I dropped by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto this week to remind myself what it is that museums do. That might seem obvious: Museums collect objects, research them and show them to the public. But the devastating closures caused by the pandemic have made some existential questions pressing. What was the point of all those dinosaur skeletons, Roman statues and modern paintings if nobody could visit them?
Making a virtue of necessity, the ROM took the opportunity for a mighty rethink and rebranded itself in June with a one-word slogan – IMMORTAL – and a provocative answer to questions about its purpose: We live on in what we leave behind.
Mandates and missions are a subject of hot debate in the museum community these days. Can museums be considered neutral institutions or should they be committed to social justice? Should they return the many objects they have acquired through unbalanced colonial relationships let alone theft? What should they collect now?
The ROM is delivering mixed signals about its new direction but the immortal campaign, which included digital ads, street postering and an advertising takeover of the Union subway station, does seem to be working. The museum reports that ticket sales rose 65 per cent the week after it launched in mid-June, and the ROM is now on track to receive 900,000 visitors this fiscal year – only 70 per cent of its prepandemic level of 1.3 million but 10 times what it saw in the disastrous 2020-21, and almost triple 2021-22.
As part of the new campaign, the museum commissioned a short film intended to initiate conversation about the museum’s purpose and posted it to YouTube. ROM Immortal is a highly dramatic six-minute march through history that has generated a big response online: almost 90,000 views, not viral but strong for a ROM video. That’s enough interest that the museum will begin showing it on a big screen, starting this weekend in the third-floor Samuel European Galleries.
The campaign features a stark new typeface for the ROM’s logo and outdoor banners, with slimmed-down black-on-white letters (often so tightly spaced the words are nearly illegible), as well as images from the collection (also a bit hard to parse if one’s speeding by in a car or on a bike). There’s an ancient pot. Is that a frog in a specimen bottle?
Those who follow ROM politics will note that this new look, created by the Leo Burnett Design in Toronto, breaks decisively with recent logos suggesting architectural masses, their first iteration actually depicting the profile of the Crystal extension of 2007. The ROM is no longer championing its building but rather its collection.
And, for all the trendy uncluttered look of this design, that is actually a rather conservative position for a contemporary museum, a traditional focus on material culture in an era where many museums feel their role is to further social change.
The word “immortal” suggests the ROM is in the perpetuity business, a potentially controversial role depending on whom immortality is to be bestowed. The line “We live on in what we leave behind” does raise Tonto’s classic question: “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Historic artifacts have often been used to elevate some societies while exoticizing or even burying others. Meanwhile, “we” will need to stretch to dinosaurs and trilobites if the theme is going to acknowledge the ROM’s important natural history collections.
The ROM Immortal film does make it clear that the museum’s first-person plural is vastly inclusive. Directed by Mark Zibert (in collaboration with Carlos Moreno and Denise Rossetto of the Broken Heart Love Affair agency), it begins with the Big Bang and the birth of a baby and then hurtles through the millennia evoking (but not directly naming) the achievements of everybody from Edison and Gandhi to Jackson Pollock and Banksy while conversely citing human crimes and tragedies such as the Holocaust, wars and a medieval plague. For some reason all of this takes place underwater, giving the action a suitably removed if slightly creepy feel in a film that is consciously cinematic and insistently dramatic.
The film concludes with the ROM’s new theme line, but its sweeping historical content suggests the museum is more focused on telling stories than preserving objects. Of course, objects in museums can be used to tell stories, but storytelling has become such an article of faith in the field that many newer thematic institutions – think of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg – give the story precedence over any collection.
The ROM’s film covers more history than ROM exhibitions could ever hope to. You could have fun doing a pop quiz on all cultural references the filmmakers have snuck in (including that mystifying U.S. dollar bill, a reference to the 1991 Nirvana album Nevermind). Still, as it veers from achievement to atrocity, the film implicitly acknowledges the pitfalls in telling stories through museum programming, reminding the viewer that not all stories are triumphant nor end happily.
At this point, as a professional museum watcher, I have to confess that I’m confused. The ROM redesign suggests a back-to-basics collections-focused approach; the film suggests the ROM wants to promote social dialogue. The two aren’t necessarily contradictory but the message is certainly mixed, which seemed a good reason to see what is actually going on at the museum.
Wandering through the ROM on a summer weekday alongside tourists and families, I was powerfully reminded that, whatever their higher purposes, museums are a form of public entertainment. The ROM’s summer exhibition is a particularly egregious example: The Fantastic Beasts: Wonder of Nature show circulated by London’s Natural History Museum is mainly a tribute to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter spinoff movie. It features a light educational gloss on the movie’s fictional beasts, offering examples of real animals that inspired mythical creatures such as unicorns and mermaids, and barely acknowledges that wrangler Newt Scamander is not a real person.
On the other hand, the ROM’s new Dawn of Life gallery, packed with information about those billions of years prior to the arrival of the show-stopping tyrannosaurus and diplodocus, are all about a museum’s educational role. They follow evolution from the Precambrian to the Triassic with a strong focus on Canadian fossil finds in the Burgess Shale and at Joggins, N.S. They are cleverly situated so they lead visitors through time before depositing them, both chronologically and physically, back with the dinosaurs and giant mammals. Both local and cosmic, you could hardly ask for more engaging museum programming.
That gallery was packed with people this week and so were the spaces devoted to the ROM’s renowned collection of Chinese antiquities. No one looked in need of tightly condensed typefaces or dramatic promotional films, although the ROM is probably right in thinking visitors are deeply impressed by the ancientness of a trilobite or a Chinese temple painting. Perhaps people come to the museum to touch the immortal. Mainly, they just seem very interested in looking at artifacts, which is surely sufficient encouragement to keep the museum afloat for another millennium or two.
The film ROM Immortal will be showing until January at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.