Reconnecting with our history in Victoria and beyond

Royal B.C. Museum aims to facilitate historic connections between the public and its vast collection of artifacts

Tim Willis

Just as Victoria’s Chinatown has many hidden secrets, the Royal B.C. Museum has mysteries of its own to unveil.

Like the new brick-lined entranceway to the Chinatown section of the museum’s Old Town exhibit.

“We took the image of the bricks from Fan Tan Alley,” says Tim Willis, the RBCM’s vice-president of visitor engagement and experience. “This used to be a storage closet.”

The bricks look very real, yet a quick touch to the wall finds them to be photographed.

The people who oversee the way visitors experience the decades-old museum, including CEO Jack Lohman, have also been rethinking how to connect people with the myriad items in the museum’s vast collection.

Using individual artifacts or groups of pieces to tell and elicit stories of a community’s history is one way of broadening that community connection. Future plans involve blending the larger, high-profile exhibitions that take over the museum’s second-floor temporary gallery with smaller, more intimate displays that draw on individual stories and snapshots from B.C.’s history.

“One of the things Jack has challenged us to do is focus on more on our collection and our own community,” Willis says. That not only includes displays, but “really lively programming that digs into what we have right here in this building.”

A good example of this fresh approach was the unveiling last week of an early 20th-century Chinese Freemason’s lantern, acquired in 2010 and believed to be the oldest existing lantern of its kind from Victoria’s Chinatown.

The timing for trotting out the artifact, along with conservator Lisa Bengston – her preservation work on the piece is part of a live display – was ideal with Chinese New Year happening last Sunday.

Perhaps more important, however, was the attendance of many of Greater Victoria’s Chinese elders at the unveiling.

Royal B.C. Museum history curator Tzu-I Chung says many of the people interviewed in conjunction with the new exhibit Tradition in Felicities: Celebrating 155 years of Victoria’s Chinatown, were on hand and grew up together in the area.

“Many of these people haven’t seen each other in years,” Chung says. “We know there are many, many stories waiting to be told.”

She acknowledges that given the ages of people who can give personal accounts of life around Victoria and across B.C. from generations past, it’s important to do more interviews sooner than later.

Working with people who can recall our community history is critical to reconnecting with the community at large, Lohman says.

“Generating a variety of cultural perspectives, then pairing those with the rich collections from the museum and archives, help tell us B.C.’s diverse stories,” he says.

Besides making better use of artifacts, Willis says, the museum plans to utilize its galleries more as backdrops for poets, artists and musicians who have been inspired by B.C. history to create their own works.

“It’s a great environment for things to happen, for us to present, but also for other people to come in and be inspired,” he says.

“It also relieves us from being the only authority. The museum is a trusted authority, but people don’t necessarily want to hear the museum lecture them on every topic. This is a scenario where there is a conversation, from First Nations and other (groups). It’s an opportunity for their voices to be heard.”

Get a taste of Chinatown through the generations

• Multimedia display Tradition in Felicities: Celebrating 155 years of Victoria’s Chinatown, is on now through Sept. 29 in the third-floor foyer at the Royal B.C. Museum. Exhibit is included in museum admission or free for pass holders. Visit for more details.

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