A 100th birthday for any institution, or anybody, is an auspicious occasion. A fraught time, too, since amid all the congratulations, special events, recollections and fond backward glances, there are invariably moments of taking stock. And of wondering: How much longer?
In the case of humans, the answer is obvious: Not very much. For an institution, it’s trickier. Especially one like the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto which, as the country’s largest such institution – 74,000 square metres, 40 galleries, more than 6 million artifacts – is marking the centennial of its public inauguration on March 19. The ROM is burdened (or should that be honoured?) with not one mandate but two, both of which any pedestrian strolling Queen’s Park boulevard can see carved in capital letters on the limestone exterior of the museum’s 1933 wing: “The Record of Nature Through Countless Ages,” “The Arts of Man Through All the Years.”
That’s a heavy brief for a Crown corporation which, in 2012-13, saw almost $30-million – 51 per cent of its operating revenue – come from a deficit-plagued, have-not provincial government. And a broad, brainy brief, too, at a time when, to quote one former museum director, “the first mandate in the museum sector is serving the tourism industry, followed by assisting delivery of school curriculum.”
Or, then again, maybe just broad enough. Notes Canadian museum consultant Gail Lord, “There’s a tremendous blurring of boundaries between disciplines going on now, and a real benefit is found and exists for interdisciplinary work.” In fact, she argues, “the idea” if not the reality of an interdisciplinary, multicultural institution like the ROM is “an even better one now,” than it was that cold, windy Thursday afternoon in 1914 when Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, Governor-General of Canada, third son of the late Queen Victoria, declared the $390,567 museum open.
Practically, and sometimes impractically, the ROM’s double-barrelled mandate has meant donning many identities. As itemized by former University of Toronto museum-studies professor Lynne Teather, they include “research centre, educational paragon, major civic institution, tourist destination, civilizing symbol, national cultural emblem, world-class museum.” View the ROM as a hybrid – part British Museum, part Natural History Museum, part Metropolitan Museum of Art – and suddenly the colliding planes and vertiginous extrusions of the 2007 Daniel Libeskind-designed Michael Lee-Chin Crystal make a certain metaphorical sense.
The Crystal, of course, dominated discussion about the museum during its construction, as part of the nine-year, $416-million Renaissance ROM project, and it continues to stir people’s opinions. The hope this centennial year, though, is to reset the discussion on what Director and CEO Janet Carding, quoting from an online review, calls the ROM’s status as “a live version of Wikipedia” – and on how users can more easily access its riches both in-person and through digital media.
After all, it has been almost four years since William Thorsell, the driving force behind Renaissance ROM, departed, and just as long since Carding, the British-educated museum professional, came aboard as its first female CEO. Time, in short, to move on.
But move on to what? For Lord, “the challenge” ahead will be “to progress from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary to intradisciplinary.” But can it do so in an era of sclerotic government funding; audience fragmentation; the allure of the virtual; and a mandate that, for some, continues to smack of Victorian hubris?
Plugging into ‘our vistor’s voice’
Carding seems game to make the attempt. After what sources say was a “shaky” first year-and-a-half, the 48-year-old Carding is approaching her upcoming fourth anniversary as a confident, consultative, collaborative leader, her position secure with the board. Admittedly, attendance in each of the last three fiscal years, including the one ending this March 31, has been just under a million – below, in other words, the 1.5 million touted as achievable before her hiring, when the ROM was in full thrall to the “Bilbao effect.” And Lord, for one, argues that attendance is still a “crucial metric,” suggesting that, in North America’s fourth-most-populous metropolis, “the ROM – and the zoo and the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Ontario Science Centre – should be having targets of substantially over a million visits.”
Children in the museum’s Saturday Morning Club in 1946, sketching armour displayed in Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery. The main-floor hall/gallery links the museum’s original 1933 west-wing building to the 1933 addition (now known as the Hilary and Galen Weston Wing and the Weston Family Wing).
Follow James Adams on Twitter: