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Royal B.C. Museum sees rush for last look at Old Town before it's dismantled

RBCM is closing its third floor on Dec. 31 for an overhaul that is expected to take years. Many people visiting the museum this past week agreed the displays should be presented within an updated context, but disagreed with dismantling them during the long consultation period.

In the Old Town exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum, a little girl is peering into the ­pioneer kitchen display, wide-eyed at the pies in a one-ton iron stove from the 1800s.

She turns to her mom, asking: “Where’s the microwave?”

It’s a teachable moment — and one that will soon be lost as the museum begins an overhaul in how it presents early pioneers in the ­province.

The museum will close the entire third floor, which also includes the First ­Peoples Gallery, on Dec. 31, in what it calls a “decolonization” of exhibits in a step toward eliminating racism and the start of ­reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Exhibits in the Becoming B.C. Gallery, chronicling early European settler ­history — including the Old Town replica, displays on the logging, fishery and mining ­industries and Capt. George Vancouver’s ship ­Discovery — will disappear after more than 50 years.

Elements of those displays could eventually return in a new form as the museum develops a “new narrative.”

The closing could last up to five years as the museum goes through extensive consultations with under-represented groups who have contributed to the province, such as those of Chinese, South Asian and African descent, as well as the Jewish community.

Many people visiting the museum this past week agreed the displays should be presented within an updated context, but disagreed with dismantling them during the long consultation period.

Tim Brown was playing with his two sons, ages two and four, at the Gold Rush waterwheel. The boys were looking for flakes of gold, digging their hands in the water and sand in the hope of finding a treasure.

Brown, 39, remembers doing the same when his dad brought him to the museum at about the same age.

“I can see why they want to incorporate a better perspective, but this is a part of history and it will be a shame to lose it,” said Brown, who likened Old Town and other parts of the Becoming B.C. Gallery to an educational playground.

“The thing I always liked about this — and my kids now, too — is the museum’s not about screens or what’s in glass boxes,” said Brown. “There are displays where you can really see, smell and touch.”

Many visitors were admiring all those special touches one last time — splatters of resin as fish slime, and rusty knives and cleavers in the fish canning display; the smell of creosote around the docks of the Discovery; the wood block pavers on the streets of Old Town; the subtle sound of chickens on the early homestead and hammer-on-anvil in the blacksmith shop; and Charlie Chaplin films in the Majestic Theatre.

Several visitors, including Lisa, spent a lot of time in the train station, listening to the clatter of the telegraph machine and the lights and sounds of a train roaring by the station past translucent windows.

“I lived in a small community in the northern Interior that for a long time was only serviced by train,” she said. “So it’s always been sentimental for me to just sit here for a while.”

Lisa, who didn’t want her last name used, said taking land from First Nations and the cascading effects of residential schools over several generations have had devastating effects on First Nations, and that harrowing legacy continues.

“I think we should talk about it, recognize it, make amends … but without X-ing out other parts of the province’s history,” she said.

She “absolutely” agrees that better context is needed in many of the displays.

Mia Barkasy, 51, has visited the museum since she was nine. She remembers school field trips on which her classmates would dare each other to skip over a rail and jump into the bed inside Capt. Vancouver’s ship.

Barkasy and her sister would go about 10 times a year and always have lunch in the train station near the pot-bellied stove and watch the trains go by. She has had season passes for decades and brought her children, now 25, 19 and 14, to see Old Town one last time.

“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I get what they want to do, but I don’t get it, either.

“I mean, Old Town is part of our history right? Why do they want to get rid of it?

“It’s the small stuff here … they stick with you,” said Barkasy. “I’m here in my 50s and still finding things I haven’t seen before.”

Barkasy agrees changes are needed to add perspective, but says seeing it all go is “disappointing.”

Marie-France Germain, 69, remembers the opening of the third-floor displays in 1972, and has brought her son and daughter to see Old Town and the First Peoples Gallery nearly every year since.

“They loved all the First Nations masks … there were stuffed animals here for a while, too,” she said. “It’s a great place to teach your children. I just don’t know why they have to close it all.”

Son Jesse Hickman, 42, admiring the Peace River homestead display, said it’s important to experience history in a museum setting “even though there may be some inaccuracies” or exclusions.

“It at least gives you a sense of what life was like, and I think knowing our past is something we need,” said Hickman.

The Victoria Historical Society said it supports the museum’s goal to decolonize its third-floor galleries and make the museum an accessible space for all, in particular the goal to create new narratives that highlight the resilience and cultural properties of Indigenous peoples.

“We are concerned, however, about the museum’s plan to close these galleries before engaging in a multi-stage process of consultation, design, and creation of new exhibits,” John Lutz, society spokesman, wrote in an open letter in the Times Colonist. “Closing the human history section …. will create an unnecessary chasm in the education and tourism worlds of British Columbia.”

About half the museum’s exhibit space will be closed, but the IMAX theatre and the natural history floor will remain open. Admission prices to the museum are being reduced by $8 across the various age groups, starting Jan. 1.

Paul Nursey of Destination Victoria said he was reserving comment on the potential impact on visitors to the region, saying it’s a “sensitive” topic relating to reconciliation.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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• The museum was founded in 1886 in response to a petition signed by 30 prominent citizens. It was housed in a single room adjoining the provincial secretary’s office in the Capitol Buildings, which were nicknamed the Birdcages. John Fannin, an avid outdoorsman and collector and gifted taxidermist, was appointed its first curator.

• The provincial government has collected ­archival records since 1894, preserved by the ­Legislative Library. In 1908, the Provincial Archives was ­established as a separate institution, mandated to ­collect material of provincial significance.

• Over the next 12 years, the museum was relocated twice, first to the former Supreme Court building, and then in 1898, to the east wing of the newly constructed Legislative Buildings. During those years, 3,700 ­people registered their visits to the museum each year (actual attendance was probably two to three times that ­number).

• In 1913, the province proclaimed the Museum Act, giving the museum formal operating authority and defining its objectives to secure and preserve ­specimens illustrating the natural history of the ­province; to collect anthropological material relating to the Indigenous peoples of the province; and to obtain information on the natural history of the province, and diffuse knowledge regarding the same.

• Over the next 30 years, the museum grew. New space was made for ethnological artifacts when the ­basement of the east wing was available in 1921; ­William ­Newcombe, son of C.F. Newcombe, and Dr.  Ian McTaggart Cowan joined the museum as assistant ­curators of biology; research papers were published; and visitors arrived from across Canada and ­throughout the United States — including U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

• In 1941, six vacant lots at the corner of Belleville and Douglas Streets in Victoria were transformed into ­Thunderbird Park, where totem poles from the museum’s collection were displayed. Ten years later, ­deterioration of the poles had become a serious ­concern, and ­anthropology curator Wilson Duff began a pole ­restoration program. The totem poles currently on ­display at Thunderbird Park are replicas of the ­originals, which have been moved inside, where they can be ­properly preserved.

• By 1961, estimated annual attendance at the museum had reached 100,000.

• In 1963, Premier W.A.C. Bennett announced plans to build a new museum and archives as a Canadian ­Centennial project.

• In 1966, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, dedicated the cornerstone for the current museum exhibits building.

• In 1969, the second museum building, the Fannin Tower, was finished, and the museum staff and collections made the formal move into the new facilities.

• In 1977, the 12,000-year Gap and the First Peoples ­Galleries opened to the public.

• In 1979, Living Land, Living Sea, the first phase of the permanent natural history galleries, opened.

• The museum celebrated its centennial in 1986, and competed the second phase of its natural history ­galleries, Open Oceans.

• In 2003, through the proclamation of a new museum act, the B.C. Archives, Helmcken House, the ­Netherlands Carillon, Thunderbird Park, St. Ann’s Schoolhouse and the Royal BC. Museum came together as the Royal B.C. Museum Corporation, creating a cultural precinct.

• In fall 2021, the province and museum board announced the closing of the third floor on Dec. 31 as the museum undergoes a “decolonization” of exhibits. The museum is starting consultations with “all voices” in the province to re-curate and redesign the space now occupied by Becoming B.C. and First Peoples displays.

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• The road to Old Town: Interactive RBCM exhibit was cutting-edge for its time, with photos of construction 50 years ago

• No timeline on Royal B.C. Museum's decolonization, acting CEO says

To comment on this article, email a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com