Book gives insight into Royal B.C. Museum's raison d'etre

Treasures of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives
Compiled by Jack Lohman
Royal British Columbia Museum, 144 pp., $39.95
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The Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives stands on one of the most significant corners in downtown Victoria, with the Empress Hotel in one direction, the Parliament Buildings in another and the Inner Harbour in between.

The museum has been on that spot for almost half a century, but it has been a vital part of the province’s life for much longer — since 1886, when it was inaugurated.

The museum of today is not quite what George Archibald McTavish, one of the members from Victoria, had in mind when he proposed it in the legislature on Feb. 17, 1886.

McTavish argued for a museum, to be operated by the government, for the constant exhibition of natural products. These products could be mineral, vegetable or animal in nature, as McTavish envisioned the museum.

The premier, William Smithe from Cowichan, agreed with McTavish, noting that it was “becoming very difficult indeed” to obtain good specimens of “Indian curiosities of workmanship.” Also, some birds were becoming scarce, Smithe said, so it was important to obtain specimens while it was still possible.

McTavish’s proposal was seconded by Robert McLeese from the Cariboo, and then received the full support of the legislature. That set the stage for the museum of today.

But oh, how the concept has changed, just as the philosophies behind museums and archives have been transformed over time.

This book, which can be considered a celebration of the museum, helps us to understand the role of the institution, and its importance in conserving and recording our past, and allowing future generations to get a better sense of what British Columbia is all about.

This is not the first time the work of the museum has been featured in a book. The Ring Of Time, published 30 years ago to mark the museum’s centennial and reprinted several times since, provides solid background about the museum and its role as seen at the time.

But times change, and thinking changes, and the museum’s guiding philosophy is quite different from what it set out to be, and what it was at its centennial.

Treasures of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives has five major essays about the museum and archives, written by five of the most knowledgeable curators there.

Admittedly, they can only scratch the surface. As Jack Lohman, the museum’s chief executive officer, states, the museum has seven million cultural objects and specimens, five historic buildings, several hundred hours of film, five million photographs and two and half kilometres of archives.

That said, all of that material would seem merely anecdotal without an over-arching belief in what the organization should be doing. Again, as Lohman says, the single underlying concept of the museum is the “ever-changing diversity of our living and non-living but interconnected world.”

The book was compiled by Lohman, who wrote the introduction as well as the opening essay.

Martha Black’s essay, Living Cultures, explores our rethinking of relationships with First Nations. A century ago, the goal was to obtain samples of “Indian curiosities,” but today we seek partnerships that embrace the shared history.

Richard Hebda writes on British Columbia’s living landscapes, and Grant Keddie digs into archeology. Gary Mitchell contributed an essay on the treasures found in the B.C. Archives.

To say the book is richly illustrated would be understating its use of photography. This book includes some of the most famous photographs in the history of our province, images of notable works of art and the faces of some of the people who are helping to ensure that the museum continues to thrive.

All in all, Treasures of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives is a masterpiece, a celebration of the institution that will enable readers to see the museum in a new light, and with new appreciation.

The reviewer is the editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.

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