It was Saturday afternoon in Banff. We had just returned from an all-morning ice hike and Scott was firmly planted in front of the TV watching football playoff games. I decided it was the perfect opportunity to explore more of Banff on foot, I even found a local history geocache trail to follow. Now, I’ve never actually done geocaching before, but I figured it couldn’t be too hard. Yeah, I was wrong.
I punched the coordinates into Google, it showed me where to go, I went and yet found nothing. I’m sure locals wondered suspiciously what I was doing as I stared at my phone and walked in 2 foot circles near the river for 20 minutes, I wondered myself. It was cold, I was frustrated and so I gave up. Not the pioneering spirit, I know, but I’m convinced the information was wrong. That’s the only possible answer, right? On the walk back into town, I saw a small museum, the Banff Park Museum. Always game for a new museum, I decided to pop in. I didn’t know what the focus was, but given the name I thought I would soon learn all about Banff history. Yeah, I was wrong, sort of.
I walked into the historic structure and was immediately confronted by dozens of cases of dead animals, staring back at me ruthlessly. The building itself dates back to 1903, and is one of the best examples of early log building design in the Banff area. The building is often referred to as a railroad pagoda, as it was a way for train travelers to quickly and easily learn about the natural history found in the Banff National Park. Which brings me to the collection.
While it runs counter to modern methods of wildlife interpretation, the thousands of stuffed birds and animals represented the best of museum science at the turn of the century. The more than 5,000 specimens are displayed as they were in the early 1900s, and indeed the entire museum is a perfect reflection of the site as it stood in 1914.
I wandered around, at first horrified then intrigued by the collections. I was conflicted, so I didn’t spend a lot of time examining the cases, instead I strolled through marveling at the overall museum itself rather than the items housed there. If I had a favorite part, it was the cabinet of curiosities found on the second floor. This was a section of the museum devoted to strange stuff found throughout the province. There was no rhyme or reason and some of the items could very well have been fakes. But I can just imagine kids in the early 1900s peering through the glass looking at objects as alien to them as anything they’d ever experienced.
Say what you will, the museum fulfilled a purpose when it was created, and still does today. While the stuffed animals are morbidly interesting, the real attraction is the attraction. Inadvertently, the Banff Park Museum shows us all what life was like in the early days of the park and how the town survived and thrived over the years.
What are some strange museums you’ve found on your travels?