Museums are much more than big, imposing buildings with stuff hanging on the walls. The best of them are dynamic cultural institutions that both reflect and inspire the communities they represent. Museums tell old stories—real human stories, with drama and adversity, reward and exultation—and they help create new ones. They are part of the lifeblood of any society, and in some cases may be the very heart. That's the case here, with several special institutions that tell a story found nowhere else on earth.
Vancouver Island’s most memorable museums are relatively young compared to the world’s most famous such places. Europe’s grand museums began to appear during the Renaissance era of the 1600s, and consisted of treasures collected by wealthy individuals or organizations whose owners bequeathed them to public view. By comparison, Vancouver Island’s oldest such major institution, the Royal BC Museum, was formed in 1886 by the province’s government—a fairly visionary event, as British Columbia itself was just 15 years old at the time. Teenagers are not usually known for forethought; though it’s true Victoria had been a British Empire capital for almost a half-century by then.
But the museum documents a history far older than that of European settlers. It’s one of the world’s foremost institutions for First Nations art and artifacts, greeting guests with a famous collection of totems, and devoting most of an entire floor to the vibrant cultures that have lived here for thousands of years. And this is where the museum far surpasses its classic role as a building with stuff hanging on the walls.
In one hushed and haunted alcove, for example, carvings by famed Haida artist Bill Reid are accompanied by audio recordings of Reid himself relating the story of his people’s tragic encounter with smallpox. The Old World disease arrived in their homeland, Haida Gwai’i (the Queen Charlotte Islands) in the late 19th century. With no natural immunity, more than 80 percent of the Haida died.
But the culture, and its dynamic art forms, endured; Reid’s art, now known around the world, is testament to that. Another very modern example is on the Royal BC’s first floor, where a new exhibit holds kiosks whose interactive sound systems help visitors learn a few words and phrases in First Nations languages, including Haida. The museum is thus aiding a most meaningful modern cultural endeavour, preserving the approximately three dozen indigenous languages found in British Columbia. (royalbcmuseum.bc.ca)
Elsewhere in the Royal BC are dioramas illustrating our province’s amazing landscape and ecosystems, and timeline exhibits that guide visitors along the colourful thousands of years of human history here.
And that’s just one museum among many.
Up the inside coast of our Island, on two small neighbor islands, lie two very recent museums that tell a unique and heartening story of cultural redemption. Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre and U’mista Cultural Centre, on Quadra Island and at Alert Bay, were created specifically to house the priceless—and sacred—potlatch artifacts that were stolen from the Kwakwaka’wakw people almost a century ago by over-zealous government officials. The Canadian government had banned potlatches; when local bands proceeded with the traditional wintertime celebrations anyway, agents seized the regalia central to these ceremonial gatherings. The masks, capes and other artifacts—all of them both beautiful and meaningful—were sold to other museums and collectors around the world. (Thus illustrating that museums do not always aid human progress.)
In the late 20th century the affected Kwakwaka’wakw bands began peacefully but persistently seeking the return of their treasures. This time, the government helped them, and after extensive negotiations virtually all the once-stolen masks and regalia now rest in the two museums, along with totems and other treasures that were illegitimately taken as well. Their return has bolstered the community identities of the bands in Alert Bay and Quadra Island, and the museums offer all visitors a chance to see and admire—and learn and reflect. (museumatcapemudge.com and umista.org)
Other standouts on the Island include:
- Nanaimo Museum: Though the Harbour City is now known for its sparkling setting, its outdoor recreation and vibrant historic center, this was once a coal mining capital and pivotal in the 19th century development of British Columbia. Colonial tycoon James Dunsmuir made his fortune in the hills nearby, and the colourful story is detailed in this compact but compelling facility at the edge of the city’s Old Town.The centrepiece is a reproduction of a coal mine shaft that immerses visitors in the claustrophobic, dark and often dangerous industry that underpinned the local economy until the middle of the 20th century. More than 50 million tons of coal were extracted by local workers. When you tour the shaft you’ll be given a miner’s tag that, when you leave, you can use to hear the story of the actual person behind the tag. (nanaimomuseum.ca)
- BC Forest Discovery Centre: The massive timbers at this interpretive centre just north of Duncan testify to the other natural resource that was pivotal to the early economic development of the Island. Throughout this sprawling complex you’ll find exhibits explaining the life cycles of old growth forests, and the modern management techniques under which timber continues to play a major role in the local economy. The huge industrial machines, gargantuan saws and extensive handling facilities illustrate what an immense undertaking timber harvest was (and still is). And a diorama describes how the Western Red-Cedar was the “tree of life” to First Nations peoples who have lived here thousands of years.But it’s not just wood that’s celebrated here. Each winter, residents and food artisans come together to celebrate the Island’s native deciduous masterpiece, the bigleaf maple, in the Maple Syrup Festival. Yes, we have our own maple syrup here on the West Coast, and not only was it a key part of life for pioneers, it’s gaining ever greater visibility as 21st century food fanciers turn to traditional, regional foods to underscore modern cuisine. In other words, forestry continues, in new ways all the time. (bcforestdiscoverycentre.com)
- Museum at Campbell River: This North Central Island institution is based in a town that bestrides one of the most famous fish-bearing rivers in the world; the town is famed for salmon fishing, and the river itself draws not only anglers but visitors who enjoy a unique outdoor pursuit invented here. Snorkeling with salmon is one of the most distinctive of all our Island outdoors activities.All the above might not be true were it not for the efforts of the town’s most famous former resident, Roderick Haig-Brown. A British immigrant whose family heritage was literary, Haig-Brown worked in the Island timber industry when he first arrived, but soon turned his hand to fishing, guiding and, most of all, writing about angling and the natural world of Pacific Salmon. His work was responsible for much of the river conservation in the province in the second half of the 21st century, especially saving the Fraser River and its 10 million salmon from dam development.Haig-Brown spent half his life living in a tidy house right on the banks of the Campbell River. The museum now owns the house, and tells the famous naturalist’s story in its halls. It’s a powerful testament to the difference that one articulate individual can make in human affairs.
- McLean Mill: As in most of the rest of the Island, timber was a key element in the development of the Alberni Valley, the serene oasis that lies between the West Coast and the eastern seaboard of the Island. And while many museums big and small throughout the West harbour timber artifacts, this one just outside Port Alberni has something found almost nowhere else—an operational steam-driven lumber mill. Yes, the mill still cuts wood for sale, but this nonprofit attraction offers much more than just watching a sawblade whir through Douglas-Fir logs to dozens of enthralled visitors.Each summer, the resident Tin Pants Troupe offers a high-spirited and colourful revue that depicts life in the early logging camps. Songs, skits and tales bring this history alive; another program allows teenagers the chance to experience what Blacksmithing is like.Guests can travel to the mill from Port Alberni aboard a train drawn by a restored 1929 steam logging locomotive. And in downtown Alberni, the Maritime Heritage Centre documents the area’s long history of fishing and shipping. (alberniheritage.com)
A handful of smaller museums elsewhere on the Island document local life, for both original indigenous peoples and the settlers who arrived in the 19th century. All are worthy destinations; for more information visit the visitor information websites for each community. And whenever you visit a museum, whether on the Island or elsewhere around the world, remember that you aren’t here just to look at items on the wall or in dusty cases. You’re in the presence of the visual history of humankind, and making this more interesting and meaningful is an art museums have been perfecting over the past half-century. Our stories are compelling and grand, and they are well told in the institutions that honour them.
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What's the difference between fitness and indulgence? Sometimes it's just your perspective.
There’s no better place to experience this distinction than at a destination spa, such as the many well-known retreats on Vancouver Island. Europeans have been enjoying such destinations for centuries, taking advantage of the health benefits of prescribed relaxation, meditative calming and what’s known as bodywork—massage, heat treatments, aromatherapy, herbal wraps, mud masques and more.
With a society still bearing Puritan blood lines, North Americans have long considered such things little more than indulgences. Sure, an hour spent wrapped in aromatic, herb-infused warm blankets makes you feel good, but your competitors are using that hour to get ahead, aren’t they? However, new research is leading medical authorities to consider stress a dangerously debilitating health problem, and wellness authorities advise regular, deliberate bodywork and relaxation as preventive measures rather than indulgent frivolities.
If you spend a week at, for instance, Parksville’s Tigh-Na-Mara (whose Grotto facility is Western Canada’s largest spa), you’ll surely sample the treatment featuring Canadian sea salt and glacial clay—nourishing your body with natural minerals from our home ground.
In Tofino, the Wickanninish Inn’s Ancient Cedars Spa draws on local First Nations traditions for its Hishuk Ish Tsawalk Awakening Treatment–a locally sourced seaweed body polish, followed by hot and cold water therapy, concluded with a massage using heated local basalt rocks.
In Courtenay, the Kingfisher Resort’s Pacific Hydropath is a feature using water in many forms—steam, showers, baths and more—to ease both body and mind, thus dispelling the toxins that health authorities say are as dangerous as better-known threats to wellbeing.
Spa advocates used to say it is a happy accident that such treatments are enjoyable. But better understanding now leads health authorities to point out that it’s the very pleasure of these activities that makes them healthful, spurring the body to create beneficial biochemicals and flush out damaging ones. Calming and slowing down also reduce blood pressure and joint troubles; and the many recreation activities at our resorts provide an essential exercise element.
We’ve a dozen or so such spa resorts on the Island. Many of them not only offer wellness treatments whose positive effects are documented around the world, they focus on local traditions and materials to provide them. For more information, visit vancouverisland.travel, and sample the delights of beneficial indulgence.
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