Allan Shiff grew up on a farm and occasionally hiked the Bruce Trail in Southern Ontario, but he had no firm connection to environmental causes – until 2006. That’s when the British government released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a massive report by noted economist Nicholas Stern that quantified the impact of climate change on the global economy.
Now 83, Shiff is thinking about his children’s and his grandchildren’s inheritance. But not of his money. Of the planet. To that end, Shiff donated $1.5-million to the Royal Ontario Museum for the creation of the Allan and Helaine Shiff Curatorship of Climate Change – an endowed role that the ROM believes is a world first among major museums. The donation was matched by the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust.
In his lifetime Shiff has seen the issue of climate change go from “zero to an existential threat.”
“Sadly, we’re getting free advertising: the fires that are going on today in the western United States, the smoke drifting up to British Columbia, the typhoons, the Arctic ice shelves in Canada that are disappearing,” he said. “To sit back and do nothing is a very dangerous thing.”
The international search for the inaugural curator began in earnest earlier this month, after being put on pause at the outset of the pandemic. The chosen candidate will not only be charged with ensuring that the ROM’s collections contain items that reflect environmental issues, but also that the museum’s programming – from symposiums to exhibitions and children’s classes – engages visitors on key matters related to climate change.
Already, the ROM is integrating environment-related programming into its calendar. The Cloth that Changed the World, which opened earlier this month, takes a look at Indian chintz and its relationship with water crises. Opening in November, Wildlife Photographer of the Year features insights from ROM biodiversity experts. Elias Sime: Tightrope, which opens in the spring, uses repurposed electronic components to comment on the urgency of ecological sustainability. And next summer’s Into the Deep: A Tale of Three Whales explores the impacts of climate change on endangered whale species.
Shiff, though, wants his contribution to do more than fund shows that come and go. “I was not interested in seeing an exhibition where people come and say, ‘Wasn’t that fascinating?’ and then go home and forget about it,” he said. “The project must involve citizen engagement."
The ROM is Canada’s largest museum, with 270,000 square feet of gallery space and upward of 1.5 million visitors in a typical fiscal year. ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches said the institution is projecting that attendance will be cut in half this year due to the pandemic. Still, he is optimistic that the inaugural curator will be able to leverage the museum’s “bully pulpit” in order to educate the public and influence decision-makers.
“We’re one of the few great museums in the world that cut across art, culture and nature,” he said. “Given that the climate crisis is really about the interrelationship between human actions and the natural world, we’re uniquely situated to address it.”
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