In the next few weeks, some of North America and Europe's most highly regarded cultural leaders will begin receiving discreet telephone calls from Shawn Cooper, a top headhunter with Russell Reynolds Associates, the global executive search firm. His brief: to find a new director for Canada's pre-eminent arts, science and civilizations museum - a leader who can not only pull the Royal Ontario Museum onto solid financial ground, but also make it into a place Toronto loves again.
William Thorsell, who announced his departure last fall after nearly 10 years as the ROM's director, leaves a vastly different institution than the one he inherited: The Renaissance ROM building drive that he led has renovated the Toronto museum's old galleries, doubled the number of artifacts on display and given birth to the much-debated Daniel Libeskind-designed crystal at the building's new Bloor Street entrance.
Largely thanks to blockbuster travelling exhibitions, the museum has stabilized attendance at just over a million visitors annually - a far cry from the 1.4 to 1.6 million that Thorsell and the museum's management once projected to justify the Renaissance ROM project, but a figure that many in the city consider worthy of celebration nonetheless.
But the museum's finances are in many ways as precarious today as ever - without millions of dollars in extraordinary "deficit-reductions grants" from Queen's Park, the ROM would be running deficits, when the building project was supposed to help produce annual surpluses.
And many museum watchers contend that if you strip away the flashy architecture, the travelling exhibits (which the ROM does not produce itself) and a few new kid-focused galleries, what's inside the ROM and how it's presented is still as fusty as ever.
Now that Thorsell is leaving, some of the critics who've kept their comments private in the past have started speaking out.
Lynne Teather, an associate professor in the University of Toronto's museum-studies program, recalled a recent trip she took to the ROM with a group of teenagers. Most of what they saw, she said, were cases full of objects with little to explain what they were, how they were used or what they meant. Those teenagers? "They almost had to have a PhD to make any meaning from the displays," she said.
Gail Lord, a high-profile Toronto-based museums consultant whose client list includes some of the world's most respected institutions, was more blunt in her assessment.
"The Royal Ontario Museum is the only major museum in the world that has taken the view that the vast majority of exhibits should consist of artifacts in cases," she said. "There is no other institution that I know of that has so consistently returned to the Victorian notion of the museum."
What they're hoping is that the museum's trustees will hire a director who's more of a populist this time around.
"Bill Thorsell was a great communicator, and that was very strong for the ROM," Lord said. "They need somebody with those same qualities - leadership, communication and a genuine love of museums - but at this stage you also need somebody who actually knows about what makes museums work and what makes museums successful."
The question of what that formula for success actually is has become more clear in recent years. It includes strong outreach and education programs, plenty of authentic objects and dynamic, narrative-driven displays - not just for kids, but for adults, too - that help to connect audiences with the objects: education, enlightenment and, critically, entertainment.
"Museums are entertainment, you have to acknowledge it," said Hans-Dieter Sues, a former ROM manager who is now the curator of vertebrate paleontology and senior scientist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "It's no longer that people come into some temple of culture, being talked to from a high priest of culture who has some arcane, esoteric type of knowledge," said Sues, who also works as an inspector for the American Association of Museums' accreditation commission.
"You really have to offer something that addresses a variety of styles of learning, and a variety of cultural backgrounds, and that's going to be a big challenge," he added.
The trick, Sues said, is in finding a balance between entertainment and enlightenment. "If you only entertain, you run the risk that there are other institutions and venues out there that entertain much better. A James Cameron movie has a greater entertainment value than the best museum display."