RBCM in Victoria Hosts “Treasures: The World’s Cultures from The British Museum”

We looked at the parking meter in the lot behind Victoria‘s Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). We figured two hours would be enough time. Ha!

I have watched the RBCM grow since it moved out of the Legislature building across the street to its new quarters in the 1960s. I even work there briefly in the early 70s. So I knew of its renown throughout both Canada and the world for its permanent displays in the Natural History and Human History Galleries. This renown has enhanced its ability to attract world class traveling displays like the Egyptian treasures and the Titanic, both of which stopped at perhaps only one other city in all of North America.

This year, the RCBM gained another impressive attraction to quiet, laid back Victoria. It is the only museum in North America to host Treasures: The World’s Cultures from the British Museum.

There were at least three years of negotiations to get this exhibit, and the RCBM very recently inundated Victorians with information on the great expense for transport, security, and storage as well as the massive amount of work to design the room to appear like a miniature version of part of the rotunda of British Museum, and the lighting effects. Interviews with British Museum staff showed that they were very happy with the result for they had never seen such fine artistic display preparations elsewhere.

The intent of the exhibit is to explore concepts of religion, wealth and power through art and artefacts from 1.6 million B.C. to the present from all over the world. Considering the thousands of items held by the British Museum, the task of selecting only a few of them as representative must have been daunting – but they did it!

Entering the room at the African display one begins with a stone hand axe from the Olduvai Gorge which showed incredible artistry and finesse in its making. Following that we observed an Egyptian sarcophagus and a mummy 3000 years old. Included also was the famed Rosetta stone which enabled an Englishman to decipher the meanings of cuneiform.

There is too little space here to describe (if not rave about) the rest of the Treasures as we passed through Middle East (3100 BC – AD 1773) which was the cradle of writing and gave rise to the wonders of Islamic art; to Europe (12,000BC – AD 1895) from Ancient Greek helmets and coins through the age of enlightenment (and including the Lewis chessmen: especially the Bishop, made famous in the first Harry Potter movie.)

In the centre of the exhibit was an Enlightenment Centre with some hands-on activities corresponding to some of the displays, such as rolling a seal from an early form of signet cylinder, and putting together the pieces of a stone axe. Also there are four computer screens, including one showing the timeline of the African and Egyptian display, and another with puzzles such as a jigsaw of an incredibly intricate mosaic tile from the Middle East.

Unfortunately, that was all we could examine! You remember the two hour parking meter ticket?

We had been in a time vacuum! Even my aching bones didn’t! We had been absorbed by the revelation that those “”primitive”” people actually weren’t. Sub-Saharan Africa saw empires grow and fade long before Europeans arrived, and had produced art and artefacts of great beauty and sophistication. The Middle East and Europe – more familiar to most people – showed the remarkable skills and knowledge of both early artists and scholars throughout Mesopotamia, Islam, Greece, Rome and what a joy to see Greek and Roman statues, early porcelain, elaborate bronze inlaid urns. And even those outposts of Europe’s northern tribes in Britain and Germany were revealed in a different light through intricate jewellery and coins.

We could go on. But we had to leave.

For a guy who is seldom a tourist in his own town, I am impressed! Next time – and there will be a next time – we will allow for four hours to revisit what we saw and then complete the journey through Asia, Oceania, The Americas and the Modern World.

There are a couple of cautions for anyone coming to Victoria, however. First, Treasures will be at the RCBM only until September 30, 2009. Second, young children may not get very much out of the exhibit, and older children should be guided through it either by parents or perhaps by one of the Museum’s docents who are on hand for just that purpose.

After you have seen Treasures, be sure to take another four hours to see the rest of the Museum, and then go and enjoy a meal at one of Victoria‘s fine establishments.

For more general information on this great Victoria attraction, see www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.

Entry fee is $23.50 CDN per person. Those of a “Seniors” status can go for $18.50,

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