As steward of a vast collection that represents British Columbia’s heritage, the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives shares the stories of BC’s cultural and environmental history with residents of the province and the world. While only about 2% of the collection is on display or on loan to other institutions at any given time, increased digitization allows us to share our collection with a wider audience. The largest identifiable ethnic collection, that of Chinese Canadians, exemplifies British Columbia’s role as the gateway between the Asia Pacific and North America, and as the home to many Chinese. The Chinese Legacy Initiatives1 have provided a precious opportunity for the Royal BC Museum to share part of its collections in order to advance social and educational purposes.
As the curator of BC intercultural and multicultural history for the Royal BC Museum, part of my work is to research the artifacts in our collections, to discover the stories behind them and to show how these stories connect to our history within the provincial, national and global context. Objects, as scholars in material culture point out, help people “to know, understand, and situate [them]selves within the world, both externally and internally.”2 Connecting the objects to lived experiences and linking them with archival images and documents renders them historically and culturally meaningful, helping people to understand the past and connect it to the present.
Among many projects, the Royal BC Museum has worked on considering the significance and context of archival material and artifacts, cataloguing them, arranging for their conservation, and selecting items for digitization in order to assist with the Open School BC3 curriculum development on Chinese Canadian history and the museum’s educational programs.
For example, immigrants from Asia Pacific who came to Canada between 1909 and 1923 had to pass through the Federal Immigration Detention Hospital in Victoria. Chinese detainees expressed themselves through carving and writing poems on the plaster walls. When the building was demolished in 1977, only three wall pieces were salvaged and transferred to the Royal BC Museum where they provide rare first-hand accounts of, and by, newly arrived Chinese immigrants.
The poems are an integral part of the shared literary, cultural and historic legacy of the Asia Pacific region, which has global resonance. Through the Chinese Legacy Initiatives, artifacts such as these wall pieces are shared widely and studied through Royal BC Museum online and on-site learning programs. This allows these artifacts, with BC provenance, to be shared with the world, illustrating a little known aspect of the trans-Pacific migration experience that shaped British Columbia, Canada and the Asia Pacific region.