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A New Dawn

The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life at the ROM.

“I was riding the subway here. Got off at the Museum stop.” An unremarkable comment, more notable on a recent occasion when it was made by someone who had just made a $5-million donation to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). “How many institutions have a subway stop named after them?” asked Jeff Willner at the announcement of the landmark gift from him and his wife, Stacey Madge.

The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life will present the story of life from its earliest beginnings. The first of its kind in North America, the 10,000-square-foot gallery will contain fossils from across Canada—found in places such as the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park in British Columbia, the Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia, Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, and Miguasha National Park in Quebec. “These are four UNESCO World Heritage sites in Canada,” said Willner in his announcement address at the ROM this past November. “The Canadian land that we are on is the pre-eminent contributor of fossils of this time period, and so to have an opportunity to create a gallery where we can showcase yet another great thing about Canada is really exceptional.”

According to Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, senior curator of invertebrate paleontology at the ROM, Canada’s soil tells the story of life on Earth starting with the bacterial life forms that arose in the earliest eras, through the first complex organisms that became plants and animals, into the time of the dinosaurs, and eventually to the more familiar creatures we know today. “Nearly 4 billion years will be covered in this gallery,” said Caron. “The Earth is always changing, and the organisms that live on the Earth are constantly evolving. We will be guided by the principle of evolution in this gallery. From the organisms to the movement of the continent to long-term climate change—everything on Earth is dynamically connected.”

The realization of this gallery is due to no one singular effort. Over 100 donors have contributed amounts ranging from $10 to $5-million. “There are entire careers that have gone into the collection of these amazing specimens,” said Willner, “and I want to recognize the extended [Richard] Ivey family for donations that span back over the past decade-plus. In football terms, we are moving the ball from the two-yard line to the goal.” Work has begun in earnest on the new gallery, which is set to open in 2021. To Mr. Willner and Ms. Madge, we ask: How many people have a museum gallery named after them?

Photos ©Royal Ontario Museum, Scott Loan.


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