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The Royal BC Museum: Getting the word out on ‘one of the world’s great treasure houses’

Royal BC Museum CEO Jack Lohman holding a precious Haida headdress frontlet. He took the object to London this week to show to a group of philanthropists.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

In the year since Jack Lohman arrived at the Royal BC Museum from the Museum of London, he has been astonished time and again at the treasure trove of undiscovered gems he likes to say he has inherited: seven million items in the Victoria museum's collections, and a wealth of archives. From the Vancouver Island Treaties, to works by Emily Carr, to antiquities from Canada's oldest Chinatown, to mammoth tusks, this is indeed jaw-dropping stuff. And it is of importance, Lohman says, not just to British Columbia or even Canada.

"This, I'm saying, is one of the great museums of the world," declares Lohman, CEO of the RBCM. But few – not even here in British Columbia – are aware of its riches, he says, the majority of which are in storage. So Lohman is setting out to "unmask one of the world's great treasure houses" by changing what's going on inside the museum, and getting the word – and he hopes, the collection – out far beyond the museum's walls.

First stop: London. This week Lohman returned to Britain, to meet with more than 25 philanthropists at a dinner hosted by Canadian High Commissioner and former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, to mark the launch of the Francis Kermode Group, a patrons group that will serve not only as a donor pool, but as profile-raising ambassadors. The group is named for the museum's first director – the namesake, incidentally, of the Kermode bear.

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He brought with him a Haida headdress – a spectacular and culturally significant prop for his pitch. He's not asking for a straight buy – but buy-in.

"This is not about, 'Give me a cheque at the end of the evening,'" he said, although his renovation plans do come with a multimillion-dollar price tag. "This is about: Come and have a look. Be our ambassadors. Come and have a look and help me bring this jewel to life."

Before he left Victoria, Lohman selected a few artifacts to illustrate the riches of the collection, gathering gloved curators and archivists to show them off in the BC Archives area of the museum.

Among the breathtaking pieces of history: One of the 14 signed Vancouver Island Treaties (also known as the Douglas Treaties or Fort Victoria Treaties), signed in the spring of 1850. Written in Victorian script are the names of the First Nations chiefs; their "signatures" represented by a column of X's. These words jump out at me: "becomes the entire property of the white people forever."

A chunk of wall from an immigration holding cell includes graffiti in Chinese characters, written by two immigrants a century ago. "I have always yearned to reach for the Gold Mountain. But instead, it is hell, full of hardship. I was detained in a prison and tears rolled down my cheeks. My wife at home is longing for my letter, who can foretell when I will be able to return home?" wrote one of the men in March, 1919.

And there's the phonographic recording device used by Ida Halpern in 1947 to record 88 songs in Kwak'wala with Chief Billy Assu on Cape Mudge, as well as some of the fragile recordings themselves (which have now been digitized). She went on to record with other First Nations chiefs, including Mungo Martin.

"She's captured a very important part of the heritage of Canada … and really deserves to be up there in the pantheon of the great anthropologists of the world," says Lohman. To that end, the museum will apply to have those recordings included in UNESCO's Memory of the World register. The museum has already applied to get the Vancouver Island Treaties on the list – which to date has only three Canadian entries: the Hudson's Bay Company archival records, the Quebec Seminary Collection and Norman McLaren's 1952 NFB film Neighbours.

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"Three items have been put up as Canada's contribution to the world in terms of archives," says Lohman, shaking his head. "That's a little shameful. I really think we've got to torque up the heritage."

The Royal BC Museum was created in 1886 in large part to stem the flow of First Nations treasures out of British Columbia to museums around the world. The museum moved from a wooden building into the provincial legislature and finally into its current modernist facility on Victoria's Inner Harbour in 1968.

Lohman took over as director in March, 2012, after a decade at the Museum of London. Among his first orders of business was putting a halt to the RBCM's ambitious expansion plans, which would have seen the museum double its size.

"Rather than saying we're going to build," he explains, "we're going to refresh this museum and we're going to rescript the story. The story is wrong. We're peddling the wrong story here."

In the same way schools shouldn't use 50-year-old textbooks, he says, the museum should not be using out-of-date texts – it currently offers just a few lines on encounter, and tells B.C.'s First Nations history and white history in isolation from one another. There needs to be a more inclusive approach, he says, with broader perspectives. He also expresses concern that not enough attention is paid to B.C.'s diverse population.

"People say to me: 'When are you bringing back Titanic [the exhibition]?' And I say we're not bringing in Hollywood here; we don't need to. Because what we've realized is that we're sitting on treasures."

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At the same time, he wants to get the collections out to more people – not necessarily in large, overwrought exhibitions, but nimbly, he says – almost in a pop-up way, to schools in B.C., and in exhibitions around the world.

There are some infrastructure changes in the works: Lohman has hired British architectural star John McAslan to create a master plan for the RBCM, with an eye toward revitalizing the museum and making changes within the existing footprint. Lohman points to the unspectacular entrance and a wasteland of concrete outside.

"We need modern facilities, we need a proper front door. When you come through the front door, you need to have your breath taken away as you walk through," he says. "You want to feel you're in one of the world's greatest museums, and not in some sort of shopping mall."

He also wants to move the archives off-site, creating a new BC Archive and Collections Centre, and use the current archives location for more museum space – possibly a new lecture hall.

At a rough estimate of $40-million, the budget is achievable, and the upgrades sustainable, he says. The money will be raised, he adds, through a combination of government funding and corporate and private philanthropy.

And Lohman has ambitious plans beyond that: He wants to bring world-heritage-site designation to the Gold Rush Trail – stretching from California up to the Yukon, launching the route, he hopes, with a 2015 exhibition at the RBCM.

In 2017, Lohman hopes to hold a major exhibition, bringing back some of those "Indian antiquities," as they were called back in 1886. They left B.C. for places such as Berlin, London, St. Petersburg, Madrid and New York so long ago, providing the impetus for this museum in Victoria. Now Lohman is eager to bring them home during Canada's 150th birthday year, to reunite them with the descendants of the people who made them.

"Those objects that our forefathers were concerned about, we're bringing them back," says Lohman. "[We want] to show the contribution of First Nations to the whole of humanity. To place the story of Canada in the story of First Nations, if you like, and the story of First Nations in the story of Canada."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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