First attracted to the ROM by the diversity of its collections, director and CEO Janet Carding is determined to encourage a lively culture of innovation at the Museum.
Kelvin Browne, ROM’s vice-president of Marketing and Major Exhibitions, sat down in September with Janet Carding, the ROM’s new director and CEO, to chat about her first impressions of her new city and the Museum
Kelvin Browne: What first attracted you to applying for the job as the ROM’s director and CEO?
Janet Carding: The attraction initially was the ROM’s collections. Their diversity appealed to me; I would have the opportunity to work with natural history, which I enjoyed in my previous role in Sydney, as well as the whole new area of cultural collections from across the world. In particular my experience in Australia gave me an interest in working with the cultural collections of their indigenous peoples; the equivalent at the ROM would be the First Peoples collections. I’m very interested in working with these communities and collections.
Once I visited the ROM, however, my perspective expanded. I saw the way the building was being used, all the programs that were going on, and the impressive network of support from volunteers, Members, Patrons, and Donors. It all added to my excitement about the possibility of working here.
KB: Now that you’ve been on the job for three weeks, what are your impressions of Toronto and the ROM?
JC: I was in Toronto in 2008 at a conference and I liked it then. My impression moving here now is that there is something quite distinct about a Canadian welcome. I haven’t been welcomed in such a friendly way, and at the ROM in such a professional manner, in any other place I’ve gone. It’s been a really positive surprise—not that people were unwelcoming when I moved to Australia—but it has been a much warmer welcome than I expected.
The second thing is that Toronto in the autumn is wonderful. It’s a lovely place to walk around. I’ve certainly discovered that this is a diverse city; there are so many interesting neighbourhoods to explore. Unlike many cities, it’s not just a centre where people work and then leave in the evening to go home. Toronto has a reputation as a livable city, and it’s proving to be true.
KB: Your first impressions of the ROM?
JC: From afar, the ROM gives the impression of being a traditional object-based museum in an avant-garde shell. Seeing it up close, and getting to know the people here, I’m fascinated with how many of my new ROM colleagues are coming to me with ideas they want to try, new things they want to implement, which will help us deliver on our mission. I wasn’t sure I would find a culture of innovation here. But the more I get to know the ROM, the more I see there is a real interest in experimentation. This is very positive and, over time, I’d like this aspect of the ROM to be more public, for the Museum to better communicate this spirit of innovation to visitors.
KB: How did you come to work in museums?
JC: It was almost a complete accident. (And I hear this from many people who work in museums—they come with the intention of working there a few months and stay for 20 years.) When I was an undergraduate in Britain, I began as a natural scientist. I then specialized in the history of the philosophy of science. When I left armed with my new degree, I recall one of my professors telling me that I’d never get a job because I wasn’t a proper scientist.
I was determined to prove him wrong. After several weeks of studying the employment ads, I saw a job for the most junior level curator at the Science Museum in London. I thought, yes, I can do this job with my degree. I’m going to prove this man wrong and get the position. And I did. It was modest, but a good place to start. That’s how I fell into it. But once I was there, I found it endlessly interesting, different every day, and it allowed for quite a bit of autonomy, and this appealed to me too.
KB: What did you learn in Australia about museums, and how will you use that experience at the ROM?
JC: In Australia, you’re a long way from anywhere else and this makes you outward-looking. This is true in the museum world there as well. The people I was working with were always aware of what was happening internationally. They made the effort to get in touch with people and compensate for being eographically remote. As a consequence of this outward focus, they are constantly learning about new ideas and trying new ideas. There’s a lot of innovation in Australian museums; many things happen there first.
A second thing: when I moved to Australia from a national museum in the UK, I became conscious that, while I came from a museum that was short of money (I’ve seldom come across a museum that isn’t), I was humbled to discover that in Australia they were working with budgets about a third the size of ours in
London, yet achieving state-of-the-art results. This was mostly because they excelled at being extremely creative within a limited budget. It was an important lesson, that tight budgets can lead to real innovation.
KB: Has anyone warned you about Canadian winters?
JC: Before I left Sydney, friends queued up to warn me—they wondered how I could go somewhere so cold! I’m not bothered by this and I’ve always been interested in trying new things. When I decided to move on from my job in London, what I decided for myself was that I wanted to work at larger museums with larger collections and international presence. I accomplished this when I went to Australia, and I’m doing it again by coming to Toronto. When you make this your goal, you have to admit to yourself that you’ll be moving. It’s what you need to do to have the chance to work at great museums like the ROM.