Museums can take us back to a personal past


I’m not a lifetime resident of Victoria, but I’m close to it. I’m more like a lifetime tourist. Although I didn’t start living in this city until I attended UVic, I have known Victoria since I was four. I still have vivid memories of my first visit to this Britain-inflected city. It was after my family moved from Ontario to Washington State that we decided to see my uncle in the city of the “newly wed and nearly dead.” I treasure the mental image of walking down Government Street, looking up at the fairy lights on the leafless trees, the memory of taking a short ride on the once seemingly gigantic Harbour Ferry, and the thought of my uncle making calamari dance off his plate in San Remos.

But today’s Victoria looks like a different city from the magical one I used to sojourn within. I no longer see the same charismatic shops bursting with the lure of England. Perhaps the city hasn’t changed at all, but I have simply adopted a new point of view — one that now notices the endless dilemma of homeless people, the tourists crowding the streets to take photos of non-existent amusements and the annoying, high-pitched noise emanating from McDonald’s. I seem to have lost the city I knew — except when I enter the Royal B.C. Museum.

I have been to this institution more times than I would like to admit. I know that I could draw the layout of the museum from memory, especially since this building has not changed in the 18 years that I have visited it. It’s no wonder that, after four years of university, I decided that I crave work as a museum curator. I still go occasionally to look at the changing exhibits, and if I’m ever in the building, I always travel up to the third floor to step into the timeless Victorian village.

As I place a foot on the faux cobblestones, I am transported not into the early 1900s, but into my own childhood. Directly to the left of the entrance sits the old Majestic Theatre, playing Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush in a never-ending loop so that just as the tramp finally kisses the girl, he is once again sent off up a mountain to look for gold and love. I rest in one of the deteriorating red velvet seats and close my eyes, hearing the old-timey piano and feeling the flickering lights of the marquee hit my face, just as they did as I was a child.

As I exit the picture house, I ignore the illusion-breaking black-painted ceilings by staring at the detailed clothing shops. Closed signs stop me from entering the perfectly displayed stores, and a part of me falls sad as I realize that they will never open. Instead, items are left as if on standby for those who can be heard through speakers but not seen. Although I can hear the broadcasted clanging of a blacksmith’s hammer and the mutters in Chinatown, the city is untouched, like a post-apocalyptic world. As a child, I often had a theory that all of the residents of the town would come back when the museum closed. Eerie, dark alleys give the appearance that the village stretches beyond my imagination. The illusion affirmed by the shadow of a train going by.

As I walk through this village as an adult, I feel both sadness and nostalgia. I am reminded of what Holden Caulfield said in The Catcher in the Rye — museums make you realize that the only thing that changes is yourself. While this fake village made for ghosts has remained timeless, I have grown older. As much as it was artificial, this is the old, magical Victoria of my childhood that I remember, while the real city of Victoria has transformed as much as I have.

Even though the future is uncertain as I exit university, I feel like this village is always waiting for me exactly the way I left it.