Josh Basseches: Leading A Life Inspired By King Tutankhamen
Josh Basseches, director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, reflects on art history, travel and working for a great museum in an exceptional city.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Josh Basseches was surrounded by standout museums. Whether it’s the Smithsonian Institution, which stands today as 21 museums, galleries, gardens and a zoo, the National Museum of Women in the Arts or the Glenstone Museum’s take on art, architecture and landscape, it’s a city with plenty to see. For Basseches, it was this environment — and one exhibition in particular — that led him to where he is now.
“In the 1970s, the first of the King Tutankhamen exhibitions came to Washington,” he says. “I remember as a young person going through the extraordinary Egyptian objects and seeing the funeral mask of King Tut, the gold jewelry, carvings and all these wonderful, mysterious objects dug up by archeologists. I said, ‘This is incredible. This is what I want to do’ so I set a course at that point.”
Since then, Basseches has spent a life invested in the arts. As well as working as deputy director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., he worked as executive director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History and spent 10 years on the New England Museum Association’s board. Today, he’s director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and is in the midst of completing a PhD in the history of art and architecture.
“I’ve worked in museums throughout my life,” he continues. “You get to know where the exceptional ones are located and who has remarkable collections. I always admired the ROM as one of the world’s great museums that has collections, galleries and research that cut across art, culture and nature. It’s truly comprehensive. When I got a call saying, ‘We’re looking for the next director and CEO of the ROM,’ I leapt at the chance. It’s pretty rare you get the chance to work at not only a great museum, but also a great museum in an exceptional city.”
“I always admired The rom as one of The world’s great Museums that Has collections, Galleries and Research that Cut across Art, culture And nature”
Given both his role and the presence of the establishment, no two days look the same for Basseches. He explains how his job covers everything the museum does, from discussing upcoming exhibitions to the type of coffee visitors are drinking. “I might be in a meeting in the morning where I’ll have a curator wanting to buy a dinosaur fossil from Montana. I might be hiring a new curator of climate change,” he explains. “I’m also very involved in the operational, financial and organizational side of the museum, which includes talking to our chief marketing officer about how to recover our attendance after the pandemic.”
For that reason, Basseches calls himself “a capable generalist,” but ensures he’s surrounded by people who are experts on every facet the museum covers. “I need to know about Indigenous art and culture, for example, but I also rely on talented curators, educators and others who bring greater insight into the discussion. I’m reliant on this exceptional team of experts across the museum.”
His own personal area of scholarship is 19th-century art or, more specifically, something he calls the “transatlantic exchange.” “During the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s, thousands of young, aspiring art students left New York, Boston and studied in Paris,” he shares. “At the time, it was the centre of the art universe. I’m interested in how those young artists studied in Europe, how Americans influenced French art and how the experience of living in Paris led to all these talents and trends in North America.”
Alongside his work at the museum, Basseches loves to travel, with plans to visit the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, high up on the list. He also loves being on the water. Recently, while sailing in the Gulf of Maine on a historic schooner, he was put in a situation where he had to face his fear of heights and was treated to a memorable life lesson.
“One of the expectations was to take one of the shifts at the top of the mast as a lookout. I was picked on the night shift and had to climb up the rigging,” he says. “I got to the crow’s nest and it turned out to be one of those memorable experiences. When you allow yourself to be pushed out of your comfort area and try something you may not want to do, it often has enormous payoffs.”
But for all the culture that surrounds him in the day and the adventure he seeks in his free time, Basseches believes slowing down is key to finding la dolce vita. “We can all be busy with the next deadline, demand, need or requirement someone has and be focused on life that’s satisfying, but doesn’t have much sweetness,” he says. “It’s about taking time to slow down. Eat the things you find wonderful, travel to places you want to see and spend time with people you care about. Those are the things that bring sweetness to life.”