The Best Free B.C. Museums

On International Museum Day 2015, which also coincides with Victoria Day Long Weekend here in Canada, I’ve been thinking about how few people know about IMD (even those in the industry), though it has been celebrated on May 18 around the world for nearly 40 years. How can museums, galleries, and heritage sites spread greater awareness about themselves to the general public?

Two of the biggest challenges faced by museums today are the issues of accessibility and inclusivity. Many people in British Columbia and around the world are unable or unwilling to pay entry fees due to tight budgets or a perception that museums are inherently exclusive and elitist. Many in the museum industry are working hard to address these issues and ensure that people of all backgrounds feel able and welcome to experience their institutions – after all, many of us museum professionals face lay-offs, underemployment, and economic hardships ourselves.

Putting affordable culture in the frame, Nanaimo B.C.

Putting affordable culture in the frame, Nanaimo B.C.

Although Canada does not have a plethora of large free institutions on the scale of The British Museum or The Smithsonian, there are still many opportunities to visit high-quality museums, galleries, and heritage sites without breaking the bank. In honour of International Museum Day, I thought I’d list 8 of the best free or by-donation* museums and heritage sites in British Columbia (in alphabetical order):

Burnaby Village Museum

Burnaby, B.C.

This delightful, immersive site represents a typical 1920s Lower Mainland community, complete with costumed guides, a historic tram car, and a working carousel from 1912.

Contemporary Art Gallery

Vancouver, B.C.

Located in the trendy Yaletown neighbourhood, this small yet thought-provoking gallery presents a variety of compelling exhibitions throughout the year, representing some of the best contemporary art Vancouver has to offer. Their admission-by-donation policy is refreshingly accessible in one of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.

Tim Etchells installation, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver B.C.

Tim Etchells installation, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver B.C.

Hastings Park

Vancouver, B.C.

Hastings Park isn’t a museum or heritage institution per se, but the site has been the location for several important events in Vancouver’s history, such as the first Pacific National Exhibition in 1910 (where it continues to be held to this day), and the key staging area for the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Today, the Park features a large duck pond and fishing area, the Momiji Japanese garden, skateboarding and basketball amenities, and Hastings Racecourse opened in 1889, the city’s oldest continuously-used sports facility.

Historic Stewart Farm

Surrey, B.C.

On the banks of the Nicomekl River, this heritage site allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the history of Surrey from 1890 to 1920. Features include historical re-enactments, heritage crafts, and baking from an authentic wood-burning stove.

Kamloops Museum and Archives

Kamloops, B.C.

This municipal museum explores the unique, multicultural history of Kamloops, from Chinese railway workers to European settlers, to Interior Salish cultures, and more.

Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre

Burnaby, B.C.

Located in an architecturally stunning building complete with Japanese-style gardens, this multipurpose centre includes exhibits, archives, events, and programs dedicated to the history and future of Japanese culture in British Columbia.

Some beautiful cherry blossom trees near the Nikkei Centre, Burnaby B.C.

Some beautiful cherry blossom trees near the Nikkei Centre, Burnaby B.C.

The Revelstoke Railway Museum

Revelstoke, B.C.

Full disclosure – this was the first museum I ever visited in British Columbia, so it holds a special place in my heart. Located in the stunning Columbia Mountains, this museum explores the dramatic history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The institution also commemorates the site of the “Last Spike,” where the CPR was officially completed in 1885, at their seasonal interpretive centre in Craigellachie, B.C.

Roedde House Museum

Vancouver, B.C.

Built in 1893, this lovely but often-overlooked historic house is nestled in the heart of Vancouver’s West End, and even allows visitors to handle certain artefacts (museum conservators, beware!).

Did I miss any great free museums, galleries, or heritage sites in B.C.? Please let me know!

*A note on etiquette: Even if a museum is promoted as “free,” it is always encouraged to leave a donation or make a purchase at the gift shop whenever possible.

N.B. Because I am based in Vancouver, this list is very skewed towards the Lower Mainland and in no way represents all of the wonderful, affordable cultural heritage B.C. has to offer! I have also chosen to omit the institutions with whom I am professionally associated from this list to reduce personal bias.