Jack Lohman was first struck with the First Peoples Gallery when he travelled to Victoria in the 1990s for a research project in South Africa.
“I came here looking at the way in which museums tell the story of indigenous people,” says Lohman, who replaced Pauline Rafferty as CEO of the Royal B.C. Museum in March.
Back in 1999, Lohman was appointed CEO of a collective representing 15 national museums and based in Cape Town.
“When I arrived, black people’s history was in the natural history museum and white people’s history was in the cultural history museum,” he recalls.
Similarly, white artifacts were displayed on pedestals while African art was displayed in cases on the floor. “The first thing I did was put a shutter down (on the displays) … It was the last bastion of Apartheid,” he says.
Lohman’s post in South Africa represents only one of a long list of international experiences. His resumé includes director of the Museum of London, chair of the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland, and advisor to the Museum of Slavery in Qatar and the Institute for National Museums of Rwanda.
Speaking about his decision to come to Victoria, Lohman dismisses the suggestion that he’s accepted a position in a small and sleepy city compared to his previous engagements.
“There is a challenge here,” he says. “Museums say they tell stories, but I really am interested to see. Give me an example of where they tell stories. I want to prove that you can.”
While he compliments the museum’s exhibitry, he’s clear it falls short on its ability to communicate to its audience.
With fresh eyes, he strolls through the displays, doling out both praise and criticism. “All these objects have come from somewhere. They’ve all got stories and you’ve got to think about what is it we want people to know about … what do we want them thinking about?”
Illustrated panels depicting the colonists’ early encounter with First Nations he calls “cheesy,” adding the museum needs to find a new way of telling this story.
Atmosphere is of utmost importance to Lohman.
For his line-up of media interviews, to introduce him to the community, he has carefully crafted the setting: a table for two in the dimly-lit First Peoples Gallery surrounded by totem poles and audio recordings of frogs and chanting.
“Gosh, this is an exceptional view,” he says, switching gears mid point. “Look at the size of these trees … They’re staggering.”
Visitors to the museum don’t remember the facts and figures, Lohman says. “But they remember the emotion of being in the atmosphere of these very special walk-through set pieces, I think.”
Tim Willis, director of exhibitions and visitor experience, agrees.
“We’ve been working for a while on a plan to renew the entire visitor experience,” he says. “It’s just so exciting to have somebody like Jack start and find oneself fully aligned with his perspective.”
When the galleries were built in the 1970s, they were state of the art, Willis says.
Today, the galleries give the impression of having been deserted, he says. “What we now know is our visitors have a great appetite to know the tensions and struggles and joys of people in the past.”
Bringing science from the backrooms to the forefront is another focus for Lohman.
“(Scientists) are looking very closely at the living world in British Columbia and how it’s changing, with climate change. That’s one of the areas I’d like to be able to foreground,” he says.
Lohman has also inherited a vision launched by his predecessor for a major redevelopment and expansion of the museum.
Finding funding for the proposal promises to be a major challenge. But it’s one Lohman has a history of overcoming.
In Warsaw, he brought the museum from the red into the black. In London, he spearheaded a $20-million redevelopment.
But it was in South Africa, where museums receive no government funding, that these skills got put to the test.
“I remember a situation where I couldn’t pay the staff salary bill,” he says. “Imagine, it’s coming to the end of the month and I’ve got 560 staff.”
In a desperate move, he approached Daimler-Benz for help. In exchange, he agreed to display a Mercedes-Benz from the museum’s collection.
“The relationship proved fantastic,” he said. “Daimler-Benz gave me three vans and I was able to do a community outreach program.”
Museum funding needs to come from many sources, he says. “You’re going to need private support.”