When most people are asked to think of the ‘noise’ associated with the galleries of the Royal BC Museum, they may recall the murmur of other visitors strolling past dioramas, the energetic bustle of school children trying their hand at gold panning, or the myriad sound effects of the exhibits themselves: the quiet intoning of voices in Chinatown, the lively whistle of the train approaching the Port Moody station, or of course the guttural grumbles of our famous wooly mammoth. The lucky few of us whose job it is to maintain these gallery spaces behind the scenes, however, have quite a different relationship with the sounds in our exhibit spaces.
Many people may not even realize that a team of dedicated exhibit technicians roams through the galleries well before the museum opens each morning, taking care of a host of daily maintenance tasks as well as any unexpected repairs that might be required. There are always light bulbs to change, tide pool critters to feed, and hands-on interactives to test. Live salal has to be added to the forest diorama, water must be added to the bear stream, tidal cave and the cannery, and then there are the scents to disperse (the kitchen doesn’t smell like apple pie until we make it do so!). Occasionally we have to replace stair treads or fix broken stools, or even climb into the dioramas to retrieve objects that people have mistakenly dropped in. We have a regular maintenance schedule that ensures we do a top to bottom cleaning of each diorama several times a year, ensuring that the saloon, the big canoe and even our dear friend Wooly each get vacuumed regularly.
All of this work takes place before there are any visitors around, of course, so the galleries can often seem eerily quiet aside from the regular soundtrack of the dioramas. Ensuring that these sound features are working properly is yet another part of our daily duties, and we are usually the first to notice that the ravens in the Big House have gone quiet, or that the sea lions in the beach diorama have stopped squawking. As a result of listening so intently, most of us gallery technicians are able to recite by heart the spoken script that accompanies the Cosmology display of masks in the First Peoples gallery, and it doesn’t take too long for us to do the same for any videos that accompany the temporary exhibits we host!
We also use our ears as important diagnostic tools to help us identify problems in the galleries: the waterwheel makes an eerie groaning sound when it is straying off balance, for example, and we are all familiar with the distinctive chattering that means one of the fans we use to keep dust out of certain cases is about to die. If we’re not careful, there are also a few terrible noises to catch us off guard: all of the dioramas that feature running water, for example, have alarms that sound if the water level gets too high or low. If we are unfortunate enough to hear one of these awful-sounding alarms, it doesn’t take long for us to come running! Luckily, these occasions are very rare, and we are usually able to do our morning’s work accompanied only by the regular sounds that we, and our visitors, know and love so well.