This past month, conservation biologist Soren Brothers assumed a new title shared by no one else in North America and possibly the world — that of climate curator. This inaugural position at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the most-visited museum in Canada with 1.44 million visitors in 2017/18, is the first of its kind among major museums, dedicating permanent institutional support to programming, research, and dialogue on climate change and its political, social, and cultural impacts.
Other museums that put on exhibitions tackling climate change largely delegate the task to education and outreach departments, ROM CEO and director Josh Basseches observes. He agreed with others at ROM that the best way for the museum to make climate change a priority — to “signal that this is serious work that needs to be treated as seriously as 19th-century Canadian art or mammals and whales,” as Basseches put it — was to devote a full-time curatorial staff member to exploring the topic. “A curatorial role is important in the same way that a faculty position is important at a university,” he said during an interview with Hyperallergic.
The opening for the curatorship, formally named the Allan and Helaine Shiff Curatorship, was first announced last September. It’s an endowed position financed by a $1.5 million donation by Shiff. “Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. We can’t sit idly by when we have the opportunity to shape our collective future,” the donor said in a press release.
Prior to assuming this role, Brothers was a professor of limnology (the study of lakes and freshwater bodies) at Utah State University, where his research focused on how climate change affects lakes and how lakes regulate climates. Brothers spoke to Hyperallergic about the new position and explained that he looks forward to continuing his research in his lab space at the ROM and as a professor at the University of Toronto — an appointment that goes hand-in-hand with his curatorship. But he’s also ready to think about his research in a more “outward-facing way,” he says. Having always felt torn between doing policy work and really understanding how biological systems work through academic study, Brothers says that this curatorship presents an ideal mix of both.
Brothers believes that too many museums don’t try to do much beyond getting “people to understand that [climate change] is real and it’s happening.” His vision, by contrast, is to galvanize local communities to play a more active part in advocating for climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
He also deplores the tendency for climate change programming to overplay doomsday scenarios that sap people of the willpower to do anything to counter the current environmental course. “I didn’t like the idea of the thought of my job here just being to sort of be a downer on everything that was happening,” Brothers says. “That’s where I started thinking about all the positive things that we can speak to, about… the progress that we’re making in terms of technologies and actually implementing them already and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in places like Toronto.”
Right now, Brothers is spending time getting to know other curators — talking to the Japanese art curator to identify how Japanese arts might tell a story about climate change, or chatting with paleontologists to better understand how climate figured in the four mass extinctions. “It’s pretty rare to find a museum that has so many exhibitions and is arranging such a huge range of topics. And for me, that’s one of the most exciting parts of the job: just being able to think about all these connections,” Brothers says.