that let post-secondary students access its library for free. Users were given a special badge to wear so they couldn’t sneak off to the exhibits. You couldn’t check out the material but you could study it and take notes for as long as the museum was open. I’m not sure if they still have this policy in place, but they probably still do.

  5. I have taken visitors to see the outside, especially the tourist attraction end. We could get into to the shop to see how the addition looks from the inside. Of course the exhibits are out of bounds because $80 is too steep to get two couples inside. They don’t call it the “Royal” Ontario Museum for nothing.

  6. uSkyscraper, I understand the sentiment but I think you’re reaching a bit with “world’s highest prices” claim. Transit fares are $3 in London with the cheapest monthly pass costing $185. The Louvre costs a little over $20; even the American Natural History Museum in NYC charges $22 if you want to see one of the special exhibits (which are included in the ROM’s base admission).

    But yes, ultimately it’s a question of the Ontario government’s priorities. Dropping admission rates to $5 would be a major hit on the ROM’s budget, but only a minor blip in provincial spending to fill the gap.

  7. They have also canceled the free access for teachers to preview exhibits for field trips which is a drag.

    And I had originally thought the Wednesday 4:30-5:30 freebie meant you just had to enter during the hour and could stay longer, but apparently they close at 5:30!

  8. Matt L:

    I agree that TO is not the most expensive city in the world. But the ROM fees are still far from reasonable and fair. This is particularly so for their permanent collection, which are the objects the public in effect owns. That’s why in MTL at the fine arts museum it’s free to see the permanent collection, extra for special exhibitions. Same at the Tate in London.

    Also, the Louvre (9 euro daytime admission) has a variety of access strategies that the ROM does not: Discounts every day after 6pm. Free for all the first Sunday of every month. Free for those under 18 all the time. Free for those under 26 on Friday evenings. Free for those with disabilities, and their companions. Free for the unemployed. Free for those on social benefits. And these are obtained right at the gate, no need to get in line for rationed passes.

    And the American Museum of Natural History permanent collection access is always by donation. They suggest certain donations, but ultimately all visitors regardless of income, can, yes, see the dinosaurs. Temporary exhibits require payment, as with the Tate and other museums.

  9. I forgot to add:

    Peter, that is so regrettable on the educational end. How are teachers supposed to gauge whether it’s worth coordinating a field trip otherwise?

    uSkyscraper, there is a tolerance for price gouging in TO. Partly it has to do with a generally higher cost of living compared to other Canadian cities. And partly it has to do with costs downloaded from the province. But partly I think it also has to do with the idea that we can’t be “big time” until our cultural events are expensive. It’s really ridiculous. The MoMA in NYC charges $20, but it is a private museum, a rather different situation. Oh, and one more potential reason: many museums of late have mistaken “press coverage” and “tourist draw” for “quality museum management.” Not the same thing.

  10. A London monthly card for zone 1-2 is 93 pounds but that is also good for rail. A Twin Pass for GO/TTC is no longer available but for a comparable region it would cost far more than $185.

    Based on purchasing power (relative to salaries, etc.) I still stand by my statement. Toronto is a bargain when it comes to skating rinks or housing or cost of living in general, but anything civic or infrastructure-related tends to be very, very expensive. To add to my list of “most expensive” — per-km toll highway, commuter train fares, observation decks…(ok, that last one is private and not civic but I still find it annoying.)

    Leah is quite correct — all museums in New York that receive any city funding must use pay-what-you-wish admission or lose city funds. A noble principle that should apply to the ROM. MoMA is private and costs $20, but even that museum is free on Friday nights (4-8 pm).

  11. Admission to the ROM, what with all the public funding it receives, should be based on suggested donation, along with possibly an admission ticket required for special exhibitions and the such. This way, let the clueless tourists shell out the suggested admission and everyone else get in for whatever they want to pay.

    I am a New Yorker, and one of my favorite things about growing up there was how I could go to the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the same day for, well, 5 cents each, with a stroll through Central Park thrown in. My high school was a short walk away from the Met, and we would go there to hang out after-school (dorky? yes. awesome? yes)

    And as a UofT student, I would love to go to ROM on a regular basis – and now I will be able to. But it would be ultimately better for everyone if that were the case for all of us. Toronto would do well to create a stronger sense of civic pride and belonging, and cultural institutions of course play a huge part in that.

    But the ROM does not at all feel like it is a public institution. I remember being annoyed when I heard about how they were having a ‘special’ opening for the rich (or whoever) before the ‘official’ opening of the crystal last year – and really, wtf was that? Sure, throw a ball for those that contributed money – but to have it before the public opening just told me that they did not want to have them in there after us common folk contaminated the place.

    But really, everything, and I mean everything, in Toronto seems to be more expensive than what I experienced in NYC – and the quality is worse – and there is no reason why it should be that way.

  12. Hmm – I hate to compare cities, so I kind of feel bad for doing that. And I think earlier comments kind of pretty much stated that I said. So yeah, sorry for being a redundant ass there.

  13. Do working poor people really have time to spend at any museum or gallery? I recall freebie nights at the AGO attracting mostly middle class but cheap Torontonians and some students–most of whom come from middleclass backgrounds.

    But yeah, make the ROM free from midnight to six AM!:)

  14. i don’t think it’s fair to pigeonhole U of T students at all. i’ve been to the rom multiple times pre-, during, and post-expansion, and last time i went (roughly 3 months ago) i ran into two of my classmates there. kevin, just because you don’t go doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t. tho i agree with other comments regarding the importance of reinstating access for everyone.

  15. The problem isn’t really cost here. We’re all aware that museums can be expensive, and so there needs to be some payment for the high quality exhibits on hand.

    But the problem is Williams Thorsell is working for the opposite of accessibility – elite status. That’s why the Crystal 5 restaurant is such an important addition for the current ROM leadership. It’s all about creating an elite cultural institution rather than an accessible and democratic one.

    This won’t really change until the ROM has a CEO who
    isn’t committed to this elite vision.

  16. Thanks, Kevin, for massively generalizing. I’ve been a number of times since I started attending U of T, but the main reason I haven’t been going lately is because of the ridiculous prices. When I was in high school, I tagged along on my friend’s family pass. Later, I had a student pass for a year, but with the reno and not many exciting exhibitions coming up, I let it go.

    The fact is, I’d love for the ROM to become a place not only for occasional visitors who won’t mind blowing $20, but residents of the city who don’t want to pay the full price every time for seeing a lot of things they already know well from their previous visits. It blew my mind the Met offered pay what you can even though it was clearly several times the institution the ROM currently is.

  17. Rumour has it there’s a hole in the ROM’s roof–wanna get in free? You’ll need some ropes and spiky shoes….

    I haven’t been inside the ROM yet. But I’m a poor peasant and $20 is money I’d rather spend at No Frills.

  18. My girlfriend and I are planning a trip to Toronto. I used to live there and have been up the CN Tower and have visited the (old) ROM many times. My girlfriend is a native Montrealer and this will be her first visit. I checked the prices online thinking that we may be looking at 40-50$ for the two of us but no, the CNTower alone will cost 60$ and the ROM another 40$!

    I can’t help but wonder how many Torontonians have never visited the CN Tower because they can’t afford to take their family there, and 20$ just to enter a museum-never mind any exhibitions-is in my mind, exhorbitant. Almost all museums in Montréal are pay what you will or have free days and there is an Accà¨s Montréal card which gives residents a 1$ to 50% discount on just about every attraction.

    We’ll still be heading down to visit friends but we’re going to have to make some hard choices as to which ‘attractions’ we can afford. We’re not millionaires.

  19. The ROM is a good deal compared to Elvis’ Graceland in Memphis, I thought it was overpriced. Admission to all of the exhibits is $30.00 for adults; $27.00 for seniors, students, and teens; and $15.00 for children ages 7-12; children 6 and under are free.

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