The Museum As The New Agora
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 May 2007, p. 382-391


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Thorsell, William, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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Toronto, possibly now beginning another cycle of somewhat confident creativity. Considering the generation of the 1950s. The City of Toronto in the 1950s. Recalling Toronto's then new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The installation of the then-controversial sculpture by Henry Moore. More examples of new buildings in Toronto from the 1960s and 1970s. America's New Great city - the City of Toronto by 1976 versus big American cities that were falling into ruin. This Toronto's top of the cycle of confidence, focus and creativity in the arms of the 1950s generation. The gentle slide under the Baby Boomers. The 1980s and 1990s. Some points of light. Evidence that the cycle is once again on the upside. Some cautions with regard to our public agenda. A discussion of the Royal Ontario Museum's regenerating process. The ROM project's role as the New Agora in our society and what that means. The role of the museum in Europe and North America. A brief history of museums and their function. The ROM as a new Commons, a new Agora. New activities and functions planned for the ROM.
Date of Original:
3 May 2007
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
William Thorsell
Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum
The Museum As The New Agora
Chairman: Dr. John S. Niles
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Stanley H. Hartt, Chairman, Citigroup Global Markets Canada Inc., and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; J. C. Fiorillo, Senior Student, George Harvey Collegiate Institute; Rev. Bill Middleton, Minister, Armour Heights Presbyterian Church; David Pecaut, Chair, Toronto City Summit Alliance, and Senior Partner, Boston Consulting Group; Sal Badali, Director, Public Sector Practice, Deloitte & Touche, and Chair, ROM Board of Trustees; Dr. Murray Frum, Chairman, Frum Development Group; Ann Curran, Director, Corporate Relations, AIC Limited, and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Margaret Wente, Columnist, The Globe and Mail; Jim Temerty, Chairman, Northland Power Inc., and Chairman, ROM Governors; The Hon. Hilary M. Weston, CM, OOnt, Former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, and Chair, Renaissance ROM Campaign; and Catherine S. Swift, First Vice-President and President-Elect, The Empire Club of Canada, and President and CEO, Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Introduction by John Niles

Past Presidents, Directors, honoured guests, and members of the Empire Club of Canada:

When we talk about culture and its role in and importance to society, I suspect we would all have different definitions of what that means. In a mainstream sense, culture is typically viewed as consisting of elements that are passed from generation to generation by learning, including such components as values, norms, institutions and artifacts. In Canada, as we are such a young country, our culture is in many respects very formative. The fact that we often define ourselves as who we are not--not Americans, not Europeans--is indicative of the fact that our culture is still evolving. However, there does seem to be a growing acceptance among Canadians of the fundamental importance of culture to a society, and the need to be more deliberate in its promotion and development.

Our distinguished speaker today is very much a cultural leader in Canada and his work at one of our most important cultural institutions, the Royal Ontario Museum, is having a major impact on Canadian culture and how it is perceived both domestically and internationally. William Thorsell began his career in journalism, writing on such issues as national politics, law and constitution, economics and culture. He held the position of Editor in Chief at the Globe and Mail from 1989 to 1999, leading an editorial team, which garnered international acclaim and several national newspaper awards. During that period, he presided over a major redesign of the Globe, following which the paper has been cited four times by the Society of Newspaper Design as the best designed newspaper in the world.

In the cultural world, Mr. Thorsell is so highly regarded that he was invited by the Vatican to make his observations at the Fifth Centenary of the Vatican Museum and share his ideas with the Pope.

Mr. Thorsell was appointed Director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum in the summer of 2000. In that role, he has displayed remarkable vision in leading the museum through its most significant renovations and expansion. Today we have the pleasure of hearing one of his final updates to the community prior to the much-anticipated opening of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal on June 2.

Please join me in welcoming William Thorsell.

William Thorsell

Like individuals, corporations and countries, cities go through cycles in their development; cycles characterized by ambition or complacency, creative focus, wounded caution or maybe just naiveté. Toronto is an example of this, and it is my contention today that Toronto is now beginning another cycle of somewhat confident creativity, although this is not yet certain. Risks remain of stasis, misdirection or even retreat.

Let us consider the generation of the 1950s--the so-called "Leave it to Beaver" generation, the parents of the Baby Boomers. This generation is often disparaged as overly conventional and conservative--an unflattering and inaccurate portrait painted, not surprisingly, by its own Baby Boomer children, who broke into the 1960s with such "counter-cultural" energy. Everything about their parents' generation looked ordinary and unimaginative from the vantage of those summers of love, women's liberation, Woodstock and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Creativity and freedom were the mantra of the young.

There was truth in some of that. But this generational lens obscures much about the 1950s that was innovative and brave--not least decisions taken then about the City of Toronto.

Yes a subway was begun here in the 1950s--an act of foresight. But the most telling and inexplicable of these acts was a decision taken in 1957 to launch an international architectural competition for a new city hall in Toronto. And then came the remarkable choice of a little-known Finnish architect,Velljo Revell, to build two facing, curved structures gathered around a domed council chamber in front of a severe, beautiful public square on Queen Street--Toronto's new City Hall.

There was no precedent for this architecture in the late 1950s. It had nothing to do with the prevailing International Style, much less anything happening in provincial Toronto. It was an outlier, a radical personal vision by an unknown foreigner chosen by a seemingly brittle city with something stirring in its soul and imagination--or at least, chosen by a panel speaking in its name.

By 1964, this vision took form on Nathan Phillips Square with marvellous effect, including the installation of a then-controversial sculpture by Henry Moore. It was the generation of the 1950s that did it and set off an intense period of smart and ambitious city building by the same cohort.

Soon after, the Toronto Dominion Bank shelved its plans to build "the tallest concrete structure in the Commonwealth" as its head office and, with the spark of Phyllis Lambert igniting the intelligence of Alan Lambert (no relation), the TD chose the eminent architect Mies van der Rohe to design one of the world's great examples of the International Style in the new TD Centre on King Street.

Across Bay Street, the Bank of Commerce took the cue and hired I. M. Pei to design its elegant, powerful stainless steel tower that expressed another brilliant variant of Modernism here. Toronto was reaching up in quality as well as in scale.

At the same time, Toronto became conscious of the unique value of its central city neighbourhoods and, in a move of great symbolism, stopped the Spadina Expressway and block-busting public housing projects to nurture its inherited intimacy.

This felicitous combination of "tending to the garden" and also embracing the dramatic new continued into the 1970s with Eb Ziedler's Ontario Place and Queen's Quay Terminal renovation, soon joined by his wonderful Eaton Centre. Then again, out of the blue, another outlier arrived on Toronto's skyline with the CN Tower--still the most beautiful communications structure in the world.

Toronto's city Planning Department created an innovative and effective urban design unit to focus on streetscapes and open space--the public living room of the city. By 1976, Fortune Magazine could run a cover announcing North America's New Great City--the City of Toronto, the city that works--creative, risk-taking, worldly, visionary, intimate, humane, safe, clean and prosperous all at the same time--as Peter Ustinov famously remarked, "New York run by the Swiss."

The foil to all this was, of course, New York itself, which, like other big American cities, was falling into ruin in the 1970s.

And so Toronto reached the top of that cycle of confidence, focus and creativity in the arms of the 1950s generation, and then, under the Baby Boomers who followed, began its gentle slide.

After a decade of pleasant complacency in the 1980s, Toronto visibly retreated through the 1990s, hit by one of the worst recessions in North America, disadvantaged by poor leadership at the provincial and local levels, distracted by bureaucratic reforms and restructuring, and challenged by new patterns of technology and immigration.

By 1999, foreign media were exploring what had gone wrong with Toronto, and the citizens themselves could no longer deny the visible signs of its distress in deteriorating public spaces and services, stalled downtown development and fractious local government.

Yes, there were some points of light--the de-zoning of some central city lands and a few bright developments here and there such as the Calatrava Court at BCE Place and the McKinsey Building on Charles--but North America's new Great Cities were now south of the border again, including New York and Chicago to which Toronto was now unfavourably compared--a remarkable reversal of fortune.

This, along with a reviving economy in the latter 1990s, created the conditions for Toronto's cycle to alter again. Complacency gave way to doubt, frustration, embarrassment and then finally anger at Toronto's retreat. In this newly agitated context, a few vectors of revival were born, the most unlikely being our beleaguered cultural institutions.

I will not go into the miracles of Superbuild here, or the astounding support of private individuals and corporations for our large cultural projects in Toronto, including those for Renaissance ROM. It is enough to see these projects (along with the condominium boom and some developments at the Waterfront) as evidence that the cycle is once again on the upside, and that Toronto is again moved by conviction and creativity, though again I would caution that our public agenda remains oddly off-centre in important ways.

I do say with some satisfaction that the Royal Ontario Museum has been at the forefront through this regenerating process, and is creating the most radical re-imagination of architecture, function and public space in Toronto since Revell's new City Hall in 1964.

Daniel Libeskind's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal on Bloor Street asserts a new sense of the possible and creates a new reference point for what comes next in this city. Alan Gotlieb has said that great cities must have the capacity to astonish, and the ROM is consciously investing in that idea on the most desirable piece of real estate in urban Canada.

Architecture is the most public of the arts, and among the most permanent. Cultural institutions, above all, have a responsibility to be vigorous patrons of architecture, pushing boundaries, empowering genius--creating art rather than simply collecting and presenting it. This will be tested at the ROM in early June when Mr. Libeskind's Crystal opens to the world--and I believe the test will be passed.

But there is another aspect of the ROM's project that I want to explore today in the context of the city--the role of the Museum as the New Agora in our society, the meeting place, the common ground, the town square.

In Europe and North America, the museum's function is expanding from those of collection, research, conservation, exhibition and education to that as an instrument of urban renewal and social integration. This is why I have spoken here at some length about Toronto's cycles of development, because cultural institutions such as the ROM are now playing such an important role in shaping the current cycle in this city.

In his famous book, "The Culture of Cities," Lewis Mumford said in 1938: "Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation; then in sheer defence, modern man invents the museum."

In Mumford's analysis the museum was isolated from the city precisely to give the city the opportunity for life. He said: "By confining the function of preservation to the museum, we thus release space in the rest of the city for the fresh uses of the living. ... The museum gives us a means of coping with the past, of having significant intercourse with other periods and other modes of life, without confining our own activities to the molds created by the past." Mumford saw the museum as a vaccination against the dead hand of history.

The often forbidding architecture of museums suggested just such a mission--yes, as temples to art and research, but also as fortresses to keep the layers of the past safely inside. Museums classically sat apart from the lively texture of the city, behind walls and gates, up great stairways, across moats and squares, on hills or in precincts of their own. These devices were entirely intentional.

But this now is an aging portrait of great museums--at least in the West. Museums are no longer saviours of cities because of their isolation--if that was ever one of their purposes--but because of the engagement of museums with cities, their function as common ground and agents of provocative conversation.

Museums have assumed an essentially urban personality--multi-faceted, layered and complex places bound up with the community in a myriad of ways, accessible and transparent on the street, thus the new Agora, the new common space, the new city square. Why? In part, so museums can generate revenue as government operating support declines year after year, decade after decade. But the more important reason arises from something of an historical accident.

Our societies have become segmented and particularized in a world of increasing mobility and technological change. In our major cities, the Western Canon appeals to a declining plurality of the population. We no longer meet most of our neighbours in the town hall or through the common prayer book. In the multi-cultural and technologically decentralized societies of the West, adult encounters with the exploding diversity of the city tend to occur in commuter trains, shopping malls, media and to some degree, the workplace--at distance.

We may well live in a Global Village, but through immigration to our major cities, we experience the Global Village as a Globe of Villages--our own city as a physical patchwork of distinct cultures, delightful in many ways, but also a fracturing of common ground where we actually live our lives.

In this context, we need new, shared space and places of encounter--a new Commons, a new Agora. (Parenthetically, this is why I so fervently support public funding of integrated public schools.) Museums are capable of contributing to this because, more easily than many traditional cultural forms, they can engage diverse interests initially on their own terms.

The ROM, for example, is among the few remaining "universal" museums of culture in the world, gathering and studying the material evidence of all cultures in all places over time. In the past, many of these collections served to give insights to the local population into the exotic and the strange. Now they reflect the heritage of many people who live in Toronto itself as though the ROM had been created as a universal museum in 1912, and was effectively waiting for the cosmopolitan city that eventually emerged around it.

The ROM is also a significant museum of natural history under the same roof--another historical accident challenging the assumption that Man and Nature sit apart--a self-centred and na•ve assumption if there ever was one.

Beyond great architecture and amenities, this gives the ROM a capacity for resonance in the whole city, even as the whole city evolves. Our new community centres must be cosmopolitan centres and museums can be among the best of them.

If great cities must have the capacity to astonish, they must also offer the likelihood of encounter with wonder and pleasure in the company of others. Such encounters arise from many sources, but wonder and pleasure should certainly spill out of the halls of museums of art, culture and science, with their knowledge and curiosity rampant on a field of beautiful spaces that encourage social engagement and reflection.

As the ROM continues to unfold over the next three years, you will see the arrival of many collections and specimens that have been stranded in the museum's vaults for generations and new acquisitions to enrich them. You will have far more access to important research by our curators and their colleagues working around the world, both in culture and in natural history.

In the field of cultures alone, you will see new galleries for Japan, China, Korea, Canadian First Peoples, Africa, the Americas, Asia Pacific, South Asia, the Middle East, Rome, Byzantium, Modern Design, Costume and Textiles and Contemporary Cultures from around the world. Oh and yes--a new gallery for Canada too.

From the natural world, you will encounter brilliant collections of minerals and gems, fossils recording the miraculous "Big Bang of Life" 520 million years ago, dinosaurs and the delicate web of biodiversity so much at issue in our own time.

You will be invited to participate in debates, lectures, demonstrations, concerts and films. You will encounter jazz on Thursday evenings, the music and arts of many cultures on Friday nights, and the pleasures of conversation, song and special events for young people on Sunday afternoons.

You will have the opportunity to meet new people in an elegant setting that includes restaurants, lounges and distinctive retail. On the Bloor Street Plaza outside the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, you will bustle through musicians, magicians, mimes and metamorphoses.

In Daniel Libeksind's architecture, you will learn another language of space and form and come to know a new face of beauty, playing with light across the days and seasons in Canada's most romantic buildings. On the street, you will not walk past a fortress, but rather gaze through glass walls into galleries of Africa and haute couture, even as you meet your friends for a ROMtini on the rooftop bar.

In all this--in the Museum as the New Agora--we hope you will also find your own personal quiet spaces where you return for pleasure, contemplation and solace. This is what great cities must offer, and what the ROM aspires to provide.

Yes, we need another $50 million in capital contributions to complete the project in addition to the $250 million we have raised so far and yes, we need something more than 15 years of cuts to our annual operating budget by the Ontario government to sustain our mandate. But Toronto is restive with retreat and insistent on advance and we are determined to be a significant part of making this new cycle real.

The ROM belongs to you. More pointedly, the ROM belongs to everyone. We look forward to meeting all of you there--often.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Ann Curran, Director, Corporate Relations, AIC Limited, and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Museum As The New Agora


Toronto, possibly now beginning another cycle of somewhat confident creativity. Considering the generation of the 1950s. The City of Toronto in the 1950s. Recalling Toronto's then new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The installation of the then-controversial sculpture by Henry Moore. More examples of new buildings in Toronto from the 1960s and 1970s. America's New Great city - the City of Toronto by 1976 versus big American cities that were falling into ruin. This Toronto's top of the cycle of confidence, focus and creativity in the arms of the 1950s generation. The gentle slide under the Baby Boomers. The 1980s and 1990s. Some points of light. Evidence that the cycle is once again on the upside. Some cautions with regard to our public agenda. A discussion of the Royal Ontario Museum's regenerating process. The ROM project's role as the New Agora in our society and what that means. The role of the museum in Europe and North America. A brief history of museums and their function. The ROM as a new Commons, a new Agora. New activities and functions planned for the ROM.