Q&A: Joshua Basseches, the man who plans to shake up the ROM (but not the Crystal)

Q&A: Joshua Basseches, the man who plans to shake up the ROM (but not the Crystal)

Our Six in the Six interview with the Royal Ontario Museum's new CEO

(Image: Courtesy of the ROM)

Joshua Basseches, the new CEO of The Royal Ontario Museum, is a Boston import with serious industry chops and a plan (or at least the beginnings of one) to turn Toronto’s most prominent cultural hub into a world-class wonder. Just 28 hours into the job, he spoke to Toronto Life about his to-do list, and why Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal is here to stay.

When you were hired late last year, you said that you goal is to turn the ROM into a top-10 museum. Can you give me a sense of where we rank now and why?
My intention was to make a bold aspirational statement about where we want to head and where I think we can go. The ROM right now is already one of Canada’s great museums and arguably one of the top museums in North America. We’re one of the few museums in the world that has such a broad intellectual mandate. We cover art, culture and nature.

You’ve been in your new job for a little more than a day. What’s your first move?
I’m very interested in finding out how can we throw our literal and metaphorical doors open even wider to the people we serve—expand upon our hours, make the museum more porous, give people a sense that they can come and go easily. One of the toughest communities to engage is people in their 20s and 30s. We want to work to make millennials feel like this is their museum too.

The ROM has had a somewhat bumpy run over the last decade: fundraising issues, attendance issues, design issues. People are calling you a miracle worker. Where do we need the miracles most?
I know about some of the small controversies that you mention, but I really feel that ROM is in exceptionally good shape. I don’t buy into some of these notions of troubles. We just had our best attendance year ever. Still, I realize we have a substantial challenge in front of us. When we built the Crystal, we made a commitment to being a contemporary museum, to being a physical space that spoke to the public and to the world. In the coming years, we’ll continue to enhance the reinvention on the inside of the museum.

Any plans to address complaints about the main entrance area, which some critics have described as bland and congested?
With the entrance, we want to give a sense of what the museum holds and really make you excited about entering the space. Continuing to enhance the amount of natural light that comes in through the entryway will be important. And there are practical issues. I think there can be a bit of a bottleneck experience, which we can address.

There have been whispers of a $50-million reno to the Crystal. What can you tell us?
I don’t know where that figure came from. Which is not to say it’s a shocking number. When you’re doing major work on a major institution like this one, it ends up being expensive.

Might that involve changes to the actual Crystal?
No. That’s definitely a misinterpretation. The fact of the matter is, the Michael Lee Chin Crystal is an exceptional piece of architecture and we have no plans to change it. At the museum, every time we see it gracing the cover of another publication, it just reaffirms what a great decision my predecessors made. All of the excitement and passion and controversy around the Crystal means that it’s relevant and people care. I can tell you that my colleagues around North America would love to have people talking about their buildings the way people talk about the Crystal.