Images courtesy Storyeum/Historical Xperiences. Inc.
When I told my son Ryan we were going to Gastown he assumed it was to eat at the Old Spaghetti Factory.
When I said we were going to a museum he was only slightly less enthusiastic because Ryan, who is seven, likes museums almost as much as he likes to eat spaghetti.
This museum, however, is unlike any he or I had seen. The exhibits not only talk but sometimes sing, and occasionally dance. One ruffled Ryan's hair.
Such is the spectacle of Storyeum, a slickly choreographed production depicting the last 10,000 years of British Columbia's history.
Actors transport visitors through the ages via cleverly designed sets that are both vivid and imaginative. It begins with a slow descent through the last ice age on one of the worlds biggest passenger elevators. About 25 of us take the ride while a voice from the darkness summarizes the geological forces that shaped the province.
This is accompanied by a quick succession of images on the elevators cylindrical wall. It turns out that several million years ago Canada's west coast ended roughly around the Rockies, making Calgary and Edmonton seem, well, almost habitable. Then, 10,000 years ago, the last ice age relinquished its grip on B.C. and retreating glaciers revealed the bountiful province inhabited by the First Nations. On cue, the elevator doors open and we find ourselves in a verdant forest with caves, rock pools and, as luck would have it, bench seats for us to sit on.
A solidly built Coast Salish youth is preparing to carve a canoe by bathing and fasting in the forest. In a scene aimed at capturing his spiritual connection with nature, the youth stresses the importance of finding the right cedar for the boat, no matter how long it takes. Were led to a long house for another native rite of passage, a naming ceremony. Gathered around a fire we listen to a young girl and her grandmother describing the rituals and significance of the ceremony.
The scene closes with Captain James Cook bounding in unexpectedly (perhaps a subtle reflection of B.C.s history) with an invitation for us to join "Mad" King George III in his chambers. Amid handshakes and improvisation (Cook calls Ryan "a little human" and complements several women on their perfume) were ushered into an opulent hallway where His Royal Highness himself addresses his loyal subjects and gets an update from Cook on the New World.
Ryan has been quietly interested up to this point but the next scene rocks his world. "This is cool," he says to himself. We are in the year 1774 and Captain Juan Perez comandeers us to man the Spanish ship Santiago on a set complete with decks, galleys, pouring rain and a raging sea.
"Where the heck are we now?" Ryan asks me next as Billy Barker welcomes us to Barkerville, perhaps the most impressive set of all, with colourful storefronts and even more colourful characters.
My head is spinning too by the time we reach the mountainous backdrop of Rogers Pass, a set that ingeniously combines Sir John A. Macdonalds bedroom with an immigrant workers tent and a railway trestle. After Sir John explains his dream of uniting Canada via the railway, a Chinese railway worker describes his dream of returning home to the family hes been struggling to support from afar.
The sight of a full-size locomotive greets us in our final staging area, a young Vancouver where trade is booming and from which the fruits of the province coal and lumber are busily being exploited. The train driver serenades us as we board the elevator. As we ascend, the message inside is also uplifting. A kaleidoscope of powerful B.C. images and sound bites put a positive cap on a unique historical journey that wasnt always so positive.
Naturally, a 72-minute tour can only provide a snapshot of B.C.s history. The more unsavoury chapters, such as the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers, and the affects of smallpox on huge numbers of native people, are treated carefully. Storyeum leans to sensitivity rather than sympathy, and it avoids preaching to its audience.
Which is probably why Ryan and I were still talking about what we'd seen long after we'd left.
Storyeum (142 Water Street, Gastown in Vancouver) costs $22 for adults, $19 for seniors (65+) and youth (13-18) and $16 for children (six to 12). For more information, call 1 800 687 8142 or visit www.storyeum.ca