Not any more

ROM enters new era

In Canada on September 24, 2010 at 08:56

Janet Carding, who believes video displays can help bring museum collections to life, grins at a clip of an actor reading a passage from the annals of classical Chinese history.

“He’s saying that after the death of the first emperor, his empire was destroyed relatively quickly,” says Ms. Carding, who as of this month has become the director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum — not to topple an empire, maybe just to put a friendlier face on it.

The museum’s temporary, designed-in-house exhibition of terracotta warriors on loan from China offers food for thought: William Thorsell’s decade at the head of the country’s largest museum was hardly as back-breaking for the ROM staff as, say, the rule of Ying Zheng was for labourers of the Qin Dynasty. But the nearly eight-year, $270-million Renaissance ROM renewal meant stakeholders have lived in interesting times, as the Chinese proverb goes.

The project left behind the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, whose aesthetics still divide the city, and which has flummoxed curators (thanks to the strange angles); meanwhile, the price of taking the family for an afternoon at the museum has ballooned — adult admission now stands at $24, twice what it was in 2000, and it costs $7 extra to see The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army.

There is no denying that the ROM is now a top-calibre museum in many respects, which could not be said at the outset of the decade. But Mr. Thorsell was no populist. Observers have suggested the former ROM director projected his persona onto the museum, leaving it formal, cerebral, possibly too adult; a tidily ordered reflection of his idea that he was running “a collections-based museum, not a theme park.”

Now, in Ms. Carding, the museum has an affable leader who might have the common touch needed to finally put it over the top of an elusive goal of 1.3 million annual visitors. The museum set that bar during the course of Renaissance ROM, but has yet to achieve it, having reached just over one million in the year ending in March.

Ms. Carding, a 45-year-old Englishwoman, has more than two decades of experience as a museum curator and administrator. She most recently worked as second-in-command at the Australian Museum, a reasonably close Sydney equivalent to the ROM.

Having set foot here just twice before, she has been leading the ROM barely 10 days — not quite enough time to have learned the staff’s names and which elevators go where, let alone enough to plan sweeping changes. But already, on a strolling interview through the museum yesterday, she said Torontonians can expect “evolutionary change, not revolutionary.”

“It’s not my style to walk in through the door with a vision, a fait accompli, of how I want things to be different,” she says. “It’s not like I’ve come in with an agenda.”

Still, she hints that a Carding dynasty lasting 10 years could prove to have been a time of relative calm; one of a somewhat warmer and friendlier ROM building relationships with the city. Technology and community engagement, she says, could play a larger role — and children could become a focus again.

“One of the things I’m very interested in is how young people engage with the museum.… The research that’s been done across various museums says [around seven] is a good age for creating a lifelong museum visitor,” Ms. Carding says.

Children who enjoy memorable times in museums “become people who see museums as part of their life. One thing we have to do is continually create new museum visitors.”

Today’s seven-year-olds, she notes, may need some bells and whistles to prod them into taking an interest in the objects themselves.

Memorable visits can happen at any age. In early 2009, this reporter had the pleasure of visiting the Australian Museum’s major exhibition on Australian wild animals. It incorporated several newfangled technological flourishes, including a flat horizontal screen the size of a boardroom table. It came to life with animated beasts and creepy crawlies when touched. It was impossible not to reflect that such a gizmo is not the sort of thing typically encountered in Mr. Thorsell’s ROM.

“That was something we were proud of. The challenge was showing people dangerous Australian animals without coming face-to-face with a saltwater crocodile, which I wouldn’t want to do,” Ms. Carding says.

“And yes, we used technology there — not for its own sake, but because it makes for a really memorable exhibit. People were spending 45 minutes at that table and they were learning all sorts of things about the animals.”

Ms. Carding also imagines the role of the ROM’s website “gradually ramping up,” as will peeks at the behind-the-scenes research that staff conduct all the time.

At the Australian Museum, she administered a program of national science awards called the Eureka Prize. The new ROM director is open to exploring whether such a thing is needed in Canada.

In the meantime, the new director has a centenary to plan — the ROM turns 100 in 2012. (Don’t be surprised if the celebrations involve dinosaurs from South Africa.)

For the record, Ms. Carding counts the Crystal as something to celebrate. “I like it. I like the challenge that it presents us with. And I love the statement that it makes about the museum being a contemporary place as well as a historical place.”


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