By Emily Trace
In the year of living covidly, the Royal Ontario Museum might be the only Toronto venue cavernous enough to make social distancing relatively simple. Even so, the institution has redirected resources towards online offerings through ROM at Home and ROMKids with an eye to how their programming can benefit Ontarians sheltering in place. Judith John, Vice President of Marketing & Engagement for the ROM Governors, joined me to discuss the powerful role of museums in a year like 2020. She spoke candidly and encouragingly about how staying relevant is the duty of a museum even when it requires gutsy choices, the importance of contextualizing unsavoury parts of history, and the responsibility of connecting people to how past civilizations survived, solved problems, and remade themselves through adversity. From meditations on colonialism to meditation classes in the Atrium, Judith shares the significant spectrum of resources that the ROM has to offer an ailing public.
Can you walk me through the journey
from our first lockdown in March and the challenges of maintaining engagement?
The ROM’s strategic plan actually proposed that we strengthen our full digital infrastructure, and increase online programming. We had made inroads: a long-distance learning program, putting our collections online and now have probably a hundred thousand works of art and artifacts up to make them accessible to people 24/7 wherever they are. But there's no doubt this current situation accelerated that to an extraordinary extent. So we combed the archives of lectures that some of our curators have given within the museum and created a suite of new content. I don’t think our online activity will retract after we re-open; there’s clearly a growing appetite for this kind of connection.
But it has been a scramble because we weren’t fully resourced nor were we necessarily experts at it, so it’s taken some creative minds and lots of work. Our online tours of a couple current exhibitions at the Museum right now are fantastic, and have been very successful because people want to see the shows but can’t come to the ROM right now. We are a world museum and to reach out to the world you now have to do it digitally. Our mandate is to be the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto that connects to the people of Toronto, Ontario, Canada and beyond.
We're doing an event on January 18 called Blue Monday —which is considered the saddest day of the year for people. It always has been; it has to do with post-holiday letdown, getting your credit card bills that day for everything you spent in December, the bleak weather… and this year the added downer of Covid. So we’re filming a meditation expert in a few of our galleries with a few meaningful objects from different cultures. She’ll then lead some of our supporters through a mindfulness exercise inspired by these artifacts from our collections.
It requires some serious flexibility to adapt to this landscape, but the ROM showed early last year with an Instagram makeover that it was capable of making refreshing, unexpected bold moves with its digital presence. Did that help with reorienting around the pandemic?
It wasn’t as much reorienting but expanding our successful social media strategy that has been so popular and brought such recognition to the ROM. It’s a contrast to any lingering impression that this is a stodgy 112-year-old organization… but in fact, this has always been an organization reflective of the time it’s in.
An example of this is the ROM’s traditional Queen’s Park entrance that leads into our stunning rotunda…(which was a Jeopardy question last week!) That rotunda was created during the Great Depression as a means of renewing people’s faith in the future, giving people jobs and even using only Ontario stone. I'm proud to know that attitude and history, because we felt the same way during these difficult few months… we’re going to get through this; we’re going to survive it, and the ROM will be a lovely and lively place again.
It has so much power for people to see a museum dignify the full historical context of an issue, given that museums have their own role in the history of colonialism. It makes a real difference to acknowledge unsavoury truths in a way that doesn’t subtly bias attendees towards the status quo.
It is true that many museums in North American and Europe came about because privileged citizens travelled to different countries and brought back objects and artifacts to their own countries. The ROM has a wonderful curator who’s very involved in repatriating some of our Indigenous collection. It requires delicacy and a highly sensitive approach, because there are so many valid perspectives on the right thing to do. In our Indigenous gallery—free to the public at all times, right on the main floor—we always have an interpreter there from the Indigenous community to try to explain some of it. And of course there is no single voice for the Indigenous community, just as there is no one Black voice, and no one Asian voice, so we’re trying to be respectful at all times while continuing to learn how to best use our tools to expand broader knowledge and understanding.
When our founders created the ROM 112 years ago the idea was not just to have a Canadian museum but to share with people the richness of the entire world—that’s a very sophisticated view in the late 1800s.
For smART’s last issue, I chatted with the barre instructor who led fitness classes in the Van Gogh exhibit, Amy Walsh, and she brought up the ROM as a perfect venue for a yoga class; interested?
We’ve thought of that! We’ve had those classes in the past, along with enormously successful kids’ sleepovers at the ROM. That’s why I was so happy that we’re organizing this meditation program, because it will reflect on ROM in a different way. The Museum has vast and intimate space, and to be doing something beautiful and thoughtful in the Chinese gallery... you just couldn't get a better environment for thinking about history, what people produced, and how sophisticated civilizations have been over time.
I think a lot of people this year have felt a greater sense of hopelessness about the future of human civilization. But as we’ve been chatting, I’ve imagined walking into the ROM and being so inspired by how past civilizations have evolved. I think someone might walk out again with more hope for the future after being immersed in the past.
I’m so glad you said that; it’s how I’ve felt from the very beginning. The Museum is all about seeing the past as present. Yes, these are really grim days. But when I come into the ROM I am both awed and heartened to realize that civilisations have survived a lot. More than ever, our cultural institutions matter now. In terms of humanizing what we are experiencing, offering connection, comfort, support and solace, as well as all kinds of fundamental cultural expression that can be so restorative and valuable. The ROM is a great place to expand your perspective, and hearten your soul.
I registered for Reading Winnie in 2020 as soon as I read the description; it’s a beautiful idea to examine what each character teaches us about mental health and emotional regulation under stress. It made me think about the role of a museum during a time like ours, in offering a connection to history, showing these crises aren’t as unprecedented as they feel, and in breaking open cultural artefacts like Winnie the Pooh to find relevant resources.
Oh, I so believe that is the truth! I think we are all about connecting people, to history and each other. That is the role of a museum: you can walk through the halls of the ROM and see civilizations that have peaked and crumbled, but the remnants help you understand a kind of continuum. And bringing something like Winnie, especially now… my favourite philosopher is Winnie the Pooh. It's important in a memory and it's important in a moment.
Our job is to bring people together to help understand the issues of the day, and so we have a new curatorship of climate change because that’s a transformational issue for our world. A donor funded this curator because the ROM has the collections that speak to the impact of climate change over time; we have the programming capacity to bring experts in, to use our collections for learning. And we have the capacity as a community hub to actually galvanize people around what they can do.
2020 has also seen a wide-scale examination of who is in charge. Black Lives Matter and Not Another Black Life have pushed us to examine our cultural institutions and paradigms that govern our social reality. Will that factor into decisions about who is cultivating and curating these exhibits?
Absolutely; we are very driven by representing people—actually seeing the diversity of Toronto, the world’s most diverse city—and seeing the impact of actions in history on people's lives.
I'll give you a really good example: there's a marvellous exhibition at the ROM that'll be here for a while called “Chintz: The Fabric that Changed the World”. The ROM has one of the world's best collections of chintz, a fabric that dates back more than 800 years. This show features our chintz collection but… dare I say, the thread of the show is more than just looking at fabric—but looking at the impact it had on the world.
When Europeans first discovered chintz in India, they went berserk for it. It was the biggest import; the spice traders from Indonesia fell in love with chintz and rerouted their spice routes for it. The Brits especially adored it, and it was in such demand that they had to figure out how they could manufacture this handmade fabric in England… which led to the Industrial Revolution as they discovered these techniques. But because they couldn't get enough cotton to supply the factories with cotton to make chintz, they started slave plantations in all their colonies to bring cotton back to Britain.
And so if you look at the trajectory of history that this fabric caused… it's a stunning story. It’s a classic example of what the ROM can do: take a beautiful object which we have in our collection, share it with the public, but include the context of how something like that has a devastating domino effect in our world, even today.
I know it's such an unpredictable time, but what does 2021 look like for the ROM?
Well, I’m an optimist, so I’m convinced that we will be doing things differently and better in some respects. I think we will try to present the ROM in a new way that is dynamic and focused on what we offer that no one else can. No other institution is as large, has twelve million amazing objects that are mostly not on-view. But more than that, the ROM has a unique position in bringing people all walks of life together and galvanizing them around understanding the issues.
So I think it will be a very activated ROM. I think we’ll be considering how to transform this from being ‘the museum I went to as a kid to see the dinosaurs, and if I have kids I might go back and take them to the dinosaurs’ to one that is really relevant to people’s lives. I think we’ve done some remarkable things that way, to bring speakers and to express different points of view.
A couple years ago we had an exhibition by a photographer during the beginning of the #MeToo movement. This photographer was really well-known in India for his beautiful work, but when the show opened at the Met in New York there was picketing and calls to take it down because his ex-wife revealed his abuse. By then it was coming to the ROM, and we seriously considered the impact of our hosting this exhibition. Do we refuse to take it now because there was controversy, or do we use the controversy as a way to stimulate discussion and understanding?
I was proud that we hosted both the exhibition and a parallel exhibition that had information, documentation, and an interview with his wife so people could take the experience, learn from it, and make their own judgments. I think that's the role of an organization that's got the pulse on the times and helps people understand: what are the ripple effects of everything we do: good, bad, and sometimes really ugly? But don't shy away from it. We have to be courageous and committed to pursuing the truth.
Royal Ontario Musuem
Judith John by Olga Nabatova