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Museum CEO owns 30,000 books and reads in six languages

Jack Lohman, the CEO at the Royal BC Museum, spent almost $4,000 to move his books to his Victoria home when he relocated to Canada from England.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Jack Lohman has worked in museums on every continent, save for Antarctica, and even teaches museum design, but in the home of this Commander of the British Empire, the walls are bare. Instead, substantial tables, laden with books, and fully-stocked bookshelves, are the defining feature. Completing the tableau are the ergonomic, Norwegian-made chair and embracing sofa, which offer Mr. Lohman leather or fabric, as he savours ink on paper.

"Books are my nourishment. I'm an obsessive reader who does not own or watch television, who loathes Kindles and travels with a library. My hand luggage consists of books," says Mr. Lohman, 57, chief executive officer of the Royal BC Museum (RBCM).

Owner of 30,000 books, equivalent to what's available in small-town, Canadian public libraries, it cost Mr. Lohman about $3,700 to move several thousand of his favourites when he moved from England to his new job in Victoria in 2012. At his family home, next to Wimbledon's tennis courts in London, 20,000 volumes remain.

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Serious readers typically have collections of about 300 books, some push the 1,000 or even 3,000 mark. In Mr. Lohman's home, his 10,000 books are almost like small inhabitants from around the world, put to bed after a good outing or waiting to be awoken.

His calculation of his book numbers is conservative, he says. In 1999, his library was flooded, and of the damaged books alone, there were 10,000. In June, a student who is studying librarianship at McGill University in Montreal will complete an inventory of his B.C. collection, while a niece will tackle his London stockpile.

In his Oak Bay home, garishly-covered, mystery paperbacks from the 1960s share space with French-made pocketbooks of the finest leather and paper. Some, like a lavish three-book series of Japanese art, are very expensive, while others are very rare. There are books by Orhan Pamuk and Leonardo Padura, Maxim Gorky and Jonathan Sacks, Rafik Schami and Conrad Black. Fond of literature, narrative fiction and memoirs, or, "anything that merges inner and outer lives," his favourite authors include Pawel Huelle, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Alejo Carpentier, Yu Hua, Amitav Ghosh, Ovid and Homer. He owns all of André Brink's works.

"I read in six languages on a daily basis," says Mr. Lohman, who also speaks Polish (his parents immigrated to London from Poland), French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Japanese. "I've got War and Peace in four languages."

He's aspiring to learn Greek so that he can read the classics, as they were written.

Up at 5:30 a.m., he reads then, and again in the evening, "I make time for quietly withdrawing." A careful reader, he normally has three on the go. "I think it's cruel just to charge through a book. I do respect the authors. Books are my passion. Others go to the pub and have a pint or play sports," says Mr. Lohman, who lives alone in a 1913 Arts and Crafts home, on a quiet, leafy street.

Because his workday is spent immersed in anything from cartography to First Nations ethnobotany, leisure reading is a diversion that rebalances his psyche, and as great literature is wont to do, broadens his understanding of human nature.

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Books are also his biggest expense. His first purchase as a five-year-old boy growing up in London, a book of Japanese tales, foretold his fascination with other cultures.

After earning a bachelor degree in art history at the University of East Anglia in England in 1979, he headed to Freien Universitat Berlin, getting a master of architecture in 1981. Prior to joining the Museum of London in 2002, he spent six years as chairman of the International Council of Museums, an organization of museums and museum professionals, working to preserve the world's natural and cultural heritage. From 1999 through 2002, he was CEO of Iziko Museums of Cape Town, South Africa.

Mr. Lohman is also professor in museum design at Norway's Bergen National Academy of the Arts and editor of UNESCO's publication series, Museums and Diversity. In 2011, he received the Bene Merito Medal from Poland, and in 2012, his CBE for his work with museums around the world. He sits on the boards of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the National Museums of Rwanda, the National Museum in Warsaw and the Second World War Museum in Gdansk, Poland. Japan, Singapore, Columbia, Qatar, China, Syria, Rwanda, Kosovo, Russia have all been stops along the way.

Mr. Lohman left the Museum of London to reshape the RBCM's collection of more than seven million items and stacks of archives. "My vision of a museum is that it's sort of a public forum rather than a preachy temple. Collections are not the end in themselves but the departure point for ideas and themes that can reach out across all society, right across British Columbia and beyond," he says.

Since Lohman arrived at the RBCM, the museum has mounted several successful shows including 2015's RBCM exhibit, Gold Rush! El Dorado in B.C., a portrait of the 19th-century quest. In June, Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age will be unveiled, and next year, a families exhibit will take centre stage. "I've started looking for guidance, reading things about families that contribute to my thinking," he says. In 2015, he published Museums at the Crossroads, his book about reinventing museums. In 2017, he will publish another book.

The chair of the RBCM's board met Mr. Lohman when he arrived in 2012, and knows of his passion for reading. "Jack's the kind of person who finds his challenges between the pages of books," says Susan Knott. "He's constantly expanding his knowledge. He has a very deeply probing intellect that can be pushed by reading in other languages. And if he's not reading, he's writing."

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Not one to loan his books, Mr. Lohman prefers to buy books for friends. "We get attached to books," he says.

Ms. Knott has been the recipient of his generosity. "He's given me a couple of books in French. He thinks I need the challenge," she says.

Always on the lookout for good book stores, he's discovered Vancouver's MacLeod's Books and Albion Books, Ivy's Bookshop in Oak Bay, and Munro's Books and Russell Books in Victoria. "After my first visit to Victoria, I knew I'd get on here given the quality of the bookstores," he says. At Russell, he's discovered books that wouldn't be found anywhere else, including $19 purchases, which he says are worth several hundred dollars.

Andrea Minter, owner of the two downtown Russell Books, is granddaughter of founder Reg Russell, who opened his Victoria store 25 years ago. "Tourists tell us Victoria is a great book town," she says.

Mr. Lohman is "a huge person in the community" and a frequent shopper. "Staff really enjoy dealing with him and his vast array of interests," she says. "He's full of life."

While he's not certain where his books will settle, postlife, the RBCM will be given his collection of museum-related books. "I may take some of them with me. You never know, one in each language, perhaps Dante."

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