Landmark new gallery to open at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Cambrian Sea, illustrated by Marianne Collins, © Royal Ontario Museum.The Cambrian Sea, illustrated by Marianne Collins, © Royal Ontario Museum.

On Dec. 4, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in nearby Toronto will unveil the Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life — a new 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art gallery that covers nearly four billion years of evolution from the earliest microbes to the emergence of dinosaurs and mammals in the aftermath of the biggest mass extinction event in history.

“This is a landmark moment in the history of the Museum,” says Josh Basseches, ROM Director & CEO. “This is the first major new permanent gallery to open at ROM in a decade and the first of its kind in North America. The Willner Madge Gallery delves into the fundamental mystery of life, where we came from, and how ecosystems as we know them began. Dawn of Life brings together ROM’s vast collection of fossils, decades of fieldwork, research and groundbreaking scientific discoveries into a dedicated space to tell the epic story of life as it has never been told before. This remarkable new gallery has been funded entirely through visionary philanthropic support.”

The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life is located in Peter F. Bronfman Hall on Level 2, and will feature almost 1,000 fossil specimens, from four billion to about 200 million years ago, drawn extensively from ROM’s world-class palaeontology collections.

“Fossils are the ultimate messengers of the past,” says Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Dawn of Life’s lead curator and the Richard M. Ivey Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology. “Having survived the ravages of time, they tell wondrous stories about life’s journey and how the modern world, including us, eventually came to be. In this gallery we are telling the first four billion years of this long journey to the first dinosaurs.”

The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life is named in honor of Jeff Willner and Stacey Madge, who generously donated $5 million towards its creation. Jeff Willner is Board Chair of ROM Governors, which is responsible for all philanthropic activities in support of the Museum’s highest priorities.

“Stacey and I are proud and delighted to play a role in helping bring this extraordinary gallery to life,” says Jeff Willner. “This stunning narrative about life’s very beginnings is both Canadian and universal, compelling and relevant. The ROM’s visionary team has created a special experience that is deeply meaningful. It’s much more interactive than typical museum displays, and I believe Museum visitors will be engaged and amazed by the story the gallery tells.”

At the heart of the gallery are 12 “evolutionary game changers” that are key moments in the story of life on Earth. These include the emergence of animals originating in the Cambrian Period about a half-billion years ago, as well as the evolution of limbs from fish fins, roughly 375 million years ago — one of the adaptations that made it possible for vertebrates to live on land.

Dawn of Life also chronicles global environmental changes that altered the course of evolution, from the introduction of breathable oxygen into Earth’s atmosphere, to devastating ice ages and global warming events. Four of the five largest world mass extinctions are represented within the time frame of Dawn of Life, including the largest event 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian Period, which destroyed nearly 90% of life in the oceans.

The gallery will feature specimens from exceptional Canadian fossil deposits of great scientific significance, four of which are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each of these UNESCO fossil sites provide extraordinary fossil evidence of major intervals in life history, from oldest to youngest: Mistaken Point (Newfoundland and Labrador), the Burgess Shale from Yoho and Kootenay National Parks (British Columbia), Miguasha National Park (Québec) and Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Nova Scotia).

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