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Obituary: Jean Jacques Andre was architect of Old Town, natural history, First Peoples exhibits at Royal B.C. Museum

He built museum exhibits in B.C. and around the world. His work at the Royal B.C. Museum was likely his masterpiece.

Jean Jacques Andre developed dozens of museum exhibits throughout North America — many with First Nations — as well as cultural museums in Sweden and Hong Kong.

But his work with the Royal B.C. Museum, covering 40,000 square feet on two floors and enduring for 50 years, was likely his masterpiece.

Andre, who died Dec. 22, two months shy of his 90th birthday, was a lifelong adventurer and artist and the chief exhibit designer of the Becoming B.C., Natural History and First ­Peoples galleries at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Born in Algeria and raised in France, Andre, who lived and worked in Victoria for more than six decades, was known for his acute sense of the interpretive experience and ability to gather talented teams of people to bring his designs to life.

His portfolio was diverse, detailed, well-researched and immediately told a viewer the story.

“Each museum should have its own individuality, its own speciality and its own ­uniqueness,” Andre once said. “Its exhibits must trigger interest and excitement in the visitor. It must create emotion, participation, stimulation and inspiration. To seek a greater understanding of the world and its people around us — that is the goal.”

Andre sought to achieve those goals at the Royal B.C. Museum. His designs of Old Town and the First Peoples Gallery during the 1970s made the Royal B.C. Museum one of Canada’s most popular museums, where visitors could pan for gold, board an 18th-­century ship and walk woodblock streets — all tweaked with sound effects and subtle smells.

Bianca Message, Andre’s daughter, said her father was aware the museum was closing the Becoming B.C. and First Peoples exhibits on Dec. 31, dismantling them in a move it calls “decolonizing” and ­starting consultations with u­nder-­represented voices and First Nations from around the province.

But like other British Columbians, Message said her father questioned closing the exhibits before museum officials had a replacement plan in place.

“He said: ‘I understand ­exhibits have to grow and change. But before doing ­anything, where’s the new story line, where’s the plans, where’s the scale models? Before you do anything, show us.”

Andre was first hired as a consultant to the B.C. Museum in 1968, and in 1970 became chief architect of Project 70, the ­ambitious plan to tell B.C.’s history in the new museum building, which was built as a project for Canada’s centennial year.

Andre would often credit the many talented curators, ­designers, carpenters, artists and public workers who ­developed innovative methods of presentation and ­interpretation at the museum, citing Tom ­Putnam, Alec James, Ewald Lemke, John Smyly, Jan Vriesen, Carol Christianson and Ed Mullett among others.

“There were so many people with so many talents that he worked with,” said Andre’s wife, Joan. “He loved working with so many of them over the years.”

Andre was born in Constantine, Algeria, on Feb. 13, 1932, into an artist’s family and was raised in Marseilles, France, by an aunt and his grandparents. There, he was tutored by several mentor scientists, explorers and writers who helped feed Andre’s insatiable curiosities, said ­Message.

At an early age, he was already learning taxidermy from a naturalist at the Marseilles Museum, which had a c­onnection to the city’s famous zoo as a landing point for animals from Africa destined for European zoos. Many animals died and Andre would check the pens and help in preserving them for exhibits, including songbirds for women’s hats of the day. By 18, he was doing his own taxidermy.

He also presented a paper on owl behaviour to a national history society by observing the raptors and studying their droppings.

From age 14 to 19, Andre worked with archeologist Max Escalon de Fonton mapping caves in southern France.

Caving taught him about the use of space in museum design, said Message. “When people enter different spaces with changes of light and scale, it creates different emotions in visitors. You could see that in the sea caves in the Natural History Gallery or in the First Peoples Gallery in the cave of supernatural beings.”

But Andre was restless and at 19, he and lifelong friend George Odier set out for adventure in Canada with just a few francs in their pockets. They ended up in southern Saskatchewan, where they worked for farmers ­planting and harvesting their wheat crops.

Seeing an ad for lumber-mill workers in northern B.C., they headed to a mill town named Penny, near Prince George, where they found the jobs no longer existed. They picked up other odd jobs and eventually started sorting lumber and feeding the mill. The sawmill display at the Royal B.C. Museum was created from Andre’s ­experience there.

In Penny, Andre forged ­lasting friendships with families he visited often through his life.

Returning from a visit to ­Victoria one day, Odier told Andre he had to go see it.

It’s where Andre met his wife of 64 years, Joan, while photographing a wedding. They were married in 1957 and had four children — Jac, Charles, Bianca and Yvette. He’s also survived by a grandson, Dante Andre-Kahan.

“My mom empowered my dad … she loved the adventurer in him,” said Message. “And their love was so passionate to the very end.”

Joan was considered the “keel” of the family design business, which was founded in 1961 and wound down three years ago. She managed ­everything from bookkeeping and ­administration to the design works. And she was a talented artist in her own right, training as a sculptor under Victoria’s Peggy Walton-Packard.

After leaving the Royal B.C. Museum in 1982, ­Andre’s company — which included Joan, Message and her husband, Bill, daughter Yvette and long-time associate Rennie Knowlton — went on to develop dozens of museums and exhibits, ­including Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives and Campbell River Museums, the Shaw Ocean ­Discovery Centre and the Makah Cultural and Research Centre in Neah Bay, Washington, which is recognized as one of the United States’ finest First Nations Museums.

“Papa developed a very ­special relationship with the Makah people and their elders,” said Message. “It was one of his favourite projects because he was so close to the people.”

Andre’s portfolio was diverse, and involved many cultures and sectors, including the Hong Kong Museum of ­History, the National Atomic Testing Museum in the U.S. and the ­Skirball Cultural Centre in Los Angeles that chronicled Jewish life in America.

Most of his designs are being donated to the B.C. Archives.

Andre would always say he was no academic, family ­members said. “He designed exhibits ­viscerally, reaching to people’s feelings rather than having a textbook on the wall,” said ­Message.

dkloster@timescolonist.com