By Tina Griffith
Visionary Jack Lohman has mammoth plans for Royal BC Museum. Gun crime, drugs, black gays and the use of fur are not exactly things you think of when strolling through a museum. But these are the types of issues that new Royal BC Museum CEO Lohman brought to the forefront while at the Museum of London, and are the types of changes he’d like to see here.
Lohman’s idea of a museum is not one that paints a picture of romanticized people and simplified stories of the past. Instead, his vision is that the museum be a place where people can engage with issues that are more complex, current and relevant.
“The story we’re now telling may be a slightly idealized way of talking about First Nations. I don’t see the issues that are affecting First Nations today. Let’s bring these stories up-to-date,” says Lohman. “If I came through this gallery without reading the papers I would think that these people had fallen off the stage of history. Some museums are trapped in this nostalgia.”
An international consultant, Lohman has regularly been called on to offer his expertise on how museums can revitalize their displays and re-think their direction. Working as director of the Museum of London for 10 years, he successfully headed a $32-million development project, following a three-year post as CEO of the Iziko Museums of Capetown where he made significant changes to the industry. He has also been extensively involved with other museums around the world, including in Qatar, Rwanda and Poland. His passion for breathing new life into museums is evident as he describes with fervor how there is more of a story to be told than what we currently see in the RBCM displays.
“You can’t tell the story of First Nations without telling the story of Europeans,” says Lohman, pointing to an intricate carving fashioned out of bone behind a brightly lit display case. He explains that it was the use of European tools that enabled First Nations to create these beautiful artworks. “First Nations didn’t exist in isolation — it is important to recognize the interconnectedness of people.”
There are other communities, such as the Chinese, whose voices also need to be brought into the picture. There is a machine called the Iron Chink, for instance, that was invented to butcher fish, taking jobs away from the Chinese — and Lohman explains that these stories, too, need to be heard.
Ready for change
Lohman is confident that Victorians are sophisticated enough for more challenging material. With the number of university graduates and all the good work being done, he believes the public is up for it.
At the same time, the CEO acknowledges that there is a specialness to the museum that must also be maintained, and to some of the set pieces that people love — the woolly mammoth being a prime example. But the key is to bring in more and different information.
“Each of these showcases belongs to a group. But there’s no hierarchy of information here — I don’t see that some pieces are more important than others. And again, I don’t see them as signposts to things,” says Lohman. “It’s like Victoria’s attic — you open it and everything’s there, and then you move on.”
Bringing stories into present
One change that Lohman foresees is combining the natural history (the non-human world of plants and animals) and the history displays of First Nations, which are currently on two separate floors.
“Actually it’s sort of strange to separate the two. Everything is made of wood here — the totems, the houses, the canoes. You can’t tell the story of British Columbia without talking about wood. Wood and people and the impact.”
Climate change and the protection of biodiversity are also issues that Lohman would like to see addressed. While there are elements of these issues within some of the displays, he explains, they are somewhat hidden.
With public exhibitions being just the tip of the iceberg, Lohman hopes to uncover many of the displays that have been buried in storage, and to support those staff who are working behind the scenes with limited space and resources.
“These days researchers need different types of facilities for things online actually – digital facilities, et cetera,” says Lohman. “So clearly a task in doing this is to really give a voice to all the scientists working here, and to the curators.”
A mammoth position
Building on his concept of creating “a city of knowledge,” Lohman expects the next five years to focus on expansion. With zoning approved, the next step is to map things out and to reformulate exactly what is going to be in each of the buildings. Choosing the right architect is a key part of the process, says Lohman, pointing out that if you want to create a leading museum in Canada then it’s important to find a world-class architect.
With his own background in architecture, Lohman plans to play an active role in the new designs, and would like to create something that fits in with the beauty and uniqueness of Victoria’s landscape.
“It’s got to be a signature of some sort, without the Abu Dhabi effect, because actually here you’ve got a really beautiful setting. So you’ve got to do something that’s very sensitive — the harbour, boutique size — there are very few places like this left in the world. I don’t think this is a place for shock. This is a place for beauty and aesthetics.”
With the mammoth tasks ahead of him, and only a few weeks into his new position, Lohman acknowledges that there is still much to learn. But this is partly what drew him to the position, and clearly he has a vision for the museum that will elevate its presence both locally and internationally and engage a broader audience. Having a fresh set of eyes to map out the project will no doubt be part of its success.
“I think museums need to take your breath — and this is what this [First Nations] gallery and the big dioramas do,” says Lohman. “They need to take you somewhere where you’ve never been before. And museums say ‘we tell stories’, but they don’t really tell stories, when you think about it. They don’t really talk about issues that are relevant. And I think that’s what brings the buzz into museums — being relevant.” M