As this historian shows, the Royal BC Museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution.
MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, while my mother shopped, I’d laze away unsupervised summer afternoons in the public galleries of the ornate east wing of British Columbia’s iconic legislature buildings.
It was another world from our present provincial museum’s post-modernist structure, purpose-built in 1968 for dramatic dioramas, dynamic displays and public engagement—even now being modernized for the next 50 years of our digitally-enhanced century.
The building was ornately decorated, but crowded with specimens of the province’s fauna (Image A-0308524 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives).
The old museum remembered from childhood flaunted all the imposing trappings that romanticized colonial hubris—Romanesque arches, Greek columns, pilasters, cornices and tiled mosaics, all the sympathetic magic of imperialism, symbols of past glory invoked to inflate one’s own.
Whatever its future might be, as Patricia Roy’s meticulous new history of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, The Collectors, reminded me with vivid intensity, our provincial museum indisputably began as Victorian trophy case.
Where current visitors may stroll through a rather-more sedate version of Old Victoria, examine a full-sized mammoth in its Ice Age habitat, visit Captain George Vancouver’s spartan cabin or sit in a long house as Vancouver did with the whaling Chief Maquinna, I recall glass cabinets stuffed with skewered butterflies. Unusual marine specimens floated in jars of formaldehyde or were mounted like fishing trophies. Predators snarled amid big game shot by adventurers for whom specimen-gathering seemed an excuse for hunting expeditions. And there was a hypnotically-rich collection of First Nations ceremonial regalia, totems, tools, weapons and art, the display untroubled by cultural, social or historic context.
When, as a child, I descended the time-worn stairs to the ethnographic gallery and its stunning Newcombe Collection, it was like stepping into some cool, stone-clad other-world suffused with the supernatural.
Today, the museum cornerstones Victoria’s identity, commercial as well as cultural. Since 2008 it has attracted almost 6.5 million visitors. By way of comparison, that’s about two million more than attended BC Lions football games. It’s about 5.2 million more than visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in a market of more than a million. More locally, it’s nearly 4.8 million more than paid attendance at the Royal and McPherson theatres combined. The RBCM’s modest target for 2019 is to attract 12 visitors for every citizen in the City of Victoria.
Our museum has generated almost a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue since 2008. Spending by the museum and its visitors contribute about $26 million a year to south Vancouver Island’s gross domestic product.
More importantly, it’s changed from colonial trophy case to leading advocate for First Nations’ place in the fabric of a 21st-century British Columbia that emerges from the post-colonial braiding of many cultural traditions.
And yet the museum did begin in unapologetic colonial eccentricity. Certainly that’s what is suggested by an 1889 report in the British Colonist. On Victoria Day that year, the museum threw open its collections and the public rushed to view “the many valuable natural curiosities, the treasures of mineralogy and the collections of well-mounted specimens of the wild animals and birds of the province,” reported the newspaper.
Exhibits were heavy on the latter. Roy notes that the new head of the museum, John Fannin, was a skilled taxidermist. He had donated 12 cases of his own specimens. Visitors goggled at a “monster grizzly bear” rendered so realistic that “timid ladies trembled,” a mammoth bone, a brick from the Great Wall of China, and an ancient Spanish cannon found near Port Alberni. Fannin’s successor in 1904, Francis Kermode, was also a taxidermist, though he is now famous for bestowing his name on the white “Spirit Bear” with which the Great Bear Rainforest is associated.
Yet, if the museum began as a curiosity cabinet during the rush for “primitive” spoils that characterized late Victorian colonialism, Roy, professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria, tells us that it quickly evolved a deep and abiding relationship with First Nations.
Concern for such a relationship was, in fact, evident in the impetus for the museum’s establishment in 1886—a petition signed by 30 prominent citizens worried about the pillaging of First Nations art and artifacts just as the federal government banned the potlatch. Among those citizens were two defenders of Indigenous rights and culture, Dr Israel Wood Powell and Chief Justice Matthew Bailie Begbie. Begbie, a defender of aboriginal rights and a founder of what would become one of an otherwise benighted province’s most important advocates of cross-cultural understanding, is now, ironically, a thoroughly-battered target of historical revisionism, ostensibly for purposes of reconciliation.
These are difficult days for museums everywhere as they navigate post-colonial deconstruction and changing public sentiment. Political agendas of groups once ignored sometimes fuse with well-intended political correctness based in passionate ignorance of the wrongs it seeks to right.
Roy’s account doesn’t flinch from just demands for the repatriation of artifacts and specimens obtained under dubious circumstance. Acquisitions involved everything from duplicity to bald-faced appropriation. Museums must now re-evaluate the assumptions behind what and how they arrange, order and prioritize their displays.
But, so what? Museums and their missions have never been static. They’ve progressed from the curiosity cabinets of 18th-century antiquarians, to the trophy cases of colonial empires, to self-affirming displays of the dominant culture’s assumptions regarding science and social stratification, to protectors of cultural heritage threatened by greed, politics and propaganda.
The Royal BC Museum’s collections include the commissioned work of Mungo Martin, whose genius triggered a coast-wide resurgence of Indigenous art. Martin—born Naka’pankam (Potlatch Chief Ten Times Over) at Tsaxis on the north end of Vancouver Island—was 10 on that luminous night in 1889 when the museum threw open its doors.
Taught by his stepfather Charlie James, Martin carved his first commissioned pole while the potlatch was still outlawed. (It was illegal for 66 years.) He made it for a client in Alert Bay where the RCMP would arrest and jail 45 people for the crime of being themselves with an ancient ceremony.
Yet in 1950, one year before the potlatch ban ended, Martin was hired as resident carver at the BC Museum. He collected 400 songs and oral histories. He trained the famous Indigenous artists Henry Hunt, Tony Hunt, Bill Reid and Doug Cranmer. In 1953, he gave the first legal potlatch since 1884—at the museum where he had built his Big House.
Martin died in Victoria on August 16, 1962, having presided over the resurrection of an artistic tradition his government had tried to murder and which had subsequently been pronounced dead, even by famous anthropologist Marius Barbeau. He lay in state in a carved yellow cedar coffin in his own Big House at Thunderbird Park, part of the museum precinct. Hundreds filed past in a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw ceremony. His pallbearers included cabinet ministers. His body was carried home in honour by the Canadian warship HMCS Ottawa.
As Roy’s thoughtful narrative points out, the Royal BC Museum deserves much credit for projecting work like Martin’s onto the world screen. From its early collection of argillite carvings by Skidegate chief Charles Edenshaw, to outreach programs for schools based on Son of Raven, Son of Deer by the Tseshaht artist George Clutesi (to whom Emily Carr left her paintbrushes), the museum’s profound efforts spanned a First Nations era from earliest contact to the Space Age. It even holds masks donated in gratitude by Kitty White, a woman from northern Vancouver Island who was “stolen” by people near Port Renfrew. The masks—for her and her children—were carved by her brother to mark his joy at eventually finding her.
The Legacy, a 1975 exhibition, was the first of a series of remarkable exhibitions that toured in Canada and Europe. Roy quotes Neil Sterritt, the honoured Gitxsan historian, as saying it was “probably the finest display of contemporary Indian art assembled in North America.”
If the democratization of knowledge, the flattening of social class into a more inclusive and pluralistic society, and the broadening distribution of education mean challenges to conventional thought, as Roy’s new history shows, the museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution.
Faced with challenging ethical questions of cultural appropriation, the museum pioneered repatriation policies for artifacts. In 2016, for example, it returned 17 items to the Huu-ay-aht for permanent display in the First Nation’s government office at Pachena Bay. The museum negotiates custodial arrangements to preserve and protect other items held by the museum or repatriated from other museums until such time as they might be returned.
In all, the museum has seven million items in its collections—including fascinating examples and insights into the flora and fauna, the natural and social histories of the province. As well, as Roy wryly reports, the museum’s own staff comprised some exotic specimens, too.
E.M. Anderson was a talented museum collector. In 1908 he applied for paid leave as his wife’s serious illness required him to take her to Calgary. While on leave, however, Anderson was discovered touring the United States as drummer with a theatrical troupe.
Then there was the chap hired to fill gaps in Indigenous inventory from BC’s Interior. His task was to find and buy rare art and artifacts for the museum’s “Indian collection.” Two museum officials happened to be visiting Vancouver Art Gallery when a call came. It was Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Could anyone there authenticate a rare copper mask being offered for sale? The Glenbow provided a photograph. The BC museum’s experts could indeed verify. The mask, alas, was from their own collection, on loan from Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was being offered for sale in Calgary by the museum’s own collector.
Violet Redfern was on the payroll as a 1920s stenographer but she actually worked as the museum’s botanist, collecting specimens and devising imaginative displays. Finally, after ten years of asking for a pay raise that reflected her work, the Province coughed up 7.5 cents an hour. She married the museum’s entomologist. They quit and went to homestead in Alberta.
And there was the directive from “Glad Hand Dick,” early 20th-century Premier Richard McBride, that the museum’s skilled taxidermists obtain a grizzly bear rug for the Emperor of Japan. The museum complied. Maybe that’s why, at the outbreak of World War One, when powerful German cruisers menaced the South Coast, the Japanese sent even bigger battleships to defend the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Japanese sailors on shore leave were among the museum’s intrepid visitors.
Among the eccentricities, of course, were giants of BC heritage and history. Roy cites Ian McTaggart Cowan, often called the father of Canadian ecology, who laid foundations in the 1930s for the museum’s transition to a genuine scientific institution. Clifford Carl, who completed the process in the 1940s, hired Wilson Duff, the anthropologist who shaped the museum into an astonishing First Nations treasure house. Duff was matched in vision by Willard Ireland, a brilliant young provincial archivist and librarian who succeeded William Kaye Lamb who left BC to become first the Dominion Archivist and then the first National Librarian of Canada.
Reflecting the province itself—BC is the most biologically, topologically and geologically diverse region in Canada—the museum addresses natural history, our diverse zoological heritage, anthropology and ethnology, palaeontology, archaeology and modern history, entomology and ichthyology, botany and herpetology.
If it opens doorways into BC’s past and future, the museum also opens windows on the cultural heritage of our wider world—this spring it celebrates UNESCO’s Year of Indigenous Languages with Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises, an exhibition raised from the immense civilizations that dominated Central America before Europeans found their way to the New World. Some of the items on display will be seen outside their country for the first time.
Roy’s history meets all the benchmarks of scholarly work. It’s meticulously detailed, exhaustively attributed and extensively annotated. More important, it brings a sense of humour and a lively appreciation of Victoria’s historic museum—not as a collection cabinet for desiccated specimens of the past but as a throbbing, dishevelled, entirely human enterprise replete with surprises and astonishments.
Patricia Roy will be the guest speaker at the Victoria Historical Society meeting on January 24 at James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies Street. Her focus will be “Flora, Fauna, and Fannin: The Early Days of the Provincial Museum.” Doors open at 7:15 pm. Admission is free for members, $5 for guests. www.victoriahistoricalsociety.bc.ca.
Stephen Hume has lived in many parts of BC since 1948. He spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers; he’s written nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.