A rare few land a job in an office with 60,000 specimens from 500 million years of earth history, where learning a dozen languages amidst the study of global cultures doesn’t seem like that big of a deal and flights are the perfect opportunity to write books.
Jack Lohman, the CEO of the Royal B.C. Museum and author of Museums at the Crossroads?, a collection of essays examining the role of the cultural institutions, is one of them.
“Part of my job is running a museum, but you also spend a lot of your time thinking,” Lohman says, on the phone from an engagement in Ottawa. “You meet people, you look at objects and you think about the opportunities and the potential. This is about those sorts of choices that come out of that sort of thinking. Nothing beats writing things down. You start having to articulate where you want to go.”
Lohman is optimistic about that destination, buoyed by the company of museum directors in B.C. who share his vision for partnership and collaboration. The book, written largely during his time spent traveling, also provided an opportunity to put Canadian museums in context with the rest of the world and their value in terms of the educational health of the country.
“I take on projects that have the potential to advance the rest of the world, or in some way shape the world. We feel the RBCM is one of those rare treasures, not only because of its size, but it’s also the scope and the depth that make this such an immensely interesting, fascinating project.”
When Lohman first came to the museum from his post as director of the Museum of London in 2012 to lead a $40-million redevelopment, he was taken aback by the volume of collections at RBCM, far from working to their full potential for the museum, he says. Collections such as 1,200 works by Emily Carr, as well as her writings and sketch books – none of which were on display – and a massive, five-million-piece photographic collection, are among its little-known marvels.
“What I’m doing immediately is getting them out working for us. They’re going to London. They’re going to the (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto. Tokyo. Quebec. We’re going to build an Emily Carr gallery. It’s ridiculous with that collection we’ve got nothing on display.”
With more than seven million objects, Lohman believes it to be the largest museum in Canada and he has yet to be proven wrong.
“It has the opportunities with its stories to have an impact.”
Lohman’s stories, informed by his work as a professor in museum design at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts in Norway and time spent at the helm of the National Museum in Warsaw, and Iziko Museums of Cape Town before London and Victoria, are aimed at an audience just as diverse.
He penned the essays with opinion formers, foreign policy makers, those interested in issues of cultural restitution, relationships with First Nations, and history enthusiasts in general in mind.
“To understand the bigger picture of why history is important and what it does for us and our identity and memory,” he says.
Writing is a natural fit for Lohman, who delights in the study of literature as a means of gathering greater cultural understanding and happens to speak more than 10 languages himself.
“I did count 12 at one point, but my Arabic isn’t really what it was.”
He’s fascinated by Canada’s bilingualism, but wishes more people would take an interest in the First Nations languages of our country. For that reason he plans to learn Inuktitut in time to coincide with an exhibit at the RBCM in June. With such a demanding position, there is one place where Lohman consistently finds the time for his linguistic endeavours.
“I find actually being in the airplane very useful space for thinking and for sketching out ideas. Quite a lot of the most innovative thoughts I’ve had are always 30,000 feet up in the air, looking down on the planet from above.”