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.”
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.”
That’s an ethos, however, that is unlikely to change any time soon. By some measures, in fact, the Ontario government has been a generous patron of the ROM. While more than $160-million in private commitments were garnered for Renaissance ROM, fallout from the 2008-09 global financial crisis made for a slowing of donor payouts as construction bills came due. As a result, in every year since 2008 the Ontario Financing Authority has been providing the museum tens of millions of dollars in low-interest loans. Moreover, when the projected postrenovation upswing in attendance failed to materialize, the government stepped in with close to $20-million in deficit-reduction grants. (Today, Carding says, “only a relatively small proportion [of the pledges]” remains outstanding; she estimates about $35-million in OFA loans remain on the books, to be paid in full by 2027.)
Meanwhile, Carding plans to open all of the ROM’s doors to the public on May 3 and 4 – for the first time ever. As big as the museum is, an estimated 55 per cent of it – the laboratories, workshops, offices and storage – has been closed to the public at any one time. The open house is part birthday present, part politics. “People are going to be interested in supporting and being proud of things they know about and understand,” Carding predicts. “If most of the research dynamism and the new discoveries and the changing side of the collections is hidden away, why are people going to be interested in them? … I want to be able to make a strong case to government and philanthropies that this is an important part of what we do.”
A little over a year after Carding took the reins, the ROM also reduced its ticket prices, to help maintain attendance in the face of audience complaints that the museum was, in Carding’s words, a place “just for people who could afford a high admission.” Adults can now get in for $16 (it was $24 before); children for $12 (from $16).
Not everyone is convinced those prices are low enough. Lord, now 68, can remember the days of free admission to the museum, when she was a child, and thinks ticket prices remain a deterrent to repeat visits by non-members. And special exhibitions are not cheap to attend: A non-member couple with, say, a 13-year-old daughter and a university-age son would still have to shell out close to $100 to see the museum’s superb new Fordibben City exhibition.
Carding, however, thinks the price decreases have worked. ROM’s audience is more diverse, she says; there are more first-time visitors; and “there’s been a sustained increase” – 18 per cent in 2012-13 – “in the numbers of people coming to see the collections, galleries and the programming,” exclusive of special exhibitions.
‘Bad days’ and high hopes
The history of museums is a history of splits, mergers and occasional dissolutions, and provides little insight into how the ROM’s totem poles and mummified cats may fare in the future. The Natural History Museum in London, for example, was originally a department of the British Museum, which had been founded in the mid-18 century, and only became an autonomous, self-governing institution in 1963 after almost a century of debate. The department had been given its own quarters, separate from the British Museum, in 1881 but even there it was known as British Museum (Natural History). In fact, the museum’s current name came into effect only in 1992.
Dan Rahimi, a 27-year veteran of the ROM, doesn’t think a similar split is likely for his many-tentacled employer “even under financial pressure,” even as, on some “bad days,” he thinks, “we can’t sustain this.” An archaeologist by training and now a ROM vice-president, Rahimi thinks that the benefits of housing the scientific and cultural/historical domains in one space, finally, “are too great. Imagine if we were to do a show on fur as a symbol of Canada: We could have mammalogists tell us about fur itself, historians about the fur trade, textile specialists about the use of fur in both aboriginal and European cultures.” An inter- and intradisciplinary institution, he posits, is nothing if not “a very rich set of possibilities.”
Lord, too, is bullish about the ROM’s prospects as an encyclopedic museum over the next 100 years. “Not only do I think ROM will be here; it will be even stronger. Look at the Louvre: It’s more popular, stronger than it was 200 years ago. … Toronto is going to be an ever-bigger city, even more multicultural than it is today, and those people will have even more interest in the ROM. The thing that’s amazing about museums is how adaptable they are. They were among the first places to have gaslights on at night, for instance. People like to think of museums as places that never change. But really, they’re among the most rapidly changing institutions in our society.”
DECADES OF CHANGE
Some may choose to cleave the history of the ROM into two epochs: BC, as in Before the (Michael Lee-Chin) Crystal, and AC. But any notion of the ROM as a drowsy Queen’s Park dowager rudely awakened to the 21st century by architect Daniel Libeskind’s cold, crystalline “kiss” is largely a myth. From its inception, the site has seen additions, revisions and deletions, architectural and organizational churn.
When it opened a century ago, it wasn’t one institution but five semi-autonomous entities – devoted to paleontology, archeology, zoology, mineralogy and geology – under one roof, each its own “Royal Ontario Museum.”
After its 1914 launch, the biggest physical changes occurred in 1933 (construction of the now loosely called Weston Wing, on Queen’s Park), 1968 (opening of the McLaughlin Planetarium, later briefly a children’s museum, now ROM offices and storage), 1984 (building of what is now the Louise Hawley Stone Curatorial Centre, north of the planetarium, and the Terrace Galleries facing Bloor Street) and 2002-11 (Renaissance ROM, starting with demolition of the Terrace Galleries, and ending with the opening of new third-level galleries).
By the numbers
Number of full-time staff, March, 1914.
Number of full-time staff, March, 2014.
Cost, including display cases, of original 1914 building, now known as West Wing.
Cost of Renaissance ROM, including Michael Lee-Chin Crystal and endowments.
Attendance at Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (Feb.-May 2000), best-attended ROM showsince it began hosting major exhibitions in 1970s.
100 Number of Paul Kane paintings donated to ROM in 1912 by Sir Edmund Osler.
1912-1946 Tenure of archaeologist/ROM co-founder Charles Trick
Number of stuffed passenger-pigeon skins in collection (the bird became extinct in 1914).
Age at death of Bull, an arthritic African white rhino, sold to museum by Toronto Zoo in 2008-09. Now taxidermied and displayed, Schad Gallery of Biodiversity.
Operating revenue 2012-2013.
Estimated age, in years, of Ming Dynasty Tomb of General Zu Dashou, main floor, ROM.
Amount of low-interest loan, 2008-2009, from Ontario Financing Authority.
The year the McLaughlin Planetarium closed. Built by ROM in 1968; now owned by University of Toronto and leased to museum for offices and storage.
Attendance in 2012-2013.
Attendance, 75th anniversary fiscal year
World-record span, in metres, of moose antlers donated in early 20th century.
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).