British Columbia

'White, male, settler history': B.C.'s museum considers how to display past as it looks to future

It's a discussion both culturally important and potentially fraught: what does a modernized telling of B.C.'s history mean? 

The province is modernizing The Royal BC Museum in Victoria

The museum's exhibits and information on B.C.'s Indigenous people is largely kept separate from the rest of the collections. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Sometimes, even an institution devoted to the past needs to look to the future. 

"I think museums have a chance to be incredibly modern," said Lisa Beare, B.C.'s Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture.

Beare's ministry is overseeing a modernization of the Royal BC Museum, long one of the province's biggest tourist attractions and cultural centres. The museum is a Crown corporation, and receives $11.9 million annually from the government, about half its revenue. 

A month of community meetings across the province concluded on Thursday, and the province will be making its recommendations in the fall. 

Part of the discussion is around simple structural issues — the museum's building is 50 years old, seismically unsound, filled with asbestos and lacking the ability to safely preserve most of its collections with current best practices.

But there's also another discussion happening, as evidenced by an online question asking how the museum "could most effectively tell stories of B.C.'s communities."

It's a discussion both culturally important and potentially fraught: what does a modernized telling of B.C.'s history mean? 

"When the government decides to invest in the heritage of a cultural and economic asset, they definitely do have some sort of a shaping influence," said Ben Bradley, a historian who wrote British Columbia by the Road, a 2017 book that examined how 20th century B.C. governments shaped the connection between new highways and heritage opportunities. 

"Museums are dynamic and they're slower to change maybe than academic histories ... but they may be also faster to change than society's general perceptions of the past."

The Royal BC Museum is a Crown corporation, and receives $11.9 million annually from the government, about half its revenue.  (Royal BC Museum)

How history is presented

Roughly speaking, the main part of the museum is divided into four main galleries:

  • A touring exhibit about something elsewhere in the world (think: Mayans or ancient Egypt). 
  • B.C.'s natural history (think: the wooly mammoth and ocean station) 
  • B.C.'s Indigenous people (think: totems, artwork and an interactive languages area)
  • "Becoming BC," a section on the colonization and modern history of the province (think: Old Town, old wooden ships, and the gold rush). 

 It's been a sturdy format for decades, as the museum's enduring popularity will attest. But with most of the permanent displays created decades ago, there's a particular framework in how B.C.'s history is presented.

 

"[There are] galleries that primarily are white, male settler history. And that's how it's constructed, and we want to see that change," said Joanne Orr, the museum's deputy CEO and vice president of collections. 

Bradley says that's fairly common for how North American history was portrayed when the museum moved into its current building in 1968.

"There [started to be] a bit more of a social history approach, but it's still to some of the classic themes of discovery, adventure, frontiers and pioneering," he said. 

"When you walk into some museums, often there's separate divisions within the curatorial sections of the museums, that [white] history is almost one unit while [Indigenous] anthropology is another." 

B.C.'s museum has made changes this century, with several small displays that are more interactive. The Indigenous languages exhibit is generally well-regarded, as is the repatriation program.

But it's still, by and large, the same museum you remember as a kid — and Orr admits changing anything about a beloved institution is tricky. 

"People are very nostalgic and have very strong feelings about the museum. They're very attached to what's here. So with any moving forward we have to respect that."

The museum says its mammoth is the most popular attraction among its permanent exhibits. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Different priorities

What could tangible changes look like?

On the province's public feedback page, there are plenty of comments about having more interactive exhibits, greater accessibility, more history from the perspective of non-European communities. 

At the same time, there are people who want the museum to do more touring across the province, people who want it to be free of charge, and people who want it to fundamentally stay the same. 

"People really like the mammoth and they really like Old Town [which depicts a turn-of-the century B.C. town], but also I think the museum means different things to people around the province," said Orr.

It's always hard for people to agree upon what happened in the past. It's harder still to get people to agree what should happen in the future. 

But the museum is ready to take on the potential of a straightforward renovation — and an existential debate over values. 

"Understanding where you are now, who you are, your identity, helps you to think about the future. It's a platform for moving forward into the future," said Orr.

"And you can only understand your identity by understanding and coming to terms with your past."

B.C.'s "Modern History Gallery," which includes several well-known exhibits, including Old Town, opened in 1972. (Royal BC Museum)

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