Upstairs Downstairs

Moving the muskox around the building isn’t easy. To get him into storage the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s curatorial assistant had to take a door off. And where to store the ribs of the blue whale? Not exactly the sort of thing one can shove into the back of a closet.

Most visitors walk through their favourite museum giving no thought to the vast array of objects stored in basements and back rooms. Down the corridor and past the Staff Only signs at the Beaty (which doubles as a research centre) there’s a stuffed sheep standing on a desk in the middle of one room and a tank of beetles consuming the flesh of a salvaged coyote in another. Past the Bone Room is a lab lined with trays of fossils including a Megalodon tooth larger than a human heart. Unlike the rigorously ordered displays upstairs, the backrooms are a mix of the methodical and the nonchalant, as evidenced by the wadded woodpecker next to the staff phone and the menacing-looking hawk beside the stereo. It’s the academic equivalent of a grandparent’s attic-provided your grandparents were the kind of people to keep a jar of alligator ovaries next to the photo albums.

What the Beaty has in common with a number of other Vancouver museums is the scale of artifacts behind closed doors. The Museum of Vancouver houses over 70,000 objects, with only a fraction ever on display. Walking into its 13,000-square-foot collections vault is like going down in a submersible to see the other 90 percent of an iceberg. Here, Egyptian artifacts and the graffiti-covered Vancouver riot boards; there, the scuffed desk of the city’s first customs broker and our Olympic mascots. The vault isn’t even the full extent of it-the museum shares an offsite storage area with the Vancouver Maritime Museum, whose own storage rooms are too filled with model ships, rusting cannon balls, nautical instruments, and harpoons to accommodate things like a 10-metre-long canoe or a 3,000-kilogram engine.

At the Vancouver Police Museum parts of the collection wait on shelves in a basement that was once connected to the city analyst’s lab. Lifting tissue paper off a forensic drawing and sifting through the contents of an old wood-boxed fingerprinting kit and a police order book that dates back to World War One, the museum’s curator speaks convincingly about how every item tells a story. What visitors sometimes forget is that the stories, and the objects that tell them, are always changing: a few years ago the Beaty ran a contest to name a new species of spider, and six months ago MOV repatriated a Sasquatch mask to the Sts’ailes First Nation. Things come and go-which is why museums deserve repeated viewings. Just ask the stuffed trumpeter swan that was the museum’s first acquisition 120 years ago. He recently came up for air in a Rewilding Vancouver display, though as the dresses, shoes, and handbags move up for the new exhibit From Rationing to Ravishing: The Transformation of Women’s Clothing in the 1940s and 1950s (on until March), he’ll likely be sent down again.

Aislinn Hunter is the author of the recently published novel  The World Before Us (Doublday), set in a London Museum.