Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Comment: We are losing our history — and with it, ourselves

Loss of the Royal B.C. Museum’s historical displays for at least the next 10 years, as well as chronic underfunding of other museums and historical sites around B.C., put the province in danger of losing its vital connections to the past.
Royal B.C. Museum in downtown Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by two history professors at the University of Victoria, where Colby is also the department chair.

Can you even imagine, in this day and age, a jurisdiction — anywhere in the world — that does not have a museum to share its history? Oh, right, there is one. British Columbia.

While most other parts of the world are eager to use museums to share the good and the bad of their histories, both as educational centres and sites that draw tourists, our province has taken a different approach.

British Columbia wantonly dismantled the historical displays in the Royal B.C. Museum in January, in May dangled a new museum eight years into the future, then in June rescinded that offer, leaving no hope for a provincial history museum for another decade.

Now lacking its marquee historical site, the province could have channelled resources and attention to its remaining heritage sites, Point Ellice House and Carr House in Victoria, Barkerville, and another five historic sites scattered around the province, whose relative importance, as the only remaining provincial interpretive sites, have skyrocketed.

And yet, these sites, whose funding framework has remained largely unchanged since a shift to non-government management in 2004, are being starved of funds, and some are at risk of shuttering their doors.

Perhaps you are thinking that in these times of doctor shortages and emergency rooms in crisis, we have little need for heritage sites and museums? We would answer that a history crisis will, in the long run, be at least as dangerous as a health crisis.

Of course, even in the short run, losing heritage is a loss to our economic well-being. Along with scenery and wildlife, our unique history is something visitors can find nowhere else. It draws tourists from around the world, and so a tax dollar spent on heritage spills over into hotel rooms and restaurants, and overflows into whale watching, garden tours and other tourist activities, not to mention that historical sites employ many highly trained people.

But it is in the long run that the loss of our historical consciousness is the most dangerous. Heritage sites and museums are literally the places that bring us together as communities, as a province and a country. Study after study show that citizens trust museums and heritage sites more than books, more than movies and the internet — more even than history professors — to get our history right.

And today, more than ever, it is important to tell the truth about our history, in all its glory and shame. In the distant past, most museums were places that celebrated colonialism and the triumph of the white, male, heterosexual settler.

But over the past few decades, our best museums and heritage sites have been the leaders in telling the stories of diversity, of immigration, of hardship, racism, homophobia, dispossession and environmental degradation, as well as chroniclers of what has become one of the healthiest, wealthiest, most diverse, democratic societies in the world.

The point of history is not to learn to love or to hate our province or country, but to understand and improve ourselves through dialogue with each other and our past. Together we weave these threads into our collective story, and as the novelist Thomas King reminds us, “stories are all we are.”

We have only to look a few kilometres south to see a society where that historical dialogue has broken down, with disastrous implications for democracy.

In dark moments, Americans’ divergent understandings of the past has prevented them from seeing one another as fellow citizens or addressing shared problems. They disagree so vehemently on the historical meaning of the Second Amendment that they cannot address gun violence.

Indeed, they disagree on the purpose of history itself. The result is an ongoing struggle, with one side prohibiting teaching about racism in schools, banning provocative books and wanting to return to a time when men controlled women’s bodies.

And lest those few kilometres seem far from us in Canada, remember the Confederate flags that recently flew in the streets of Ottawa. Realize that anti-semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian sentiment, homo- and transphobia, are all on the rise here in B.C. All show the results of “bad” history.

Museums and heritage sites are centres where we come together collectively, as a community, to choose what our story will be.

Without them, our democracy is impoverished, and our fate as a community is left to what we remember from a course or two in public schools and the wild ramblings found on the internet. Little wonder that the threads holding us together are fraying.

We urgently need a new provincial heritage policy that acknowledges the power of stories to redress injustices and tie us together. We also need to recognize the importance of heritage to tourism and the devasting impact that COVID-19 has had on historic-site budgets.

Instead, the RBCM closed its history floor, and staff at our designated historic sites, such as Point Ellice House, a national and provincial heritage site, tell us that without a new injection of funds, they will be forced to close in the new year.

This, Victoria’s best kept secret, is a historical jewel, in part because it is the only museum that tells the story of how Indian Reserves were laid out in this province, in part because it has one of the best collections of Victoriana clothing and household items in North America.

Similarly, without additional funding, Barkerville, the astonishing ghost town from the 1860s Cariboo gold rush, will lay off its costumed interpreters who are the actual teachers of history at the site. Without their stories, Barkerville is just an empty town of old buildings.

We have focused on the provincial heritage sites and museums, but British Columbia also has many local museums, archives, First Nations and ethnically focused heritage sites, mostly run by non-profits and volunteers, all of which are struggling to pay the bills, with little government support, and all of which are vital to understanding our past.

A robust heritage policy would support them as well as the designated sites and offer British Columbians rich and diverse opportunities to reflect upon their history, from Ainsworth to Zeballos, and everywhere in between.

We have lost our major museum, and we are in danger of losing more. With each closure, we lose the ability to learn and shape the stories that bind us together, tell us who we are, and what kind of community we hope to be.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks