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A Museum Addict Goes to Storyeum

A Museum Addict Goes to Storyeum

By rosslaird on June 22, 2004 - 11:20am


I love museums. Nowhere does the tension between the present and the past play itself out more directly. Museums are the keepers of the narratives of the human story, and often the keepers of secrets. They are quiet places, and full of promise.

Since the nineteenth century, when museums became part of the public landscape, it has been common practice for curators to display the inventory unvarnished, so to speak, without much in the way of commentary, and certainly without interpretation. Historians were the interpreters; curators were simply organizers and procurers. London's British Museum, in which I once spent five full days, is the archetype of the classical model: countless artifacts arranged cleanly, sparely, out of context.

But the lack of context in museums has become a problem. Sure, you can look at the Rosetta stone in the British Museum, or the bust of Khafre in Cairo's Egyptian Museum, but unless you want to read a book about the subject before visiting the museum, your encounter with the artifact will be less informed than it could be.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the essentially dry character of traditional museums led to a steady decline in visitors. People wanted more: audio, video, interaction. This impulse for greater entertainment (which matches the massive increase in entertainment in our society at large) was originally met with horror among the museum community, which perceived itself as an integral part of a sacred trust, not as a game show.

Nonetheless, in the 1990's a groundswell of innovation swept the museum culture. Some of this was due to budgetary constraints and therefore the need to get paying customers through the door. Some of it was due to a greater openness in the way that education was delivered (remember Bill Nye the Science Guy?) Slowly, beginning in places like the Skyscraper Museum in New York, museums began changing their mode of delivery.

Now, a decade later, museums are stuffed with interactive gizmos, videos, hands-on experiments and the like. In the Spy Museum, visitors assume a clandestine identity. At the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, visitors stand inside the Big Bang. And at Calgary's Heritage Park, a pioneer-era town swallows visitors in the magic of its reproductions. Today, museums are entertainment.

Which brings us to Storyeum. First off, for the literati: the staff at Storyeum pronounce the name "Stor--ee--um," not "Stor-ee--ee-um," like it sounds. This linguistic awkwardness derives from the intent to blend (obviously) "story" and "museum" -- if you take out the "u," people aren't going to get that allusion. And the allusion is crucial: its message is that Storyeum is a new museum, full of stories, and we will be entertained.

The pitch at Storyeum's website goes like this:

Storyeum is operated by Historical Xperiences Inc. a privately held Canadian company that creates heritage attractions and related opportunities with world-class storytelling experiences using actors, sets, and special effects.

The company's first heritage attraction is located in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in the Canadian prairies.
The Tunnels of Moose Jaw opened in Summer 2000 presenting the colourful historic past of this region. Now in its third award-winning year, it has been an important catalyst in the phenomenal tourism growth being experienced throughout the area.

Historical Xperiences Inc. is now embarking on Storyeum, its second heritage attraction and largest project to date. This major, new collaborative venture will design, build and manage a 104,000 square-foot themed venue in the heart of Vancouver's Gastown. It is an experiential tour back in time to discover key chapters in the history of Canada's West Coast.

Indeed, the location is excellent: near the steam clock (history) and Starbucks (recreation) and the Downtown Eastside (gritty reality). A nice blend of ambiences.

The lobby of Storyeum is a round-ish (perhaps its elliptical) area with historical photos on the walls and some clearly unfinished attractions. On the day I went with my family, Father's Day, tickets were half price because of the unfinished attractions (more on that later). But the photos are magical, and were among the most appealing aspects of my visit.

(If you don't like spoilers, stop reading now. Many spoilers ahead.)

Large groups of visitors (we had 150) are led into a round area which turns out to be a slow-moving elevator. Inside, a staff member gives a little safety introduction, then the lift darkens. The curved walls grow larger as the elevator descends (about 20 feet, I'd guess), and upon the walls is projected a short visual history of the geology of BC.

This was, um, OK. But I was surprised at how cheesy it was. Perhaps they're still working on this aspect of the presentation, but I've seen greater visual appeal in my daughter's grade five science projects. There's not much in the way of dramatic images, and the voiceover quality is poor.

As we descended, I thought about what they could have done. A couple of years ago, I saw Bill Viola's high-definition video installation on the top floor of New York's Guggenheim Museum. Called "Going Forth by Day" and based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Viola depicted various mythologized scenes of daily life projected on the walls. One panel simply showed a never-ending line of people walking through a forest. Another depicted a drowning, and later resurrection (see image below). Each panel, in high-def, seemed remarkably real. I was transfixed. This was in 2002. And in 2004, Storyeum is using a low-res projector from Radio Shack.


The elevator ride ended, and we were led into a large hall made to look like a forest. An actor knelt before a fake fire (I assume it was fake), praying. So began the first of eight interconnected "skits," for lack of better word, that depicted the standard interpretation of BC history. The first skit was a First Nations vision quest. And though it was enacted reasonably well (the digital microphone feeds need work), I found myself a bit critical of the propagandistic tone of the voiceover.

First Nations people are described as being "old as the land," and, as usual, uniquely in touch with nature. I'm not sure this stereotypical presentation of aboriginal culture serves their aims, or those of cultural rapport. The native peoples of North America face a conundrum: how to resolve the contrast between their own myths of origin – as the first North American peoples, the First Nations – and evidence of anomalous remains such as Kennewick Man, who differs greatly from all modern human groups. The archaeological record of the peopling of North America shows – from as early as twenty thousand years ago – multiple waves of diverse, commingled Asian and European immigrants. No single culture is the first people.

When myth is equated with history, as in the Storyeum presentation, the truths of the past always conflict with those of the present. But I didn't want to spoil the presentation for myself, so I let these speculations go, and tried to immerse myself in the experience.

The series of skits which played out over the next hour reminded me of the excellent presentations at the Cincinnati Children's Museum: engaging, fun, informative. The Storyeum versions were not as good as those in Cincy, but I'm willing to cut Storyeum some slack because they're just getting things off the ground.

We watched a native naming ceremony, went inside an explorer's ship, and walked through a mining town. At each juncture, actors played colourful characters from BC's past, like James Cook and Billy Barker. The ship skit was actually quite fun, with its little squall and native encounter. But again, the projected graphics were awful. My son, who's seven and a good reader, kept asking me what the projected messages were saying. And can't we see these types of exhibits at every one-salmon town in BC?

There was one excellent skit: a short tale of a Chinese man working on the rail crews. It was compelling, thoughtful, and symbolic. A nice piece of theatre.

The last skit, a song-and-dance number about -- I don't know what it was about. Natural resources? Romance? Trains? It made no sense to me. There was a train, that much I'm sure of. And some boxes were tossed around.

At the end of the skits, our group was led to a second, almost-identical round elevator, which took us up to the exit area. On the way up, images were again projected on the walls. Again in poor quality. These appeared to be off-the-cuff impressions by various people about life in BC, the kind of thing you see on ads for children's hospitals, or anti-depressants. Kind of bland. I think Storyeum was going for a we-are-all-connected theme here, but I kept thinking about all that unused wall space, and the possibilities for authentic visual imagery.

The second elevator deposited us conveniently in front of the gift shop. We walked from there back toward the main entrance, and out.

My kids had little feedback about the experience. They have been to some of the museums I've mentioned in this piece, and they know what a great museum experience is like. Storyeum is not it. But it could be: they're just getting started, after all.


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