Royal Ontario Museum ROM

Maintaining the ROM’s dinosaurs and mummies

A facility manager shares his unique experience maintaining a Toronto landmark
Thursday, June 12, 2014
By Michelle Ervin

When visitors think of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), they often think of dinosaurs and mummies, explained Brian McCrady, vice-president of capital development and facilities. But after more than five years at the ROM in a facility management role, McCrady now sees the Toronto landmark through a different lens.

“Now I walk through the museum every single day and all of those great things are on display, but when I think of the ROM, more often than not, it’s plumbing nightmares,” he said.

At IFMA Toronto’s FM Education Day on June 3, McCrady shared his unique experience at the leading museum of natural history and world cultures at the presentation The ROM at 100 — A Facility Manager’s Perspective.

Maintenance in hard-to-reach spaces

The ROM has undergone a handful of expansions since the original building was constructed alongside The University of Toronto’s Philosopher’s Walk, most recently adding to the site the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the latest addition was spearheaded by then CEO William Thorsell, whose mandate was to bring the museum into the 21st century.

“The Crystal opened in 2007 and that was about the point that I came on board, where it changed from ‘If you build it, they will come’ to ‘Alright, we built it; now you make it work,’” McCrady said.

He described the interior of the four-storey atrium lobby as “absolutely gorgeous,” but also as a design that puts form over function.

“No matter how hard I looked, there weren’t any anti-gravity boots,” McCrady joked. “How in the world do I get up there to change the lighting?”

He was limited in his use of equipment based on what could fit through the front door. It also didn’t help that the museum is open 364 days each year. Since he can’t interfere with the visitor experience, this meant that scaffolding was not an option.

The answer was “The Spider,” a rare piece of equipment in Canada. Measuring 1.6 metres wide and 2 metres in height (when on tracks), it that can reach a working height of 30 metres. McCrady brings it in every 18 months for six to eight weeks so crews can do maintenance in those hard-to-reach places after visiting hours.

Accomodating visiting exhibitions at the Royal Ontario Museum

In addition to displaying its own collections, the ROM is known for hosting exhibitions. One of the first to arrive at the museum on McCrady’s watch was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Discovered 60 years ago, the scrolls were initially mishandled. So now, the scrolls are required be kept under tight environmental controls to ensure their safety. They must be maintained at a consistent temperature, with fluctuations not exceeding plus or minus one degree Celsius, and stay to within two per cent humidity, McCrady said.

This posed a problem, as the temperature in the museum’s blockbuster space could only be controlled within plus or minus two degrees Celsius and humidity to plus or minus five per cent.

“When you look at the ROM, all the spaces are interconnected,” McCrady said. “I can’t isolate an environment within a specific space.”

The solution, he said, was to create micro-climates using specially designed cases for each of the scrolls. The micro-climate generation unit was housed in a back room and cables run under the floating floor up to the cases.

Another issue was that even with lighting controls, the pieces of parchment are only allowed to be exposed to light for three months at a time every two years. So the scrolls had to be rotated in and out halfway through the six-month exhibition.

“For the run of the show, I had to run temperature and humidity control charts and email them to the Israel Antiquity Authority so that they were confident that we were meeting our technical contractual agreements for the environmental controls,” he said. “Because without that, they wouldn’t let the pieces be brought out of the vault and put on the floor of the exhibition.”

Replacing the roof on a heritage-designated building

The east wing of the ROM, built in 1931, has a copper roof that runs north-south and on the rotunda. As McCrady recalled, they began to notice leaks into the galleries under the roof. The cause was primarily the deterioration of the structure underlying the copper rather than of the copper itself.

Closing the gallery wasn’t an option. But it was also important that nothing be damaged in the process. After extensive pre-planning, he said, the roof was torn off by hand, down to the base metal sheeting.

“Changing a roof is one thing; changing a heritage roof makes it a bit more difficult,” McCrady said. “We had to have all the copper hand-made and hand-formed, panel by panel; it had to look exactly the same as it did as when we took it off.”

The insulation of the original roof had been almost non-existent (it had an R-Value of four). In replacing the roof, they were able to bring the new roof up to R50, he said.

Five hundred pounds of copper nails and eight tonnes of copper later, the ROM’s east wing had its new copper roof.

“Everybody asks, ‘When (is) it going to turn green again?’” McCrady said. “Well, it’s already started to turn brown, within a year. But it’ll be about 10 to 15 years before it gets back to that classic green look.”

The ROM’s next 100 years

As for the ROM’s next 100 years, McCrady identified deferred maintenance as a continuing challenge. Never mind the 100-year-old building; the museum’s newest building has already required repairs. A roof leak cost $400,000 to fix when the structure was only three years old.

“Nowhere in the specs did it say that raccoons thought that rubber gasket tasted great,” he explained.

Space is also always a concern as the ROM continues to expand its collection. And changing visitor expectations will require such initiatives as efforts to wire the 100-year-old building with Wi-Fi.

“You don’t need to go to the museum to see an ancient piece of work; you can go to the Internet, (but) it’s not quite the same,” McCrady said. “The museum of the future will require a rethink on how to captivate a generation brought up on the immediate information retrieval on the Internet.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

Image: James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs 1, courtesy of the ROM. 

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