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Reflecting on 30 years: The journey to building a new museum

A Look Back into the History of the Campbell River Area
Museum staff, board members and invited officials at the Opening Ceremonies for the new 21,000 square foot Museum on Feb. 19, 1994. Museum at Campbell River photo

“It is a great event that we are present here for today. If you can only feel what I feel in my heart you would know that my heart soars for the things that this great house will stand for.” – Chief Robert Joseph

It was 30 years ago on Feb. 19 that Chief Robert Joseph began the opening ceremony for the new museum in Campbell River with these words.

Opening day was a culmination of nearly 15 years of fundraising successes, setbacks and a great deal of commitment and tenacity that resulted in a new purpose-built museum for the community.

At the time, former Mayor Mary Ashley wrote, “This is such a special time for all those who have been associated with the long-term planning of this beautiful facility. When I think of the efforts of the Board, Staff and many volunteers have put into this effort, I realize that Campbell River people can accomplish anything if they really want to!”

Opening day ceremonies were kicked off with Royal Canadian Legion Pipe Band who piped their way into the cavernous space which would eventually house the permanent exhibits. Inside, the Pipe Band was greeted by an excited crowd of community members, funders, officials as well as museum volunteers and members.

The official program began with a traditional First Nations blessing of the space and was followed by speeches. Long time, board chair Stephanie Tipple remarked on the number of volunteer hours that went into the new museum project. She estimated at least one hour of volunteer time for every dollar of government money brought into the project, which amounted to 2,630,000 hours.

Previously the Museum was located in the downtown core in the Centennial Building (which now houses the Campbell River Art Gallery). Constructed in 1967, the Centennial Building initially provided ample space for a growing museum but by 1973, newspaper headlines reported the “Bulging Museum Faces Overflow.” It wasn’t until Jay Stewart joined the Museum staff as Director/Curator in 1977 that the Museum Society began to work towards addressing the need for a new space for the museum.

Plans for the new facility were ambitious and all involved were committed to working towards a vision for a museum that was much more than a static display of relics from the past. One of the earliest milestones in the project came in 1983 when the City of Campbell River purchased the former Provincial Forestry Station property overlooking Discovery Passage as a location for the new museum. Then-Mayor Bob Ostler felt that council support for this project was “creating one of the building blocks for this community.”

Despite this tremendous level of support, it would take another 11 years of fundraising before the opening day ceremonies took place. Designs for the new building were on-going throughout this period especially the plans for the permanent exhibits. A range of topics for the exhibits were considered from early glaciation to the utopian settlement at Cape Scott. Elders, community members and content experts were consulted and interviews on topics such as Women’s History, Residential Schools and the Industrial History of the area were undertaken to help inform and shape the final storyline for the permanent exhibits.

Opening day ceremonies concluded with a Campbell River twist as a decision was made not to have a traditional ribbon cutting but to invite Bill Barlee, then Minister for Small Business, Tourism and Culture to wield a hammer to cut a logging cable. With a resounding thump the new museum opened to the public on Feb. 19, 1994, but the work was not yet complete.

The first few years in the new facility were challenging and in an interview in 2018, long-time Curator Jeanette Taylor recalled, “Here it was this largely empty exhibition hall and people were disappointed. The letters to the editor and complaints at the front desk were heartbreaking for all of us. In hindsight, we should have not opened. We should have waited until more of the exhibits were installed, but that would have been sad for the community not to have a museum at all for a time.”

It wasn’t long though, under the direction of Executive Director Lesia Davis, before progress was made, and as board chair Norm Fair recalled, “She rolled up her sleeves, raised the funds, acquiring grants and in the ensuing years was the driving force behind the creation of a smooth-running, award winning, best-in-class museum.”

It has been a rewarding 30 years since opening day and hopefully the Museum has attained a little of the “great house” that Chief Joseph envisioned in his speech on opening day.

A Look Back into the History of the Campbell River Area is a monthly presentation of the Museum at Campbell River and the Campbell River Mirror.