Step right in, and hold your nose

Inside a black, hot-tub-sized plastic container, filled with sickly sweet-smelling ethanol, rests a six-metre-long squid that washed up on the shore at Long Beach.

Tim Willis

Tim Willis

VICTORIA — Inside a black, hot-tub-sized plastic container, filled with sickly sweet-smelling ethanol, rests a six-metre-long squid that washed up on the shore at Long Beach.

Teeth marks from a sperm whale are embedded in the big, dead squid’s head at Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum.

Nearby, workers are fine-tuning a revolving weigh scale for children that equates a child’s weight with a wild B.C. animal. Eighty to 200 pounds is a cougar.

The wild, rare and hidden gems of British Columbia’s natural and human history — many of them contained in huge collections locked away for decades at Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum — are about to be given star treatment at a new exhibit.

The RBCM is throwing open its doors to offer curiosity seekers a rare behind-the-scenes look (and sniff) at what the world-renowned cultural institution has been hiding in its vaults. It’s an alternative to booking another high-profile visiting exhibit for the summer.

The hope is, as the museum struggles with a tight budget and cash-conscious consumers, that visitors who flocked to see past Titanic, Da Vinci and Ancient Egypt shows will jump at the chance to peer behind the museum’s locked doors.

RBCM exhibitions director Tim Willis says slumping attendance, government cuts, layoffs and a deficit nearing $500,000 forced museum officials to drop the blockbusters and try to turn tough times into good times with the new focus on hidden treasures.

“The challenge is not to withdraw into a shell when financial pressure happens,” he said. “If we stop telling stories we run the risk of not only losing our audience, but losing our soul. In a way, the financial pressure presented us with an opportunity.”

Willis said the Natural History Museum in London, England, recently opened its locked doors to huge crowds. RBCM plans to run its behind-the-scenes exhibits over parts of the next two years, focusing on its vast natural and human history collections.

“Our notion is that we would take people behind the scenes to show them the work of our curatorial staff,” said Willis. “Give the experience of seeing the work in action, participate in it, see collections they’ve never seen.”

The museum has millions of specimens in collections that spread from floor to ceiling, everything from fish to birds to mammals to bugs to mosses and plants and fossils.

RBCM’s natural history manager Kelly Sendall said British Columbia, with its coastlines, mountains and temperate forests, boasts one of the world’s most diverse regions and the museum is its data-collection centre.

“We are by far the most diverse province in the country and, for situations like the marine invertebrates, it’s probably one of the richest in the world,” he said. “As far as variety goes, we’re probably knocking on the door of the Amazon Rain Forest.”

Sendall said the behind-the-scenes exhibit gives the museum the opportunity to remind people about the diverse environment in British Columbia and gives the museum a chance to show people what an amazing resource they have.

Willis said the exhibit includes a diversity lounge, to let visitors explore collections in detail. It also focuses on invasive species and their impact on British Columbia. The list includes huge American bullfrogs, scavenging starlings and mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus.

“The message, right from the start, is this is all about curiosity,” said Willis. “When you enter through the magnifying glass, that’s the message we want people to have. We have literally millions of specimens behind the scenes.”

He said the behind-the-scenes concept was developed due to economic constraints but it is an idea that could catch on elsewhere because museums have untapped resources.

“Some museums give a nod to behind the scenes,” Willis said.

“But we’re really going big time. People will have such a good time here, the word of mouth will be inevitable. People will be astonished. We’re going to have hundreds of things on display that they’ve never seen before.”

If you go

Royal B.C. Museum: 675 Belleville St., phone 250-356-7226. Located in the Inner Harbour area, close to the provincial legislature.

Hours of operation: Every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.