In a ground-floor gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum, a glass case holds a sculpture of a seated Buddha. It’s an exquisite object, made of lacquered wood and fashioned by a Japanese craftsman in the 1800s. On the side of the case, a caption reads: “The G.O.A.T. of mindfulness didn’t need an app.”
It goes on: “More than an embodiment of a thought leader, this sculpture represents practices and beliefs that have reached far beyond their origins in South Asia. In Buddhist teachings, mindfulness increases awareness of self and the world without judgement – and toward enlightenment. Now it’s recognized as a powerful technique for easing anxieties of modern life. Opening an app is easy. Mindfulness takes practice. Spiritual exploration meets the 21st century.”
In case you didn’t catch the drift, the ROM is trying to be relevant. The century-old museum is putting the Buddha figure and its arresting caption on display as part of an ambitious rebranding aimed at attracting a younger and more diverse audience.
Like so many cultural institutions, the ROM suffered during the pandemic. It had to close three times, for a total of 14 months. Attendance plummeted. Before the crisis, the museum got about 1.3 million visitors, the most of any museum in Canada.
Bouncing back means persuading people they will be getting more than mummies and dinosaur bones when they come through the doors. As ROM director Josh Basseches puts it, the museum is changing “and we want the world to know it.”
Mr. Basseches kicked off the campaign on Thursday with a press conference to introduce the museum’s new “brand platform,” ROM Immortal. He presented a dramatic new short film that shows a newborn baby floating in an underwater world as scenes illustrating the glories and horrors of human civilization unfold around it. He talked about a current exhibition for which the ROM asked young people aged 4 to 18 to create works of art about how the pandemic had affected their mental health. And he spoke about another exhibit, coming later this year, from Cree artist Kent Monkman, which will explore the deep roots of Indigenous knowledge.
That is not all the ROM has planned. With the help of donors, the museum will be giving visitors free access to its main-floor galleries for the summer. Musicians will serenade them and a pop-up coffee shop will keep them caffeinated.
Will all this razzle-dazzle really make any difference? A measure of skepticism is in order.
There is nothing wrong with trying to be modern and accessible. Museums have been striving for years to shake off the dust with interactive exhibits, online offerings and splashy, kid-friendly mega-shows about Vikings and pharoahs.
If they succeed and draw big crowds, more power to them. The ROM has to jostle with a host of other Toronto attractions, from the sharks in the aquarium to the sports teams in the downtown arenas, to the shows in the theatres – not to mention video games, streaming television and all the lures of the digital world.
As they compete for attention, museums are wrestling with questions about their very reason for being. Canada is going through a reckoning with its colonial past. What’s more colonial than a building filled with the artifacts of colonized peoples?
It’s no wonder, then, that the ROM wants to present a new face to the public. But there are risks here, too. Trying to seem fresh and hip can sometimes just look awkward. Ask the dear old CBC, which has been striving for years to update its image and attract a new audience. Attempts to fit into the politics of the moment can fall flat. Exhibits that boast of trying to enact resistance and disrupt colonial narratives are bound to be lost on the wider audience that the ROM aims to attract.
The biggest risk is that the ROM will lose sight of its mission. Museums, at heart, are about understanding our world through objects. The ROM has 13 million of them, from a striped hair-nosed bat to a bust of Roman emperor Lucius Verus. Each tells a story. Sometimes, yes, the story has something to say about our current time. The rather clever slogan for the ROM campaign reminds us that “we live on in what we leave behind.”
Sometimes, though, these treasures just make us stand back in awe. Consider that lovely Buddha figure. You could say it shows that mindfulness was a thing long before mediation lessons and yoga studios came along. You could also say it is simply a superb work of art – the product of learning, patience, skill and spiritual practice.
Gazing at it, you can’t help wanting to know more about the civilization it sprang from. That is what museums do best: make us wonder.
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