Between 1850 and 1854, Vancouver Island governor James Douglas negotiated 14 treaties with local First Nations.
Royal B.C. Museum CEO Jack Lohman was stunned when he found out the Victoria institution still had the original documents tucked away on a shelf. He applied to have them added to the Memory of the World, UNESCO’s register of important world heritage objects.
“These 14 extraordinary pre-Confederation treaties [are] written in sort of Charles Dickens handwriting, [and] have pieces of bark where the First Nations signed them,” he says. “The First Nations signed them with pieces of plants. They’re extraordinary ethnobotany testaments.”
The Douglas Treaties aren’t the only hidden gems at the Royal B.C. Museum, which has seven million items in its collection. Lohman thinks it’s one of the world’s great unknown museums.
He should know — he’s worked all over the world. The 55-year-old came to Victoria in 2012 after a decade at the Museum of London (England, not Ontario).
Before the London gig he was the chief executive of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, South Africa, a collection of 15 national museums. For the past six years he was chairman of the board of the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland. He’s a professor in museum design at Bergen National Academy of the Arts in Norway, and the editor in chief of a Museums and Diversity series put out by UNESCO. He’s currently assisting four museums in Qatar in the Middle East.
Asked how many languages he speaks, he smiles. “Supposedly 12, but if you heard my Portuguese … if I speak Portuguese, people assume I’m Brazilian,” replies Lohman, who was born in London to Polish immigrant parents. “I do like languages. I haven’t got round to Haida. I said I’d learn a Northwest Coast [native language], I’ll go do that in the summer.”
So when Lohman says he wants to bring the Royal B.C. Museum to the world stage, he means it. He’s even written a book, Museums at the Crossroads, laying out his vision for how museums should adapt to the changing times.
“The book is about the choices that institutions make,” says the personable Lohman, who was named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire on the Queen’s birthday in 2012.
“The good choices, the bad choices, the long-term choices. It’s about looking at how you reinvent museums. And, really, the sort of central, dominant message is ultimately museums are not a sideshow. They are a right, like education, like health, like justice, like law. They have a transformative power over individuals, and they allow us to lead better lives, ultimately.”
Lohman feels many museums are in need of “rescripting.” A good example is the Museum of London.
“In the case of the Museum of London, the narrative stopped in 1914,” he says. “Can you imagine, a city museum where you don’t talk about the two world wars or the postwar reconstruction, the great moments [like] Diana’s funeral — there are all these great amazing events that have happened. Three Olympic Games.
“All those things were just not written in there. So clearly it was. ‘Come on guys, we’ve got to tell the story here, we’ve got to bring it up to date.’ ”
The Royal B.C. Museum starts its own rescripting project next week. Lohman and his staff will be going through the museum, asking: “What is the meta narrative here, what is the story, what are we actually telling people?”
“You’re respecting the beauty of the museum, the style, the extraordinary dioramas, but you’re looking at the script,” he says. “The script is now 50 years old, so much as you’d update a textbook,” you update the museum script, he continues. “You wouldn’t use a textbook your grandmother had been using.”
It’s timely to look at the Royal B.C. Museum, because there are two big anniversaries coming up: the 150th anniversary of confederation in 2017, and the 150th anniversary of British Columbia joining Canada in 2021.
Lohman thinks the Royal B.C. Museum was well run when he arrived, but a bit “flat-footed.”
“In a way, it needed to have a little more magic sprinkled over it, if you like, some sparkle brought back to it,” Lohman says.
“It’s part of plugging into the energy that already exists in this province, and being part of that energy, rather than operating in its own vacuum. And really talking up the collections.”
Lohman wants the Royal B.C. Museum to engage with British Columbians by taking its collections around the province, rather than just keeping them in Victoria. Sometimes this means lending them to other institutions — many of the key pieces in the landmark Charles Edenshaw exhibition currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery come from the Royal B.C. Museum.
“We’ve got to get the material out,” he says. “We want to become a world-class museum. There’s no point sitting on the treasures. You’ve got to make sure they’re working, and constantly adding to public value.”
He also wants to raise the museum’s international profile. Many of the paintings at an upcoming Emily Carr exhibition in London will be from the Royal B.C. Museum, which has 1,200 works by Carr in its collection.
He credits the staff at the museum with educating him about the collection.
“I have to give all credit to my curators and archivists and scientists, because I asked them each in for a meeting and said, ‘Please bring whatever you think is really important and show it to me,’ ” he says.
“The whole idea is that every Thursday morning I sit down with an object. I have to look at objects — that’s why you work in a museum, that’s part of the joy, looking at collections.
“But you’re also looking at the potential of the team you’ve got. For me, it’s about amplifying the creativity of your team. Your stimulus package, if you like, is about ratcheting up people’s energy levels, and reminding them of the direction.”
The direction is to come up with “public output” in the form of an exhibition, a publication or a website.
“I believe museums have got a job — people, teachers et cetera turn to museums for history,” he says. “They don’t turn to textbooks, they look to museums. In a way, we must be leaders. We can’t just sort of sit back and not update, not tell the stories. We’ve got a program focusing on British Columbia. We’ve actually mapped something out over the next 10 years, that’s how far ahead we’re already thinking.”
To that end, the Royal B.C. Museum has been working on an exhibition to mark the anniversary of the 1855 Fraser River Gold Rush. And Lohman is very excited about a forthcoming exhibit of the work of Frederick Dally, an English photographer who came to B.C. in 1862 and photographed the Cariboo Gold Rush.
“Imagine, he’s carrying his glass plates — and cumbersome photo equipment — on a mule up the Cariboo wagon trail as it’s being built. He’s only got 21 pieces of glass,” Lohman says.
“He’s making his decision about which 21 photographs he’s going to take, going up to Barkerville. So when he stops at the chasm [near Clinton], he decides, ‘My God, this is so dramatic, I’m going to use one of my 21 good wishes here.’
“And so there are 21 photographs from his trip in [the 1860s]. This is just after the invention of photographs. Where are those photographs? In the Royal B.C. Museum. Has anyone seen them? No. Have they been published? No.
“I’ve got Canada’s best curator of photography, Joan Schwartz, and I’ve asked her to curate a show: ‘I want you to put Frederick Dally on the map.’ Not just in Victoria, globally.
“Why doesn’t the world know about these photographs? They’re so important.”