When I was a kid, the last thing I wanted to do on vacation was go to a museum. I had to leave behind the sunshine of a non-school day while my parents dragged me through a series of musty, dingily lit exhibits that were supposed to further my education. Stuffed owls with metal poles up their butts glared down at me from dusty shelves. Headless female mannequins modeled highnecked dresses. Row after row of glass cases held cracked pottery, arrowheads, and coins. Big deal.
Thankfully, museums have changed, and so have I. So on a recent day off work, I actually looked forward to checking out Edmonton’s newly reopened Royal Alberta Museum. Several years ago, it closed its doors at its less accessible west end location and reopened this fall in the downtown core. Its ticket prices and choices also make it available to a variety of visitors: one-day, two-day and annual passes; special prices for seniors and people with lower incomes; and free admission always for Indigenous people. After all, the museum sits on their traditional land and displays a lot of items that rightfully belong to them.
Since single admissions for adults cost $19, I bought an annual pass for $35. My eight- year-old self was aghast at this decision, but I knew I’d be back often during the next twelve months. As soon as I stepped inside the Museum’s doors, the lofty ceilings and light pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows made my spirit soar. Well ahead of the ticket booth, greeters welcomed me and handed me a floor map. Little visitors stared wide-eyed at open-mouthed dinosaur skeletons, the iconic mammoth sculptures, and a biplane suspended from the ceiling.
Buying the annual pass freed me up to explore a small portion of the museum in depth. I briefly considered concentrating on the insect room but it’s kept very warm and humid so I decided to save that for a day when I wasn’t wearing winter clothing. Eventually, I settled on the Ancestral Lands exhibit. Nothing like starting at the absolute beginning of Alberta’s history on this initial museum visit.
Alberta’s First People have roots that date back thousands of years. Their ancestors assisted the museum staff to bring their stories to life, in bite-sized, multimedia pieces designed to attract and keep the attention of a new generation of museum goers. At the push of a button, you can watch a film about medicine wheels or a stop action cartoon in which cave painting-esque figures hunt antelope on a floor level screen in the shape of a hand drum.
All around the room are huge backlit photos of natural places that hold special significance for Alberta’s First People. You can listen to elders tell the stories of these places in Cree, Blackfoot, Saulteaux and other Indigenous languages while you read along in the same language, in English, or in French. My favorite was the tale of the Old Woman Lying Down. Can you see her face, looking up at the sky?
Of course, there are glass cases that hold artifacts which, for children, still might not be that interesting. But now that I have a bit more understanding of Indigenous culture, and the explanations include more than the dates and places where the items were found, my imagination was inspired by their mysteries. Who carved the buffalo? And where did he get the soapstone he used, which isn’t found in Alberta? Who took the time to whittle designs into the 4000-year-old bone bead? What sewing jobs did a woman accomplish 7000 years ago with her bone needle?
Ninety minutes later, I left the Ancestral Lands exhibit behind and did a bit of reconnaissance for my next visit. I’ve still got most of the human history and all of the natural history exhibits to explore. The special exhibits spaces were empty but promised displays in early 2019. Even the children’s activities looked like fun. The security guard at the door said. “Adults are welcome too. I play with all this stuff myself!”
On my way out, I couldn’t resist a quick trip around the Museum Shop, not to buy (although my annual pass gets me a discount) but just to appreciate the variety of items and the artful way they’re displayed.
A few tips for your visit:
1) The annual pass is a steal of a deal for Edmonton residents or if you’re an out-of-towner who plans to visit more than once.
2) if you want to avoid the school field trip hordes, go later in the afternoon or on Thursday evening when the Museum is open until 8 PM.
3) There isn’t a cloakroom but you can store your stuff in a half-size locker for 25 cents. The museum will give you change.
4) The cafe has standard, family- focused fare with not-bad prices. If you prefer a more adult-oriented meal with a glass of wine, there’s an upscale restaurant, Zinc, in the neighboring art gallery.
4) If you run down your cell phone battery taking pictures, there are nifty, free cell phone charger lockers, complete with a variety of cords installed in each one. Dial in your own code to lock the door, have a snack and tour the gift shop, and come back to a fully charged phone.