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."
A critical question facing the ROM's trustees is where to find the best candidate: from inside the museums world, or outside, in business or another field. On that issue, the gulf between museologists and museum boards, which are often composed of business leaders and deep-pocketed donors (and typically make the most important decisions, including the hiring of directors), has only grown deeper in the last decade.
Museum trustees across the continent began turning to proven managers from the worlds of business, media and politics in the 1990s, in large part because the governments that once provided the bulk of museums' funding made it clear that they expected the institutions, including the ROM, would become more self-reliant.
To many professionals from within the field, the fashion of picking outsiders has in many cases been a disaster. "Would you have somebody run the Toronto Dominion Bank who has never had any experience in banking?" said Sues. "No, of course you wouldn't." He cited the example of Lawrence M. Small, the former financier who was chosen in 2000 to lead the Smithsonian Institution, and who managed to infuriate many of the institution's staff, donors, sponsors and directors over his troubled, seven-year term. (Sues said that Thorsell's hiring, by contrast, was "a stroke of genius.")
And yet there are almost as many examples of museums experts failing as directors. In New Zealand, a respected Canadian exhibitions expert named Vanda Vitali, who was named director of the Auckland Museum three years ago, was communicating with the institution's board through a lawyer before Christmas. She's been accused of antagonizing the museum's staff with layoffs and by making many of them apply to keep their jobs, and of having "appalling people skills, [an]encyclopedic ignorance of New Zealand society and history, and [an]inability to think clearly." And even the ROM has struggled with leaders who came with plenty of museum qualifications. Lindsay Sharp, the British-Australian curator who preceded Thorsell, led the museum for three tumultuous years before resigning his post. (Sharp, not coincidentally, aspired to modernize the museum's curatorial style, but without much success; Thorsell is often seen in part as the museum board's reaction to Sharp's populist excesses.) The ROM's trustees, meanwhile, are keeping open minds, they say. Sal Badali, a partner in the executive-search firm Odgers Berndtson and chair of the ROM board, said the trustees wouldn't likely limit which sorts of candidates the board will consider.
Dr. Colin Saldanha, a ROM trustee, said he doesn't care which field the winning candidate comes from. He wants his board colleagues to "think outside the box," he said. "Nobody should be excluded. We want to see people presenting a vision, whoever you are. If your vision fits in with the vision of the board's strategic plan, then that's the kind of person that we need to hire."
Saldanha, who runs a family practice clinic in Mississauga, said that many of the patients he sees - new immigrants who live outside the city core - haven't even heard of the ROM, much less visited it. He wants a new director who will make the museum, which charges $22 for adult admission, more affordable, and will reach out to ethnic and religious groups around the region. His hope: "A redefining of the term and concept of the museum," he said. "It should be a centre for innovation, information, technology, all combined together within the grasp of the common man, the average Ontarian," he said.
The talent pool for the ROM job is surprisingly deep, many people in the field say. Lord said she could think of five Canadians in high-end curatorial posts at major international art museums off the top of her head (she declined to name them, however, saying it wouldn't be fair to them).
Janice Price, of Luminato, said Canadian cultural leaders working abroad are sometimes called "the Maple Leaf Mafia," because they hold so many powerful positions around the globe.
Sues, the paleontologist, said he's heard his colleagues talking about the ROM post since the announcement of Thorsell's departure. "It's a very prestigious appointment," he said. Asked to name the qualifications a strong candidate for the ROM job should have, he said they should understand Canada and Toronto, have strong academic credentials and should have proven themselves at major museums in the United States or internationally - a list of attributes that coincidentally mirrors Sues's own résumé.
Would he be interested in the job? "Well nobody has approached me yet," he said. He added, "I certainly would not be averse to being in a conversation about it."
Special to The Globe and Mail