ROM set to announce new CEO… but what should his or her goal be?

In a matter of weeks, or even days, the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto Canada,will be announcing who their next CEO is going to be.

I dont have any knowledge as to who it is, but, can certainly say that the new leader has an almost impossible act to follow.

William Thorsell, the museums current leader, will be retiring in August. His ten year termat the museum was one of unprecedented growth. Under his leadership the ROM built an expansion that saw its Bloor Street frontage turned quite literally into a giant crystal.

Collections that had been in storage from the Middle East, South Asia, South America, the American Southwest and Oceania are now on display inside the crystal. The museum is also in the process of building new galleries dedicated to Ancient Rome and Byzantium.

Over the past decade the museum has managed to land some major special exhibits. Last summer it played host to a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. This summer it will open the largest Terracotta Warriors show ever to come to North America.

It even got the opportunity to display the (second) oldest copy of the Ten Commandments – albeit for one week only. The line to see the scroll tailed off for nearly a kilometre.

Of course Thorsells rule was no pax ROMana there was plenty of controversy to go around. The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit attracted street protests, and a request from Jordan that the scrolls themselves be seized. The museum also made an error in showing the James Ossuary in 2002. It blew up on them when an Israel Antiquities Authority investigation determined the inscription on it to be fake. There is also an active, indeed never-ending, architectural debate going on about the merits of designing the expansion in the shape of a crystal.

But whats a museum without some controversy? Its common now for major museums and galleries to take some tough headlines. Take a look at the Elgin Marbles and the British Museum, the Louvre andallegedlystolen artefactsor the Met and naked art stunts … Ok maybe that last one doesnt count.

So what challenges will the ROMs new CEO face? And more importantly – what great project should Canada’s largest museum now embark on?

CHALLENGE ONE – Nubia and Eastern Rome

One of the ROMs strengths is that it has a comprehensive collection of Nubian antiquities. Archaeologist Pamela Rose, who recently discovered a 1st millennium BC dark age settlement at Qasr Ibrim, stopped by Toronto specifically to examine pottery samples at the museum.

Last January museum officials told Heritage Key that theyare hopeful that funding would emerge to build a new Nubian gallery, along with one dedicated to the Eastern Roman Empire. However since that time no announcement about these galleries has been made. It seems that one of the top priorities for the new CEO is to turnhopes into financial reality.

CHALLENGE TWO – Government funding

Thorsell enjoyed strong support from all levels of government during his term. The federal government and the province both helped fund the museums projects.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls came to the museum the premier himself was there to announce support. When the museum needed money to kick-start its Rome and Byzantine galleries, the federal minister for infrastructure, John Baird, showed up in January 2010 to cut a check.

The new CEO will probably find financial support for major projects harder to come by. Restraint is the operative word used by politicians in Canada when describing the future.

The Ontario government is running a budget deficit of nearly $20 billion CDN and has already announced delays in building new light rail transit in Toronto. The federal government is facing a deficit in the neighbourhood of $50 billion and their stimulus program, which is funding construction of the new Rome and Byzantine galleries, will be ending in the spring of 2011.

The ROM, of course, is not captive to the government when it comes to funding. It charges fees for admission and museum membership.It also has an active fundraising program. In fact the ROMs crystal expansion is named after Michael Lee-Chin, one of its biggest contributors.

If government goes to ground with fundingthenmoney fromadmission/membership and private donations will be all the more important for the ROM and a top priority for the new CEO.

CHALLENGE THREE – The next big project

What do you do after galleries for Nubia and Eastern Rome have been built? Do you plan another large expansion?

That seems unlikely.

In order to do that, you need two things space and money. The museum is bordered by the University of Toronto on the west Bloor on the north and Queens Park crescentto the east. To the south lies the defunct McLaughlin Planetarium which has recently been sold tothe University of Toronto(which has its own need for space).

So even if the cash were readily available it would be pretty hard to do a major spurt of growth without knocking down a building somewhere.

No, the next big project needs to be one that doesnt involve construction cranes. One avenue the museum should look at is building up its research capabilities by hiring more archaeologists, geologists and life scientists, and fully funding their research.

The next big project needs to be one that doesnt involve construction cranes.

Its a worthy goal and one that is already being pursued to some extent.

Just a year ago the museum hired Dr. Clemens Reichel, the director of the Hamoukar project in Syria. The work his team is doing is amazing, to say the least. We now know that Hamoukar is one of the oldest cities in the world and also experienced the first known war in human history. It pitted the sites local residents against Uruk, no less! As Im writing this his team is in the field continuing their investigation of the site.

Dr. Robert Masons work is another example of headline grabbing research at the museum. Last summer his team found a Neolithic era landscape that has stone circles, alignments and, what appears to be, burial cairns. They will be back in the field this summer trying to learn more about it.

So what other reasons are there to hire more archaeologists and do more research?

For one thing archaeological research is not anywhere near as expensive as building an expansion. To doresearch you need good lab facilities (already available at ROM/U of T), a large research library (again readily available at ROM/U of T), an annual salary (60/70 K a year for an entry levelcurator). After that you need funds for travel, conservation, equipment, some field assistants… and thats about it. In comparison the costsfor the ROM’s expansion were estimatedto be$270 million dollars.

Another point to consider -right now is an excellent time to hire archaeologists.

The financial crisis has hit academia hard, leaving many recent grads looking for institutions willing to fund their research. If the ROM were put five ads up, right now, advertising $60,000 a year jobs for recent grads withresearch programs ready to go they would have some excellent proposals.

Finally, think of the positive benefits this would have for students and Toronto residents. Researchers not only research but lecture at local universities and public events. Dr. Reichel, for instance, teaches Near Eastern archaeology at U of T. He also talked about his research at a free public colloquium, at the museum, in February.

New archaeologists would not just be bringing their research projects to the museum but to the city at large.