It all began with a phone call. It was 2015, and Tzu-I Chung and Satwinder Bains (already good friends and collaborators) were planning a project that would shift the paradigm of history in this province. Their plans would be realized as the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project (PCLP). Little did I know at the time how deeply I’d be involved and how much I would learn along the way.
Museums often present a grand narrative of history, minimizing diversity in the process. But over the last decade, museum thinking has expanded. Connections with community provoke new insights, pointing out the gaps and silences in our metanarratives. Shared personal stories are a true legacy for future generations. I know this to be true because I experience it first-hand.
Like all the exhibits in the Royal BC Museum’s core galleries, the logging display boasts plenty of historically accurate and evocative detail: planks of timber that beg to be touched, descriptive text that provides fascinating background info, tools that look as though they were set down 10 minutes ago when the crew decided to take a quick coffee break.
What’s missing is the people—specifically, any mention of the Punjabi Canadians who were pioneers in British Columbia’s logging industry, shaping the landscape of modern BC both literally and figuratively.
The Royal BC Museum recognizes that it has a responsibility to accurately depict BC history. That is, after all, our mandate. So, at the first meeting of the PCLP advisory committee, the members advocated for a long overdue update to our old exhibit. The event would be a defining moment in the museum’s history, a moment to turn a corner, to change the narrative, and to leave a legacy. By changing the way we talk about the past, we hoped to set the course of BC’s future. The event was seen as marking the beginning of a movement, with the potential for radical change—but that meant opening ourselves up to a little scrutiny.
On November 21, 2015, the Royal BC Museum invited Punjabi Canadian communities from the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island to stage an ‘intervention’ in the logging display. The idea was for participants to reframe the historical record by including their stories and perspectives.
More than 100 participants, from children to seniors, walked through the logging exhibit, examined the display and talked with Royal BC Museum staff, Punjabi advisory committee members and one another. Some of the most meaningful interactions took place within families as youth expressed appreciation for their elders’ stories, thirsty for more history they could claim as their own.
Organized by the Royal BC Museum, the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley and the David Lam Centre at Simon Fraser University, the intervention included multimedia stories told by community members and discussions at ‘conversation tables’ about what the exhibit might look like—and what messages it might convey—in the future. Challenged to provide the museum with candid observations, participants had plenty to say.
They talked about themes and issues ranging from discrimination to the food eaten at sawmills, from the role played by Chinese corner stores to the need to tell women’s stories better, from sacrifices made during the Great Depression to the importance of talking about the Panama Maru incident.
Holding the event in the museum was a practical choice, but it also had powerful symbolism for the Punjabi Canadian community. It conspicuously and publicly marked what many community members saw as the beginning of a committed long-term relationship and a defining moment in the correction of past wrongs.
As a result of this early intervention, an interactive kiosk titled Memories from the Mills has been installed at the heart of the logging exhibit. Visitors now have an opportunity to listen to interviews that reveal individual and family stories of immigration and sawmill work experiences.
It was the first step in a three-year journey that aimed to seek community advice and direction. How do you change the course of history? We have travelled across this province together—listening and gathering, celebrating and commemorating. This is the first step—to simply listen. Through this listening we have learned what many communities want to see from our efforts to correct the historical record. We have listened, and now the exciting part begins: putting some of that listening to active and practical form through our future collaborative initiatives.