Dr. Kelly Black, Executive Director
Since the Vancouver Island Local History Society took over management of Point Ellice House in 2019, our approach has been to look beyond the house itself and connect the site and families with the wider history of Victoria, British Columbia, and the British Empire. When we drafted our business plan for the site, we highlighted the prominent role the Wentworth Wallace and O’Reilly families played in the city and province, and noted the many stories that could be told through these familial connections, museum collection, and the Point Ellice House landscape. Victoria has many great museums, but there is no museum dedicated to the stories of Victoria. Our vision statement positions Point Ellice House as a site for these stories; it reads, in part,
We feel that Point Ellice House is an ideal site for local history to be exhibited, discussed, and researched. We believe that Point Ellice House reflects the history of BC and can serve as Victoria’s museum – a site for encountering stories about the communities around us.
Our inaugural exhibit, The Politics of Luxury, examined the colonial past and present of Point Ellice House, with particular focus on the relationships that sustained people, power, and privilege. During the fall of 2019, we began planning our second feature exhibit for 2020 – a look at the history of waste and water in Victoria.
Although Point Ellice House is one of Victoria’s oldest homes, it is no longer situated in a residential neighbourhood; the area is now deemed ‘light industrial’ and we are surrounded by waste transfer sites. One of the most frequently asked questions we receive from visitors concerns how the neighbourhood came to be this way. The bathrooms at Point Ellice House are another point of interest from visitors: Where did the family ‘go’? Where did ‘it’ go?
Preliminary research into these questions revealed a number of fascinating and largely untold stories about drinking water, garbage, and sewage. An exhibit on these issues also seemed timely for 2020, as a new wastewater treatment plant for Victoria will be coming online later this year, and concerns about fresh water supply are omnipresent as we face a climate emergency.
Although the exhibit always seemed timely, spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19 quickly increased its relevance. The history of waste and water in Victoria (like most other places around the world) is entangled with the history of public health. In the nineteenth century, the prevention of disease was linked to sanitation and access to clean drinking water, leading to wide-ranging efforts to control and regulate public health. For example, Victoria’s smallpox outbreak in 1892 led to the British Columbia Public Health Act the following year. This legislation created the Provincial Board of Health, and is the antecedent to the Public Health Act and the Provincial Health Officer position (held today by Dr. Bonnie Henry).
Unfortunately, the racist history of early public health efforts is also relevant to the current pandemic. Historian Dr. Patricia Roy notes that in nineteenth century BC “blaming the Chinese for introducing ‘loathsome diseases’ as well as ‘demoralizing habits’ became an effective means of evoking sympathy elsewhere in Canada for restrictions on Chinese immigration…Following this line of argument making the Chinese improve Chinatowns’ sanitation might remove their competitive advantage and induce them to leave.” (Patricia Roy. 1989. A White Man’s Province, p. 30). In Victoria the Chinese were blamed for introducing Cholera, typhoid, and leprosy, among others. Much of this was not founded in evidence and cases of these diseases were also found in the white population. Nevertheless, as we are seeing with the spread of mis/dis-information about China and COVID-19, these epidemics became fodder to reinforce racist stereotypes and further regulate and restrict racialized peoples.
When Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens closed to the public in March, I put our plans for the exhibit on hold. Point Ellice House is a provincially-owned site and we are privileged to still be receiving financial support from the Province of BC. Still, this support is less than 50% of our budget for staffing and utilities alone – there are no funds provided for programming.
After some time grappling with the uncertainty of the situation (an ongoing issue for all of us!), myself and the board of directors decided to proceed with completing the exhibit. Of course, this is a risky decision. We don’t know when we will be able to re-open and, even when we do, what might that look like? We are already one of the most under visited museums in Victoria. Will people want to visit?
As the History Relevance Initiative reminds us, relevant historical programming is, among other qualities, current and timely: “[it] relates to discussion happening at the local and national levels and provides historical background for current events.” Perhaps through a current and timely exhibit, visitors will seek out Point Ellice House. Perhaps not. This historic site might emerge from this pandemic stronger than before; it might not emerge at all.
Current and timely exhibits cost money, but public history has spread effects to the wider economy – independent researchers, interpretive writers, graphic designers, and tradespeople have been hired to work on this project. We have applied for a grant that I hope we receive, but our overall budget is still dependent on sponsorships and donations. Even before the pandemic, requests for sponsorship went unanswered.
As people lose their jobs and other societal crises compound due to the pandemic, a local history exhibit seems frivolous. But we are resisting that notion. If the funding for a site like Point Ellice House is any indication, financial support for public history has always been viewed as frivolous. Billions are rightly being put toward initiatives to support people and businesses during the pandemic. We hold out hope that governments and the public will see the possibilities that emerge when communities are asked to consider the past and its role in our future. If we want to build something better when the pandemic ends, support for public history should be a part of that ‘something better.’ We want to be a part of that conversation, and we hope our exhibit will contribute to it – whatever the risk.