It's been a few weeks since Josh Basseches began his new gig as CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. The Boston-import comes to Toronto with an impressive resume (stints at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.), a lot of passion, and a plan to turn Toronto's venerable cultural hub into a thoroughly modern museum. Here he shares some of the secrets to his success, including why you should hunt metaphoric whales.
Practical measures yield magical results
Charles Currelly was the first director of the Royal Ontario Museum and his advice to future directors was to make sure that your office is as far from the entrance as it can possibly be. It is so important, in my position, to spend time in the galleries, to interact with museum staff, to see how the public spends time in the different exhibits. These are the things that you can't learn if you're cooped up in your office, sending e-mails and meeting with your staff. And of course you might know that, but when things get busy, we don't always get to the things we meant to get to. The great thing about Currelly's advice is that you make a practical decision that has far reaching implications: I'm walking through the museum to get to my office every day, whether I have time to or not.
Hunt (metaphoric) whales, not minnows
Several years ago I had the opportunity to study the culture of open boat whaling communities, the last ones in the world where people still went out and did Moby Dick-style whaling in small boats with hand-held harpoons. I spent four months living with Athneal Ollivierre, the head whale man, from the island of Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean. Every day they would go out on these vessels and hunt these extraordinary Goliaths of the sea. Most days they would come back unsuccessful. I remember asking Athneal why he did it – so much danger and often coming back with nothing. He said, if I'm going to hunt, I'm going to hunt for something important. Now myself, I'm a believer in whale conservation, I'm not a hunter. But that underlying message of going after something big has inspired me in my career and in the goals that I set for myself.
Make time for tiny transformations
Every day I spend a little bit of time going into one of the galleries and picking one object to look at and contemplate. A couple of days ago I picked a Martian meteorite. I spent time thinking about the light years it had traversed to end up on Earth. What it meant about Mars, the potential for life on Mars and by that I don't mean intelligent life, but bacteria life, evolution. Yesterday I focused on several Edo period Japanese woodblock prints – gazing at the extraordinary artistry. It only takes a few minutes and you come away with a sense of wonder and awe. It's what I would call a mini transformation, so that when you go back to your office you bring, in a micro way, a fresh perspective to what you're doing.
Let your path surprise you
I have two university-age kids, so I know that there is a lot of preoccupation around how to make career choices. There's so much emphasis on knowing what you're going to do and then charting a path. I feel like that's bunk. How many of us know what we want to do for the rest of our lives when we're 21? Even as an adult, how many of us can say what we want to be doing five years from now? I think the key is to identify what engages you, what makes you passionate – throw yourself into that and then believe in serendipity.
Get busy being busy
I believe that you should always take on one more thing than you think you can accomplish. That has been very critical to my success. About 10 years ago, I was running a major institution, spending time with my family, was president of the New England Museum Association. So I was already incredibly busy, but I had long wanted to go back to school to get a PhD in the history of art and architecture. I felt like if I didn't do it then, I probably would never do it, so I did it. At times it's challenging to juggle all of these things, but what happens when you take on more than you can manage is that you drop the things that aren't important. If you're going to be busy, why not be busy with the things you care about.