What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?

Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.

 

 

Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.

Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:

 

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Artifacts associated with Wop May, the famous air ace, and one of the main reasons Edmonton got an airport so early in its history!
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Representations of different diseases that afflicted Indigenous peoples, done in beadwork. Very powerful display.

 

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Blocks from a book printed in Cree syllabics!
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A beam from the original Fort Edmonton. I had no idea that there were surviving pieces!
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A mechanical fur press from the early 20th century! They were used to compress furs into tight compact bales for ease of transport during the fur trade era. I didn’t know there were mechanical ones!
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Bagpipes (mid-1800s) used by the personal piper of Sir George Simpson (the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company), which, interestingly enough, I think I’ve seen an archival photograph of before?
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A display on Leroy Little Bear, who deserves all of the accolades! Particularly, from my perspective, for his role in the Buffalo Treaty of 2014.

On a more serious note, the museum didn’t pull any punches when it came to Residential Schools, which I appreciated. Among other artifacts, they included a ledger of one school showing the students’ “Indian Names”, the “White Names” they were assigned when they came to school, and how they were discharged – graduated or died.

 

 

I didn’t come to the museum to feel real emotions, but the iron lung display really warmed the cockles of my heart. This real iron lung used by a specific little girl, displayed alongside her collection of dolls which grew every time that she met a milestone in her recovery. The nurses used to make the dolls’ clothes to keep her spirits up!! It’s also a good reminder of the importance of vaccinations today. Let’s keep polio a thing of the past, friends and countrymen.

 

 

I mean, as someone who’s not a sports person, I’m not torn up as some people are that the Oilers only got a single case of memorabilia. I am, however, incredibly pleased that there was a case all about the Edmonton Grads, who are considered most successful sports teams of all time – and they were a woman’s team. They won 412 games, and only lost 20. Epic.

 

 

I have never really seen displays of hundreds of arrowheads interpreted in a dynamic and interesting way to the public, and there was a very large section on those. However, there was one panel in that archaeology section that really did grab my attention, despite it being in the corner: this panel on archaeological mysteries, solved and unsolved! It delved into the practice of archaeology and the detective work involved in what I thought was a very effective way.

 

 

I was pretty pleased by all of the bison (and bison conservation) content scattered throughout the human history and natural history exhibits:

 

 

This piece is really easy to overlook in favour of the giant skeletons and dinosaurs, but there’s a special place in my heart for this ammonite which has been fossilized with mosasaur teeth marks on it.

 

 

Speaking of things that make me feel good things, I was pleased to see they still had the stunning taxidermy-and-mural combination nature displays. I remember walking past these has a child with my sister, listening to an audio guide tour on a walkman. I do think that the previous natural history display (the one that was refreshed in the last decade at the old location) was a bit more dynamic than the current edition, but it is still pretty good.

 

 

Also, I’m dying to know – was this caption on the bighorn sheep display a deliberate reference to Mountain Wit’s infamous music video on how to distinguish between bighorn sheep and mountain goats?

 

 

From the perspective of a public historian who loves seeing “behind the scenes” elements of museums, I thought it was a clever use of existing resources to display a lot of the birds in their specimen poses, instead of seeking out new taxidermy:

 

 

One final note, because I’m a historian and nature-nerd: I was incredibly excited to see this passenger pigeon specimen too. The accompanying caption is what I want to see more of in museums like this: it linked it to the local context, explaining that Pigeon Lake (I’ve gone camping there!!) is so named because thousands upon thousands of now-extinct Passenger Pigeons used to hang out there. Amazing!

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Okay, so all in all, what did I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum? I think that overall, there is plenty to get excited about. Yes, not all of the displays were as dynamic as they could have been, or resonated with all visitors. Yes, I do think that there could have been more cohesive narrative threads and themes about what makes Alberta special. And yet, for all that, it was local. It did a tremendous job to include the history, perspectives, language, and cultures of Indigenous people in this province. So yes, I approve.

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