Robert Amos continues his conversation with Jack Lohman, the new CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum. Part 1 was published last Saturday.
Jack Lohman has taken on the task of “recalibrating” the museum. He told me his aim is to “focus on B.C. and our own collection. People just don’t know what’s inside our museum. We’re sitting on a gold mine.”
“This was a world-famous museum when it was created in 1971, and it was so good, nobody would touch it,” Lohman said. “That’s why nothing happened here for so long — because it was such a success.” He went on to note some details that needed to be updated in the museum’s story line: “Colonials and how we got here are due for an extreme revision.” This encounter, as a historical incident, is dealt with “in four lines on a panel — is that the way we want to bring up the next generation? I think it’s a little embarassing.”
While he’s got plans for the outdated story line, many parts of the museum remain sacrosanct. “I wouldn’t dare touch the dioramas — they’re too good. They’re the best dioramas on our planet,” said Lohman, who is in a position to know. “They’re works of art.”
Yet he recognizes that things have changed. “We can’t just continue with this mythologizing,” he said. Our appreciation of First Nations’ history and the evolving role they must play in contemporary culture must be reconsidered. “We must push the myths to one side — or actually deal with the myths,” Lohman said. “A little bit of truth-telling would help.”
Specifically, he noted that while the Haida and Kwak’wakw waka are showcased, the story of the Songhees and Esquimalt people is largely absent. “Ultimately,” Lohman admitted, “we’re on their land.”
He is also responsible for the British Columbia Archives and immediately set up a temporary exhibit space there. “What are the issues today? Where do we find out about treaties?” he asked, then set about putting on show the Douglas Treaties, a series of treaties signed by some First Nations with the Colony of Vancouver Island.
Lohman is enthusiastic about local stories. His staff is already at work on a Gold Rush show — the geology, the mule saddles, a parlour piano to bring the songs to life. These are already in the collection. And he suggested a Hudson’s Bay Co. exhibit that he felt would be “a natural” to travel to the British Museum.
The staff is another reason Lohman is so pleased to be in Victoria. “When you think about people like Grant Keddie,” he said, referring to the long-standing curator of ethnology, “there are some gems.” He also mentioned Kathryn Bridge of the B.C. Archives — “one of my stars.”
There is a terrific amount of depth in those who work there. “We’ve had curators coming to work for 35 years who have never curated a show. They need to be given a task before they all retire.”
Unlike the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, the museum is not concerned with research for its own sake, but in the service of creating exhibits to showcase the best features of this province. “Fishing, lumber, coal mining — there’s a lot to do,” Lohman sighed.
“You can get totally overwhelmed. … You need to bring your workforce with you. I inherited the typical government ‘;silo’ structure but we’re looking at a molecular geometry, new clusters of people working together.”
My conversation with Lohman was candid and wide-ranging. He realizes that “this museum can play an important role in stimulating the local economy. That’s where international touring shows will help. My caveat is that they must be less Hollywood-focused.” He acknowledged that the Titantic exhibition was a great hit, but his goal is to bring out our own collection.
He’s eager to support the rest of the cultural community. We discussed the lack of adequate storage space at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. “It looks terrible,” he admitted. “Maybe, if I’m creating more storage for the museum, we should just do one storage building.” A unique collaboration, indeed.
And the Maritime Museum? Its lack of a proper facility is “somewhat of a disgrace.” He pointed out that many small cities in Australia have maritime museums, and Bergen, Norway, has two. “It’s such a good collection,” Lohman said, “with an abundance of stories to tell. I’m giving them as much support as I can. With the development of the harbour, they should be part of the plan.”
And Emily Carr? “That’s a card I’ll play to raise money from the government,” Lohman said. “Because Emily Carr is the one artist they all know.” The B.C. Archives collection holds more than 1,200 pieces by Carr, a fact that will help in his application to put the facility on UNESCO’s world heritage list of archives. He’s also helping London’s Dulwich Gallery prepare a major Carr exhibition in 2015. When he asked me, “Do you think we should have an Emily Carr gallery?” I told him it is long overdue.
Not all his plans are expensive. He spoke of enhancing Thunderbird Park. “I’d like to have a little bit of sound there. I don’t know where it would come from — in the grass or something.”
It is my hope that the new CEO will bring our remarkable collection, staff and stories to the attention of the people of Victoria, to the influential folks in Vancouver and Ottawa, and to international colleagues. With his skills and connections, the future of the Royal B.C. Museum looks bright.
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