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Explore what's behind the exhibits ahead of the reopening of the Old Town
It’s remarkable how similar the breath of a Tyrannosaurus rex and a drawer of preserved rodents smell.
These are two odours one would not expect to come across, let alone on the same morning. And yet, here in the Royal BC Museum, they are merely among the countless oddities, specimens, and artifacts stored in an ever-growing, ever-evolving collection.
For a bit more context, the T.rex breath is an open-a-small-door-and-smell-at-your-own-risk portion of the travelling exhibit showing the incredibly preserved, and excavated skeleton of a T. rex named Sue. The world’s most intact Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, found in South Dakota 33 years ago, is on loan from the Field Museum in Chicago.
The drawer of preserved rodents is part of the mammal collection stored in an adjacent wing of the museum, where specimens and samples from all corners of the province are kept for ongoing research and record keeping.
Museums often are known for their eye-catching exhibits and fascinating curated displays, but large museums such as the Royal BC Museum play important roles in preservation and research.
“We are an active research facility, there is research and discoveries happening every day here,” says Royal BC Museum communications specialist Amanda Richardson. “We represent the breadth of knowledge of BC, and we are also safekeepers of that knowledge.”
With much of that work moving to a new collections and research facility on the Westshore, “that research will become more accessible to the people of BC. We are going to open our doors a little wider and allow people to really see what happens in, what is now the Fannin Tower, on a regular basis,”Richardson says.
Along with the preservation and research side, there is the public side of the museum. It’s a side that has faced a turbulent few years, with closures, openings–even confusion over the museum's direction.
“After it was decided that we weren’t going to shut down, it was really a matter of restarting the museum,” Richardson explains, alluding to the province's abandoned plan to shutter the museum in Sept. to conduct a multi-year, multi-million dollar demolition and rebuild.
“We had to go out and find feature exhibitions that we could bring in, [and] we are actively working on reopening sections of the third floor, like Old Town. Modernizing, updating them, and bringing in more context and more stories,” Richardson explains.
Old Town, the popular gallery depicting small-town BC as it once was, is scheduled to reopen Saturday, following a public outcry that saw hundreds of letters of complaints from people upset when it was abruptly closed more than a year ago.
“We have heard you,” Tourism Minister Lana Popham said in May when announcing the exhibit would return. “Old Town is beloved by hundreds of thousands of visitors. I know people miss it, are passionate about it and want access to it,” Popham said.
The exhibit, along with the First Peoples Gallery on the museum’s third floor were closed at the end of 2021 to address issues of racism and reconciliation.
Visitors to the scaled-back Old Town will be able to see the old saloon, train station, hotel, garage, parlour, kitchen, print shop and Chinatown.
The Majestic Theatre is back, but the train and ship recreation of HMS Discovery are not returning at this time.
New throughout the gallery will be contextual panels, providing background and historical reference. These panels are there to “encourage critical thinking and ignite imagination, encouraging visitors to consider additional stories that could be shared,” according to a BC government release.
The museum aims to showcase more perspectives and to represent the full histories of the people of British Columbia. And a huge part of that is “co-creation,” Richardson says. “And working with communities so that they can tell their own stories, and it’s not just us making up narratives … we are actually sharing stories from the people who have those lived experiences.”
Orca skulls, bat, bird and dinosaur bones, even skeletons of Elk locked together until both died, remain irreplaceable pieces of BC’s history–all have lives of their own, hidden behind unassuming doors, tucked into research rooms, and stored away in drawers.
They are fascinating pieces of our yesteryears, maintained, preserved, and studied by a group of dedicated scientists and curators, so the history of the province is remembered, and its ever-changing story is preserved.
With files from Mark Brennae