Soren Brothers’s office at the Royal Ontario Museum is situated between the institution’s two curatorial departments: art and culture, and science and natural history. The choice of location is both deliberate and symbolic. As the ROM’s inaugural curator of climate change, Dr. Brothers’s work will straddle the realms of communication and climatology.
The curatorship is the first position of its kind at any major museum in North America, and possibly the world. While Dr. Brothers will inevitably make the role his own, his mandate is clear: ensure the museum’s collections and programming give the climate crisis the attention it deserves.
“This is the best time to be having these conversations,” he told The Globe and Mail. “And it’s a critical time to be acting.”
Stark evidence of global warming piled up this year as the world suffered deadly heat waves, wildfires, droughts, floods and storms. In August, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its starkest report yet, warning that climate change is proceeding at a faster pace than previously thought, and producing widespread effects that are more definitively tied to human influence than ever before. At COP26, the two-week UN climate-change conference that concluded in Glasgow, Scotland, on Saturday, nearly 200 countries endorsed a deal to cut carbon emissions, scale back the use of coal and fossil fuels and provide more support to developing countries to help them adapt to global warming.
The ROM is Canada’s largest museum – a scientific and research institute with 270,000 square feet of gallery space and upward of 1.5 million visitors in a typical fiscal year. Dr. Brothers was selected for the curatorship after a months-long international search involving more than 50 candidates. The endowed position was financed by Toronto’s Allan Shiff, whose $1.5-million donation to the museum was matched by the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust.
In an interview with The Globe announcing the funding last year, Mr. Shiff said he “wasn’t interested in seeing an exhibition where people come and say, ‘Wasn’t that interesting?’ and then go home and forget about it.” Mr. Shiff, a long-time ROM member who grew up on a farm and pursued a career in real estate, said he wants the museum to feature symposiums, exhibits and children’s classes that engage visitors on key issues related to climate change. The best way to achieve this, in his mind, was to create a dedicated and permanent staff position.
Dr. Brothers spent years researching and working in countries such as Germany, Japan and, most recently, the United States, but the curatorship position lured him home. He grew up in Toronto, where he spent much of his childhood looking under rocks, collecting insects, jotting down field notes and memorizing the Latin names of animals. His connection to the ROM started at a young age thanks to his grandfather, who purchased museum memberships for the family every year.
Dr. Brothers’s research focuses on the effects of global warming on lakes, particularly how changes in aquatic systems can influence the greenhouse-gas emissions they release into the atmosphere. One of his most recent projects involved analyzing 23 years of data from 19 lakes near Rankin Inlet, Nunavut – a swath of the sub-Arctic that the research team described as poorly studied but geographically significant. The study found that the lakes were emitting less carbon dioxide than expected, likely because of the effects of shortening ice-cover periods. This, Dr. Brothers and his co-authors wrote in a paper published in January in the journal Global Biochemical Cycles, “is significant as it improves our understanding of regional variation in how high-latitude lakes are responding to climate change.”
The 39-year-old conservation biologist has long been interested in both science and politics. He said he has a strong desire to not only understand the world’s diverse ecosystems but also to be part of the conversation around managing them. For that conversation to be productive, Dr. Brothers said, the tone can’t be singularly negative. “A major challenge – and this is something I’ve been speaking to [ROM] programmers about – is shifting the narrative away from the doomsday aspects of climate change,” he said. “People respond more to positive and inspirational messaging.”
ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches said it is important for the inaugural curator to have “credibility as a serious, active scientist,” but also strong communication skills, a clear vision for the role and an authentic interest in working with Indigenous communities.
The role doesn’t have a defined timeline and will be funded in perpetuity. Mr. Basseches said he is looking forward to seeing how Dr. Brothers engages with curators across the museum, first by taking advantage of existing collections and exhibitions, and then by developing new programming.
“For our institution to make a change and impact in the community … we have to be asking, ‘What are the most pressing issues of the day?’ ” Mr. Basseches said. “If institutions like the ROM aren’t addressing critical topics like climate change, we start to move to the sidelines of public engagement and public discourse.”