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With social media, says the ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding, people ‘are looking for something they can personalize or customize and be part of.’ (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
With social media, says the ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding, people ‘are looking for something they can personalize or customize and be part of.’ (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Royal Ontario Museum makes it to 100. Now, the real work begins Add to ...

But Carding sees things somewhat differently, calling such targets a “kind of arbitrary” preoccupation, and adding that “it’s not my job to sign on to a particular level of visitor numbers. The important thing is we’re delivering a great program, meeting our budget figures, investing in the museum’s future, and looking at how the museum might change.” Being a hybrid institution, she says, means assessing trade-offs. “If you focus all your attention on being a tourist attraction” – Carding describes 30 per cent of ROM’s audience as tourists; and 140,000 students visit in a typical year – “then everything else would suffer from that.”

ROM’s director peppers her conversation these days with words like “personalization,” “customization,” “participation” and “intimacy.” Yes, one can’t overestimate “the power of the object,” the public “craving for and curiosity about the real thing, for something you can’t see anywhere else,” and the museum’s role as “a space for the authentic.” But 25 years after the launch of the Web, she asks, “Does a seven-year-old feel the same way about the analog world that I do?”

It is Carding’s belief that museums are moving away from the curator-on-down/broadcasting-out model by which “You build a gallery. You have it for 20 years. It says the same thing to everyone who comes in.” In its place, she says, “There’s a much more two-way conversation … We can no longer choose to ignore our visitor’s voice.” With their smartphones and iPads and fondness for social media, people “are looking for something they can personalize or customize and be part of.” How this will work at the ROM remains to be determined.

One individual deeply involved in the process is Xerxes Mazda. Former head of learning, volunteers and audiences at the British Museum, he was recently named the ROM’s deputy director, engagement, by Carding – responsible for all aspects of the visitor experience, at the museum proper and off-site. Asked what the role of the museum is in an era of digital interconnection, he says that it is users, not big corporations or institutions, who will provide the cues, just as they did with texting and Facebook.

The fact that “more people are accessing the Web through mobile than they are through fixed computer,” in the past two years alone, says Mazda, “has changed how museums and institutions generally relate to the Web. So at the ROM, we’re installing WiFi, thinking about how we can put our collection online so that it can be accessed by people in the galleries …” But, he emphasizes, “there will never be an answer, only a big range of answers that come and go.”

Yet even in an era of scannable QR codes, the ROM is also discovering room to play in old media. This spring, in association with The Walrus magazine, the museum is publishing Every Object Has a Story, a colour-packed book – a book! – in which 21 celebrities of various stripes (they include Lynda Reeves, Deepa Mehta and Joseph Boyden) wax eloquent on a ROM artifact that strikes their fancy. And TVOntario is currently unspooling a six-episode series, Museum Diaries, shot last year in ROM storage vaults and laboratories and out in the field with the museum’s scientists. It’s believed to be the first such dedicated, prime-time TV exposure in the ROM’s history.

Lowering prices, lifting veils

Money also is very important. Lord believes the ROM is “deserving of much more generous public support,” particularly from government. The museum, she notes, carries collections that are “tremendously important for scientific research, social research, aesthetic research and, in a lot of cases, for the future of mankind. That long-term cost should be covered by government,” she argues, not by museumgoers “paying admission or buying a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.” The last 25 years, Lord adds, have seen an intensification of “this user-pay notion that is completely counterproductive to how our major institutions should be funded.”

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ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

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).

ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

View of the western exterior of the original museum building, taken from the southwest circa 1914.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

Staff standing at the then-main (north) entrance of the original ROM building, 1914. The museum had about 20 full-time employees opening day Mar. 19, 1914.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

View of the original 1914 building, shot from Bloor Street West from the north-west. Note the modest entrance, the Romanesque exterior and Venetian-style windows fronting what is now Philosopher’s Walk, University of Toronto.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

Dancers at the gala 1965 Hungarian Ball in the ROM’s famous Rotunda. The octagonal lobby, with a gold and multi-coloured mosaic ceiling, was part of the addition completed in 1933. For more than 70 years the Rotunda, its doors facing east toward Queen’s Park, served as the museum’s main entry.

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