Our Stories

Peek behind the scenes at the Royal BC Museum. This is the place to hear expert voices tell their stories about the collections. Meet archivists, curators, collections managers and the other people who work here.

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Dennis J. DuffyArchivist (Retired)

Why did you want to become an archivist?
I've always been interested in stories about BC's pioneer days, ghost towns and so on.  Like ghost towns, archival records are another kind of relic from the past and provide us with windows to look into that past.  My work with archival films and sound recordings gives me a set of especially interesting windows to look through.

How did you become an archivist?
Through my background in audio-visual media.  I was first hired in 1978 as a summer student, to copy sound recordings for preservation.  I later worked as a contractor and my role gradually expanded; I was asked to research, write and edit books, to identify films made in British Columbia and eventually to help the BC Archives acquire and preserve historic films about BC.  Finally, in 1998, I was given the opportunity to join the regular staff of the archives.  (It only took me 20 years!)

What do you do as an archivist?
I still do some work with the sound and film collections.  But I also help to deal with new acquisitions of archival records; with arranging and describing collections of records; with descriptive data and databases; and with many other projects.  Recently, I edited a video production based on old films of soldiers in Victoria and Vancouver, training and preparing to leave BC to fight in the First World War.  The video will be part of an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of that war.

Stories by or about this person

In the 1940s, the town of Ymir, BC hosted large family festivals. Watch some May Day celebrations, a May Queen pageant and crowning, children dancing around a maypole and a baseball game. These colourful May Day celebrations were filmed by Lester G. Morrell in 1940.

Two boys from the DeWolf family enjoy playing in boats—both real and pretend. What pretending games do you like to play?

Two boys from the DeWolf family enjoy playing in boats—both real and pretend. What pretending games do you like to play?

Young Gladys DeWolf and her friends give a dance recital in the back yard, filmed by her dad Allan in Cranbrook, BC, in about 1926.

Follow a family’s BC camping trip in 1957 and 1958. First visit Miracle Beach on Vancouver Island and then travel to a provincial campsite at Okanagan Lake.

The Browning children enjoy a snowy day at Britannia Beach in about 1930.

Royal BC Museum Archivist Dennis J. Duffy writes about Stanley Fox, amateur filmmaker.

Read archivist Dennis Duffy’s article on oral recorder and historian, Imbert Orchard.

Dr. Lorne HammondCurator of History

Why did you want to become a historian?

When I was young we lived and vacationed among a mix of Etruscan, Roman and Renaissance sites and World War II battlefields in Germany and Italy.  Right from the start history was about people, museums and art galleries, objects, books and physical landscapes.  And I had great teachers.

How did you become a curator? 

I moved from academic classrooms to the museum when my wife Monica spotted an interesting history job and I applied.  They liked my mix of skills. I was very fortunate to be mentored by a deeply experienced staff and was immediately thrown into the busy world of collections, exhibits and work with the public.

How would you describe a typical day at work?  

I was told when I was hired "you will never be bored".  That is still true.  A day is a mix of public inquiries, email research questions, collections work, media requests, mentoring interns and work with docents on collections or public education training. A constant is the team work on projects across a wide variety of departments.  No two days are exactly the same.

Stories by or about this person

Find out about the Bossi family’s Christmas card collection.

As part of his research for the Gold Rush! El Dorado in BC exhibition, Curator of History Dr. Lorne Hammond researched archival diaries for comments on music being played in saloons during the gold rush. To bring the music to life, Dr. Hammond and Archivist Ann ten Cate recruited modern day BC musicians to play a selection of popular songs from the period.

Dr. Gavin HankeCurator of Vertebrate Zoology

Why did you want to become a curator? 
I am a collector and I have always been interested in nature. As a student, I spent many hours collecting fishes, amphibians and reptiles and helped build a research collection at the University of Manitoba. I prepared skeletal material and reconstructed reptile skulls starting in high school and I have hands-on experience building models and dioramas. Museum work is a perfect fit for me. 

How did you become a zoology curator?
My education? At the University of Manitoba I did a bachelor of science in general zoology and master of science on exotic fish introductions. As a hobby, during my master's degree, I published research on placoderm fossils from the Interlake region of Manitoba. My doctorate degree (PhD) at the University of Alberta focused on fossil fishes but, instead of placoderms, I looked at acanthodians and an odd group of fishes thought to be related to the cartilaginous fishes (sharks, rays and ratfishes). Shortly after my PhD in 2001, I was hired back in Winnipeg as the zoology curator at the Manitoba Museum. In early 2004, I headed west.

What do you do as curator of vertebrate zoology?
I collect specimens for the museum (particularly fish, amphibian and reptile) and write research papers which are published and available internationally. I help other researchers with their work and maintain contacts with other agencies in British Columbia to obtain as many specimens as possible—from areas where we rarely visit (like northern BC). I have particular interest in exotic species introductions in Canada and the role of the pet trade and food industry in exotic species dispersal. Curators also help develop exhibits—both travelling exhibits and permanent displays here at the Royal BC Museum—and act as a filter to make scientific literature accessible to a general audience.


Stories by or about this person

Royal BC Museum Curator, Dr Gavin Hanke writes about removing and preserving baleen from a Grey Whale.

A short article about the art of illustrating fish for scientific work.

Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Dr Gavin Hanke writes about fishy research trips and discovering fish species new to British Columbia on page 14 of this electronic copy of What’s inSight.

Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Dr Gavin Hanke writes about Assfish, Brotulas and Cusk-eels in The ABCs of the Royal BC Museum on page 25 of this electronic copy of What’s inSight.

Marji JohnsPaleontology Collections Manager

Why did you want to become a paleontologist and how did you become the paleontology collections manager?
I was inspired by a great high school science teacher, superior science mentors at the University of BC and the University of Victoria, a family of artists, and a very supportive husband whose computer expertise has been a lifesaver. During my career, I worked for over 17 years at the Geological Survey of Canada followed by 14 years as a geoscience consultant. When I joined the Royal BC Museum at the beginning of 2011, I set my goals to further develop an on-site paleontology facility and collections representing the diversity of fossils in BC and to combine arts and sciences to explore different approaches to learning.

What does a collections manager do?
I work at the most amazing job that has activities almost as diverse as the fossils themselves. I call it my dream-come-true-job where I have the opportunity to work with many talented staff, volunteers, and researchers, where we aim to put together a collection representing examples of the province’s best fossils. Each day has surprises and many a day I now come in expecting to do one thing and something totally different happens that day. Flexibility, enthusiasm and an open mind are good survival tactics!

Stories by or about this person

Paleontology Collections Manager, Marji Johns talks about the fossil collection at the Royal BC Museum.

Ember LundgrenPreservation Manager

Why did you want to work in archives and museums?

Childhood visits to interesting museums and historical places gave me an appreciation and curiosity about museums and being raised in Victoria the Royal BC Museum was a regular stop for my family.

How did you become a preservation manager?

My career in museums and archives began with volunteering during my university studies. I then went to Eastman House in Rochester, New York (the birthplace of Kodak) and trained in Motion Picture Film Preservation. A temporary position at the BC Archives opened and when it ended I was able to fill another position; photocopying records for clients, not my dream job but it taught me patience and gave me access to many different things. Eventually I was able to become a preservation specialist responsible for the physical care and management of the archival holdings.  Now as preservation manager, I get to focus on a new area of collection care: digital preservation and conversion.

What does a preservation manager do?

As preservation manager, my staff and I work with all areas of the archives and museum to help preserve and make accessible items from our collection.

Stories by or about this person

Preservation Manager Ember Lundgren writes about the Webster collection on pages 16 to 17 of this edition of What’s Insight.

Dr Rob CanningsCurator Emeritus of Entomology

Why did you want to become a scientist and a museum curator?
Luckily for me, I grew up among the beautiful lakes, grasslands and pine-clad hills of the Okanagan Valley in southern BC. My family loved the natural world and we eagerly explored and studied the plants and animals of the Valley. My Dad worked at the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Summerland, so I grew up among all sorts of biologists and other scientists working on interesting problems. They let me hang out in their labs when I was a kid.

I loved museums from an early age and fell under the spell of the identification handbooks of the Provincial Museum. I decided that museum life combined all my interests and that’s where I wanted to work – so here I am!

How did you become an scientist and curator?

The path to a museum job began when I was really young, before I went to high school. In my summer holidays during university, I worked as a Park Naturalist in BC Parks, talking to tourists, leading nature walks, and making displays. I learned a lot about the natural world and how to inspire people about it. Good museum training!

At the University of BC I studied biology and loved the entomology (study of insects) courses taught by Dr Geoff Scudder, who became a mentor. He supervised me as a masters student. To this day, he and I work on insect projects together.

Aiming to get a job at the Royal BC Museum (it was called the BC Provincial Museum then), I worked hard to get useful experience – I wrote a museum handbook on BC dragonflies, I produced exhibits for various museums, I collected lots of insects and wrote about them, I got to know many entomologists. When my dream job appeared, I was ready to go! Later, I earned a PhD, which helped me be a better curator.

What does an entomology curator do? 

My usual research asks questions such as: What species is this? Has it been found before? Where do these species live and how, over millions of years, did they get there? How are all these species related? How did they evolve? It’s all a fascinating puzzle and the research involves a lot of detective work. Thousands of BC’s insect species are still unknown and I’ve spent much of my career helping to build the Royal BC Museum insect collection so that everyone can learn more about this big part of BC’s natural world. I love field work, and finding insects has taken me to the far corners of the province –and the world! Identifying specimens and organizing them in the collection is a crucial and time-consuming task. But studying insects is not everything – a curator must tell people about all those discoveries. So writing and speaking about insects, as well as helping produce exhibits about them, takes up a lot of my time. 

What have you learned from working with insects?

I love learning about insects and the unbelievable lives that they lead. Their complexity and  mind-boggling variety excite me and give me an all-consuming appreciation of this huge group of marvellous organisms with which we share the earth. I have collected insects, photographed them, talked and written about them. Curiosity and the thirst for knowledge, not fancy labs and equipment, are the basis for good science and a museum curator’s work.

Stories by or about this person

Curator Emeritus of Entomology Dr Rob Cannings talks about dragonflies and damselflies. Credit: RBCM

Claudia CopleyEntomology Collection Manager

Why did you want to become an entomologist (someone who studies insects)?
I was keen on insects from as early as I can remember, so becoming an entomologist was a natural fit. I always had jars with live insects in them and I am told I even insisted they be in my crib with me! Of course when I was little no one told me I could do what I loved and get paid for it, but that is exactly what has happened. My interests extend to everything biological, but my passion is for terrestrial arthropods—insects, spiders, and their relatives.

How did you become an entomology collections manager?
For schooling I have a undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in biology. In between I also did a high school teaching degree with an emphasis on math, general science, and biology. What I found out during my teaching experience was that not everyone loved nature and science as much as I do, so I came back to my true love: entomology.

I am still learning new things every day that relate to my career and interest in nature and am always on the lookout for courses where I can learn even more about the species that make up the huge field of entomology. On that note I have taken a course called The Bee Course, another course on bark beetles, and I am keeping my eye on the schedules of The Ant Course, The Hym Course, and others.

What does an entomology collections manager do? 
My overall role is to make sure the entomology collection is available for research. There is still so much left to learn in entomology that the collection is in high demand for study. A typical day for me could include putting together a loan of specimens for shipment to researchers anywhere in the world, or a visiting researcher could come here and work directly in the collection. I spend most hours each week making sure the specimens are well curated: prepared properly (labelled, pinned, stored in preservative, etc.), that all the information about the specimen is captured digitally so we can search what is in the collection, putting things into the collection where they go, and making sure they are easily found when they need to be. I can only do all of this with the help of a big group of volunteers.

I also answer questions about all aspects of entomology every day and these questions come at me via email, phone calls, and some people even come right to the museum with critters in containers.

Something I don’t do every day but what I consider a critical part of the job is to add to the collection through fieldwork. It is amazing to spend even a short amount of time every year in natural areas all over the province.

Stories by or about this person

Meet Entomology Collection Manager Claudia Copley and peek behind the scenes in entomology. Credit: RBCM, J. Weller

Read Entomology Collection Manager and Researcher Claudia Copley’s and Conservation Manager Kasey Lee’s article about Dermestid Beetles in the Winter 2014 edition of What’s Insight. Find out how these insects threaten collections throughout the museum.

Read Entomology Collection Manager and Researcher Claudia Copley’s article about the bees of British Columbia in the Fall 2014 edition of What’s Insight.

Royal BC Museum Entomology Collection Manager Claudia Copley, joins Sophie and Steve at Global News to talk about fall spider season. Credit: Courtesy Global News

Entomology Collection Manager Claudia Copley dispels myths about spider danger in British Columbia.

Heidi GartnerInvertebrates Collection Manager

When did you realize you wanted to become a marine biologist?

As a child I always loved animals and science. In grade 5, I watched an educational TV series called Voyage of the Mimi. It was about a team of researchers travelling the world living on a boat, the Mimi, studying whales and the ocean. I knew instantly that I wanted to do that when I grew up. Which was kind of funny, because I lived in Ontario where there are no oceans.

How did you become the invertebrates collection manager?

I came to Victoria to study biology and oceanography at the University of Victoria. I was still interested in whales when I took my first invertebrate (animals without backbones) biology course. I was absolutely shocked and amazed when I started learning about the diversity of invertebrates and studying their varied anatomy and lifestyles. I was hooked. I took every invertebrate and related marine course I could. After my undergraduate degree I worked with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) studying introduced or alien invertebrates in British Columbia. I then went on to get my master's degree, studying invertebrate fouling communities (those growing on hard substrates such as docks and pilings) along the BC coast. Following my master's degree, I worked a number of different contract positions and then landed back at DFO, this time working with Species At Risk. It was a wonderful job, working to protect endangered species, but when the position came up at the Royal BC Museum, I knew it was a perfect fit.

What do you do in a typical day as the invertebrates collection manager?

The great thing about this job is that every day is different. In any day I may be: doing research, in the field collecting specimens, giving tours, working with visiting researchers, cataloguing and databasing new records, shelving and organizing specimens, identifying animals, or contributing to content for exhibits and learning programs. It is my job to care for the invertebrate collection and to share its stories of British Columbia's natural history. To accomplish this I get to work with a great team of staff and volunteers, visiting researchers, and inquisitive members of the public. In short, it's a busy but wonderful job!

Stories by or about this person

Invertebrates Collection Manager Heidi Gartner talks about Northern Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) an at risk species in British Columbia. Learn what to do if you find a rare Northern Abalone shell on the beach.

Invertebrates Collection Manager Heidi Gartner and Curator of Invertebrates Dr Melissa Frey write about hearing and sound in marine invertebrates.

See the Fall 2014 edition of What’s inSight for Invertebrates Collection Manager Heidi Gartner’s article about tunicates, small invertebrates also known as sea squirts.

Dr. Tzu-I ChungCurator, History

Why did you want to become a historian?
History has always intrigued me – I’ve wondered how people lived and acted, how the past informs the present, what utensils people used and what clothes people wore (and how it felt to wear those clothes). I’ve been especially interested in what people in the past thought and assumed (what they unconsciously accepted as normal, like social class, gender roles and perceptions of nature) about their lives and times.

How did you become a curator?
During and after my doctoral studies, my years teaching in American universities strengthened my belief in the importance of diversity and historical education, and my commitment to public outreach. My position as a curator at the Royal BC Museum is a remarkable opportunity to work with scholars and professionals in public outreach, educational programming and exhibits.

What does a curator do?
To curate means to care for. My job involves caring for, developing, displaying, studying and sharing our museum’s history collections and our province’s history. My work can be divided into three major areas: research, collection development and interpretation, and outreach.

I conduct research on the artifacts in our history collections to find out the stories behind them, and how these stories connect to our provincial, national and global history. I also evaluate donations to the Royal BC Museum’s history collection and make short-term and long-term plans and arrangements to acquire new items. And, to provide content and context for major exhibits, I select artifacts and write their stories.

My outreach activities include writing articles, giving lectures and doing tours for various groups, in order to share information about BC’s history and cultural diversity, our collections and our exhibits.  I also respond to inquiries from the public and participate in conferences and community and scholarly projects.

Stories by or about this person

In 2004, a collection of almost 200 miscellaneous items was donated to the Royal BC Museum by David Walker. He had worked as a cleaner in downtown Victoria, including Chinatown, from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Dr. Tzu-I Chung explores how gold seekers from many parts of Europe, the Americas and Asia followed the gold trail around the world. The gold rush brought the first major settlement of Chinese people to Canada, and what would later become known as British Columbia.

Dr. Robb BennettResearch Associate

Why did you want to become a spider biologist?

Before I even started to crawl I was interested in animals and the natural world. This led to me study biology, especially entomology (the study of insects), as an undergraduate at university. Later, as a biology graduate student, I specialized in describing, naming, and classifying spiders (classic museum curatorial work!). Spiders attracted me because they do spectacularly interesting things in their day-to-day lives and are quite stunning to look at with a microscope.

How did you become a spider biologist?

Mentors were, and remain, very important in my development as a spider biologist. Most of my mentors were established professional spider biologists but I have also found mentors among my fellow students and even among some of the students whom I have taught and to whom I have been a mentor. Knowledge and inspiration do not always come from those with more experience.

What do you do as a research associate with the Royal BC Museum?

My fellow Royal BC Museum spider aficionados and I are documenting the many different types of spiders found in the province. Throughout the year, but especially in the summer months, we travel to  interesting habitats around the province to collect spiders. During the fall, winter and early spring we focus on laboratory work identifying and cataloguing the thousands of mostly very tiny spiders that we have collected. The field work is always a great deal of fun (and always over too soon), but the lab work is hugely interesting and fun, too. Almost every day we identify spiders that have never been found before in British Columbia or Canada, or are entirely new to science.

Stories by or about this person

E-Fauna BC’s Spiders of British Columbia is authored by Royal BC Museum research associate Dr Robb Bennett. This Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia is an excellent resource to find out more about spider life in this province. Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2015. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [www.efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, August 18, 2015.

Tom MortonGuest Contributor, BC Heritage Fairs Society.

Tom Morton is the former coordinator of the BC Heritage Fairs and still serves as a director. He taught at the high school and university levels for more than 30 years in Kabala (Sierra Leone), Montréal and Vancouver. He is the author of numerous articles and books on education. Tom has received the British Columbia Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award, the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Kron Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education.

What got you interested in using historical photographs?
I had good teachers. Charlie Hou first sparked my interest in using paintings such as The Death of Wolfe to understand history. Above all he taught me the appeal of political cartoons for students and the cartoonists' varied devices. Walt Werner and Jane Card taught me about the power of visual sources and the many ways we can read photographs.

What is the most important thing to find out when using a photograph to tell a story about the past?
This will depend on the questions we ask. The first question is usually "What is it?" A documentary photo, for example, is very different from a family photo or a daguerreotype. Other questions would be about the photographer: "How has the photographer organized the photo? What impression was he or she trying to create? Who did he or she leave out of the photo?" A third set of questions would be "How was this photograph used? How did the audience interpret it?" To answer these we need to understand the historical context and study the photo closely.

What have you learned from working with photographs?
They are everywhere so it is worth paying attention to them. The fleeting, fast moving photos on the web are entertaining but good historical photos can have both interesting content and an emotional oomph that can create curiosity about the past. Some are the only sources of the lives of people who did not leave written records.
Many people, however, tend to read historical photographs at face value as true pictures of the past. They are not. They were created by individuals in a particular context and often carefully constructed. They take patience, puzzlement, and knowledge of the context to understand them fully. When we do so, we can often find hidden stories that enrich our understanding.

Stories by or about this person

Try this worksheet to help you think through what you see when you first look at a historical photograph.

Offered here are some suggestions on how to encourage and guide your students when they are using historical photographs.

Thinking about using historical photographs in your classroom? If you need some tips to help you plan, look no further.

Photographer Fredrick Dally’s story is highlighted to give you more insight into his images.

Some guiding questions to ask yourself when you are looking at historical photographs.

Dr. Kathryn BridgeCurator of History and Art

Why did you want to become a curator?

The collections are fascinating and there is so much research that can be done. I learn something new every day!

How did you become a curator?

I started working in the archives. Soon, I got involved with exhibits and started to research interesting stories that our museum could tell. At that point, I became a curator.

What does a curator do?

Curators discover stories about objects in the museum’s collection. They also look for important new objects (or acquisitions) to add to the museum’s collection.  Curators then share their knowledge and these stories with others by putting stories online, writing books, curating exhibitions and participating in public programs.

Stories by or about this person

Dr Kathryn Bridge discusses Emily Carr’s steamer trunk, her own connection to Carr and the museum’s large collection of Carr’s sketchbooks and personal items.

This 19th-century wreath is made of woven strands of hair from many members of the Charter family. It is decorated with faux pearls and metal beads.

Warbrick Deans describes a windy seaside walk in Victoria in this letter to his ‘Great Granny’. If you have trouble reading his handwriting, click on the link below to read a typed version of the letter here. Visit listen to hear someone read the letter.

Arthur Crease like to write letters! Read the letter Arthur wrote to his brother Lindley. If you have trouble reading his handwriting, read a typed version of the letter here. Visit listen to hear the letter read aloud.

Read the letter eight year old Arthur Crease wrote to his ‘mama’ when she was away on a trip. Read a typed version of the letter here. Visit listen to hear someone read the letter aloud.