Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hidden Treasures

Captain Cook

Do you have a favourite hidden treasure in the museum? The Woolly Mammoth, I suspect, tops many lists. The train station, with its chirping crickets and rumbling locomotive, is another popular choice.

My personal favourite is a little more grisly: a celebrity murder weapon. Let me back up about 240 years to explain.

On this day in 1770, Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay and became the first European to reach the east coast of Australia. This was part of the young captain's first major scientific expedition, but not his last. During his journeys, Cook was to lead his ships all over the Pacific Ocean: south to the Antarctic Circle, north to the Bering Strait. He has become known to us as one of the greatest of explorers.

His expeditions came to an untimely end in 1779. During a visit to the island of Hawai'i, Cook and his men quarrelled with the local inhabitants. During the fight, Cook was stabbed to death on the beach.

Fast forward to today. Tucked away on the 3rd floor of the Royal BC Museum is a life-size replica of the "HMS Discovery" – a ship that sailed with Cook on his final voyage, and later with Captain George Vancouver. In a display cabinet nearby are a variety of objects related to explorers from the age of sail. Nestled near the front is a small wooden knife. It's unassuming. Tiny. But like many objects within the museum, a small thing can link you back in time and space to world-changing events.

This is believed to be the knife that ended the life of Captain Cook in Hawai'i. There's a bit of mystery around the authenticity of the artifact, and many questions about the actual events that lead to Cook's demise. If you're interested in learning more, check out the links below or contact us directly. Better yet, come in for a visit and see the knife for yourself. While you're here, find a hidden treasure for yourself in the Royal BC Museum.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who Goes There? How to Get Visitors Behind the Scenes

Recent visitors, Fans and members may already know about our plans for the upcoming exhibition Royal BC Museum: Behind the Scenes opening on June 25, 2010. While the curators have been busy selecting artifacts and writing labels we, in the Learning and the Visitor Experience department, have been planning the public programs and thinking about how to actually get you behind the scenes.

Despite being an avid museum visitor myself, I have not encountered many behind the scenes opportunities. The times I have, it gave me a real feeling for what the museums were all about and a sense of amazement and privilege, even for someone like me who has worked in museums for over a decade. So why aren’t there more behind the scenes opportunities? Below are a few of the challenges that we are facing in our own preparations.

A lack of physical space. When our facility was built in 1968, visitors were not a factor, let alone a priority, when it came to the areas where artifacts were being prepared and stored. These collection areas are now close to overflowing with artifacts and in many cases there is no room for a small group to gather.

Don’t feed the animals. Although people working in the museum understand the value of a good exhibition, we’d rather not be on display while working. It’s hard enough to work with a deadline looming over you, let alone with 10 pairs of eyes watching you. To the left: artist Adrienne Aikins working literally "inside the scenes" at the the Royal BC Museum.

Please do not touch. In the public galleries we work hard to ensure that there are hands-on opportunities whenever possible but specimens, artifacts and records behind the scenes are protected from all sorts of things including light and handling. How can we give visitors a glimpse of the vastness of the collections without putting the objects at risk?

Who leads the tours? In addition to their own research, curators, collection managers and other staff spend a lot of time with the public doing presentations and answering questions. Is leading a guided tour the best use of their time?

Could we become a victim of our own success? We took these issues into consideration and spoke with people in the know. Over Spring Break we ran a total of twelve test tours into three different collection areas. The first day we had to turn away as many people as we could take on the tour.

What’s next? More planning, testing and training have to take place before we launch the tours in July of this year so we can end up with an experience that is enjoyable for you and also sustainable for us.

You can comment here to help us with this planning. Have you ever taken a behind the scenes tour? Where was it and what was it that made it special? What would you like to see behind the scenes at the Royal BC Museum?