Canada Question
‘Designed to disrupt’: This summer ROM breathes new air into old institutions

‘Designed to disrupt’: This summer ROM breathes new air into old institutions

‘Designed to disrupt’: This summer ROM breathes new air into old institutions

Walking through the main floor of the ROM, you will encounter a white marble maiden, or kore as she is known in Greece, with long reddish braided hair cascading around her delicate face and a bemused smile that rivals the Mona Lisa. She too is a visitor to the museum, on loan from the Acropolis Museum in Athens to celebrate 80 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Greece.

Sculpted between 520–510 BC, Kore 670 is considered to be one of the finest statues of its kind. The beautiful young maiden, a preteen who rarely leaves home, is also one of the most important in the Acropolis’s collection in part because of the remnants of colorful paint on her form that have remarkably been preserved for centuries.

It’s a big deal that Kore 670 is on display in Toronto, and the ROM wants as many people as possible to see her while she’s in town. But this is a tough time not just for Canada’s most-visited museum, but for all cultural venues hoping to draw crowds back in after nearly two roller-coaster years of temporary closures and virtual programming. A rare Greek statue alone isn’t going to bring in enough people to return to pre-pandemic numbers.

And so this summer, from June 9 until Sept. 25, visitors to the ROM will have the chance to spend time with Kore 670 for free as part of the museum’s major revisioning and brand strategy. The first floor of the gallery is free to wander through, opening 80,000 square feet of exhibition space that includes several Asian galleries and two pandemic-related shows, as well as the Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples art and culture (already accessible year- round).

Living up the space will be a new pop-up coffee bar, performances and weekend events that will give people a chance to get up close to ROM objects and meet the experts behind their care. The ROM’s executive team wants to open doors, not just physically, but in how the museum is perceived.

“People have gotten out of the habit of engaging in the same way they were before,” says Josh Basseches, ROM Director and CEO, in an exclusive interview with the Star.

“How can we come out of the pandemic in a way that is a clarion call for people to come back to culture, back to the ROM and other cultural institutions, and emphasize the vitality of these institutions and the role that they play in people’s lives ?”

Directing that call to action fell to the museum’s marketing team, led by Lori Davison, chief marketing and communications officer, who joined the ROM in August 2020, from the SickKids Foundation. Market research revealed that while many people think of the ROM as a place that “inspires a greater understanding of world cultures, and encourages people to think about the big issues affecting our world today,” the majority of respondents couldn’t name a single Toronto venue that met those specific criteria.

Further research showed that many first-generation Canadians and a younger demographic, especially those whose families are new to the country, don’t have the nostalgic childhood memories of meandering through the halls to see dinosaurs on a school trip, often a key step to building that lifelong relationship. Many younger folks are also not interested in looking back unless it’s connected to experiences that reflect their own contemporary lives and concerns.

The challenge, Davison says, is to change perceptions, and that’s how the ROM’s latest campaign was born. At its center is a provocative six-minute film “designed to disrupt,” she says.

Birth is literally at the heart of this slick film, created by commercial director Mark Zibert, who previously produced spots for SickKids, Ikea and Adidas, aided by Shaunoh, a Mohawk visual artist and storyteller. Shot in murky underwater blue-greys with bright pops of light, a newborn baby traverses through history, observing through narration and striking visuals not just human accomplishments, but collective sorrows and violence, from bloody wars to stolen land. The emotional ending reveals the core of the campaign: “I will live on in what I leave behind.”

It’s a dramatic departure from what one might expect from a storied institution that has previously spent its marketing dollars advertising specific exhibitions or works on display. The hope is that the film connects not just the physical objects we leave behind but also our responsibilities as stewards of the planet.

Ultimately, the multi-prong campaign, which will also include marketing around the city and 30-second spots in movie theaters, is designed with the ambitious goal to connect the ROM to the word “immortal.”

“The reason we feel we have permission to attach ourselves to such a big word has a lot to do with what’s inside this building,” says Davison.

“We are an institution that takes as our launch point the 13 million objects, specimens and works of art that we have in this building,” says Basseches. “But they’re not static. They are about people in the natural world, and they each tell a story.”

As an example, Basseches points to the museum’s resident chiropterologist. While the ROM’s bat cave is one of its most popular permanent exhibitions, behind the scenes, the museum’s bat expert has been studying frozen tissue samples from the winged mammal to better understand its connection to the coronavirus, which could potentially lead to future vaccinations.

“We want to bring out those stories to change how people think about objects in a collection,” says Basseches, who also mentions the hiring of Soren Brothers as the museum’s first-ever climate curator. Brothers, who works across departments, are tasked with holistically connecting climate change and sustainability research with the ROM’s natural history and cultural work.

While free events and fancy videos will certainly attract, cultural institutions may face another deep-rooted challenge: drawing in younger crowds who march in Black Lives Matter protests and have a better understanding of how colonialism has harmed Indigenous peoples.

When asked how the ROM will overcome perceptions of mistrust toward institutions, in particular, the lack of diversity in whose voices were prioritized in the past, Basseches says the museum has been focused behind the scenes, and is in the process of hiring a curator of Indigenous art and culture. He also points to the much-anticipated “Kent Monkman: Being Legendary” exhibition coming this fall. Opening in October, the Cree artist produced 35 new works specifically for the ROM that will focus on Indigenous knowledge, past and future.

“Museums have maintained more public trust than almost any other public type of institution or government,” says Basseches. “But we still have a huge amount of work to do. This is an ongoing piece of work, breaking down systems of racism within institutions and how they are formed. It is critical and ongoing, but we have a platform that we feel like puts us in a better place to engage with these issues.”


Sue Carter is deputy editor of Inuit Arts Quarterly and a freelance contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @flinnflon


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