Thursday, September 15, 2011

Re-imagining History

From the desk of Tim Willis,
Director of Exhibitions
and Visitor Experience

‘Challenge’ is a rather overused term these days – often a euphemism for ‘problem’. But I have to say we have a beauty of a challenge right now.
 We’ve just begun to re-imagine our History Gallery. It’s time. Much of the History Gallery was created in the 1970s and it has been visited by more than 10 million human beings. It is still in great shape and its immersive settings continue to surprise and delight. But we have new stories we’d like to explore and the existing presentation has never really fulfilled its interpretive potential. 
Imagining how to renew this iconic presentation presents a remarkable – and perhaps unique - challenge and some head-scratching questions:

Maintaining the Magic
The 'Old Town' gallery is built with enormous precision and detail. A whole street is perfectly replicated. How do we add a layer of new interpretation without ruining the illusion? 
Old Town’: the detail in the buildings
and their interiors is astonishing 

In the Beginning…
Though the gallery is organized around a general timeline, few visitors are aware of it. Does a chronology help visitors to follow a story and situate themselves? Should we break from this structure and present the gallery as a series of themes?
 The Modern History begins with
Captain Vancouver but few visitors
realize that they are on a
journey through time

Nurse, scalpel please
To achieve a transformation, there needs to be a critical mass of new presentation …not simply a rejuvenation of old displays. So, what parts do we keep… and what needs to go? Do we have the courage to remove large [and surely beloved by someone] elements?
The Exploration Gallery:
a candidate for replacement?

Who’s not invited?
How do we represent the numerous cultural groups that have made British Columbia their home? The very nature of our society and history is cultural diversity. How do we adequately represent everyone who came here to make a new home?
Currently, Chinatown provides a
glimpse into some particular experiences
of Chinese British Columbians

Where are the people?
Though the entire existing gallery is about the endeavors of human beings, it is surprisingly devoid of any sense of human personality. How do we connect people to the real experience of people from the past?
The Majestic Theatre and The Cannery:
both appear to have just been abandoned!

These are just some of the challenging questions our planning team is confronting right now. We’ve a long way to go – though I think it’s the challenge in the true sense of the word that is firing our imagination right now.

I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts as to how we should approach any one of these considerations.

Tim Willis


  1. Re-introduce stimuli for the senses: everyone I know mourns the passing of the apple pie smell. The cannery should smell like salmon! The barn should smell like cow manure! Honestly - the real world is full of smells - some of which delight, some disgust but any one of them can evoke a powerful memory or unlock a sensation.

  2. Use interactive characters to energize the space and bring the displays to life. It was great to see performers from Good Timber playing music, singing and chatting with the visitors - more of that!

  3. Dear Mr. Willis:

    When re-imagining the history galleries, please ensure that you direct your good team to create a gallery fitting to delicate tastes. I was once in a Museum in Edmonton that had the shameless temerity to display "artifacts" related to illicit drug consumption. Kindly do not follow the path of your backwards neighbors. I'd expect that the museum inhabiting the proud city named after the most regal of all monarchs would never stoop to such base pandering.

    T. Crawshaw

  4. Dear Mr. Crawshaw...

    I think our museum colleagues in Alberta have done some fine work in exploring different facets of the human story in that part of the world. I really look forward to seeing how they treat the Alberta story in the new Royal Alberta Museum. I believe that our role is not to sanitise the events and texture of the past. I look forward to taking on all kinds of interesting topics in our new gallery. Thanks for your comment. Come and visit sometime soon.

    Tim Willis


The Royal BC Museum is located in Victoria, British Columbia on Canada's west coast. We preserve BC's human and natural history and share it with the world. How do we do that? That's what this blog is about.

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