Museums at the Crossroads?: Essays on cultural institutions in a time of change
By Jack Lohman
Royal B.C. Museum, 268 pages, $19.95
Given the recent kerfuffle over the compensation package being given to Jack Lohman, the chief executive officer at the Royal B.C. Museum, this book is highly relevant.
It is a collection of essays and speeches by Lohman since 1997, and it provides a crash course on his views on where museums should be headed. If our museum is to be the showpiece for his vision, it’s good to know what this vision looks like.
That said, what Lohman has written in this book is entirely in keeping with what he has said since his arrival here. He wants RBCM to be working on an international level, and wants it to be seen as a leading museum around the world.
He has argued that one aspect that makes this museum special is its connection to First Nations, and in this book he notes that First Nations should be Canada’s biggest tourist draw. But there is a catch.
“The primary focus of many First Nations was never material production,” he writes. “Indeed, the glory of many indigenous belief systems in the Americas was their light footprint on the land, its invisibility, its harmonious renewal.”
As Lohman says, it is almost impossible to accurately portray cultures such as that, and failure follows failure, but that does not mean that museums should not try.
Lohman also says that museums in Canada could easily retreat into “provincial isolation,” and not even try to work on a global scale. That would be wrong, he says.
“This is the moment for museums to stop thinking small,” he writes. “It’s a moment of change, and we need big ideas, bold ambitions and strong leadership.”
Lohman argues that cultural exhibitions must be on a grander scale, and museums need to look beyond their boundaries.
What does that mean for RBCM? Here’s one example.
The museum is working on a major exhibit on gold rushes. That gets right to the heart of our history, since it was the Fraser River gold rush of 1858 that helped create the colony of British Columbia and sparked the rapid development of Victoria, the gateway to the gold.
We have also seen other rushes, such as into the Cariboo a few years later, and in the Klondike at the end of the 19th century. “It’s a very B.C. story,” Lohman writes.
But ours were hardly the only gold rushes in the world, and Lohman says we could never really understand our own rushes without seeing how other regions were affected.
That means that the RBCM gold rush exhibit will draw on material from other areas, such as California, Australia and England. Collaboration with other institutions is vital.
It’s all about placing our own history in context, and seeing how events outside British Columbia have helped to shape our own history.
That’s a key part of operating on a global scale — and again, that is one of Lohman’s stated goals.
In the book’s final essay, also entitled Museums at the Crossroads?, Lohman stresses the need for institutions to know their limits.
Why? Because those limits, he says, need to be surpassed. “You need to see what’s holding you back in order to progress,” he says.
Lohman’s book has a conversational style that makes it an easy read, and he does not shy away from the fact that there is hard work ahead. It’s a wide-ranging collection of essays that will do much to give us a sense of where he would like to take our museum.
And above all, it should settle any petty arguments about whether Lohman is worth the money he’s getting from us.
The reviewer is editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist, and a member of the board of Canada’s History Society.