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Toronto's city builders: Turning the ROM inside out with Joshua Basseches

In this special series of interviews, YongeStreet sits down for a chat to get to know some of the most prominent city builders whose work, vision and passion for the city help shape Toronto’s present and future.

New ROM Director Joshua Basseches wants this museum to be your museum

People flocked to the Royal Ontario Museum last year to see the Pompeii exhibit. However, it’s been some time since the most talked-about feature of the 102-year-old institution was what’s inside. Instead, the renovated exterior, dominated by starchitect Daniel Libeskind’s $30 million Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, has garnered more attention since it was unveiled in 2007 than any of the exhibits.

Now the ROM’s new Director and CEO, Joshua Basseches, is hoping to shift the focus to the museum’s interconnectedness with the life of the city. His approach is both literal—with talk of redesigned entranceways and street-facing dining facilities—and philosophical.

“I’ve seen repeatedly the difference that can be made when a museum like the ROM—a major downtown museum—becomes a hub of activity,” he says. “Since the Crystal was built, the stretch of Bloor Street from Avenue Road down to the U of T has gone through quite a process of transformation. The building across the way is called MuseumHouse; it speaks to the city-building quality.”

Basseches has had plenty of opportunity to get to understand how museums work. Before his appointment to his current position, he had already served as Deputy Director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and Executive Director at Harvard University's Museum of Natural History; he also managed the exhibition program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

He says he see the ROM as well suited to serving the needs of the whole population of a diverse city like Toronto. “As a global institution whose collections come from all over the world, it gives us a meaningful way to connect to people,” he says.

He has taken to heart a quotation by Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, a son of Queen Victoria who was serving as Governor General of Canada when he opened the ROM in 1914 and expressed his “hope and belief that interest in this museum will not be allowed to flag in the future, but that this institution will ever be a pride to the citizens of Toronto, and will keep pace and size with the growth and development of the city.”

“The whole issue of relevancy is an essential one in my view,” Basseches says. “The collections are a part of it, but it has a connection to the whole role of museums in general. The major age of encyclopedic museum building was between 1875 and 1925, and at that time there was a notion that museums should be collecting, preserving, exhibiting and separating collections into separate buckets.”

Thus, for instance, a traditional museum might have one gallery for “Prehistory”, another for “The Classical World”, and so on. “Expertise had to do with this process of separation of knowledge. This carried into the 20th century,” and the prevailing model for museum activity was “sharing the knowledge of their curators with the public who came to learn,” he says.

But the museum world has changed over the past century. Basseches refers to a seminal statement by the late Stephen E. Weil, emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Museum Studies, that museums need to move from “being about something to being for someone”.

“It shifts the notion of purpose away from collecting and researching and exhibiting. It’s not an end alone; it’s also a means: how we engage a broad public, how we share information in a way that connects to people today, to be meaningful,” Basseches says.

“We need to be as a 21st-century museum focusing on how we make a difference, and cover topics that matter in people’s lives. While we may very much want to be saying something about history, culture, the origins of life on earth, we also have to be asking how those topics are relevant to people today, how we connect the past to the present,” he says. “So if we are asking questions about the origins of life, we also have to be looking at loss of species; if we are looking at climate change, we can ask what it means to indigenous artists on the Northwest coast who are experiencing the loss of ice.”

Making the connection between the collections and the viewer is “crucial,” he says. “That takes a variety of different forms. It used to be that curatorial research was presented as if there were no people involved. What’s more interesting to say is our curators are real live people doing research in the lab and in the collections, to allow people to see them doing their work. When you succeed in removing the veil, it captures the interest of the viewer in a whole new way and creates a narrative of this experience.”

Also, he says, “When we tackle cultural material that is controversial or that shows a change over time, we bring in people who are from the cultures involved, so there may be multiple voices.” For example, a show on Anishinabek art currently being prepared for Canada’s 2017 Sesquicentennial celebrations involves “a terrific curatorial partnership” of one member of the ROM’s curatorial staff with two outside curators of Anishinabek heritage.

“I am very committed to the notion that we want to be engaging with the city, engaging with our neighbours, engaging a variety of audiences: a literal and metaphorical throwing the doors open wide, not only trying to educate and inform, but promote awe and wonder and surprise and engage audiences’ emotions as well as their intellect. Most [studies say] that if you can engage people’s emotions, then there is a much more lasting effect of the museum’s visit,” Basseches says.

“I believe museums can create transformative experiences that are deeper than simply the conveying of information or facts. Fifteen years ago that was controversial; now it’s something the museum very much wants to be in the business of doing.”

For Basseches, “That’s where relevance lies, that’s where meaning lies, where people can come in and say ‘This is my museum.’”
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