Vancouver History Blog

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Vancouver Museums: The Forbidden Five

Vancouver museums do something really special. While a walking tour will engage you in seeking out history where it happened, a museum brings it all together in one place. We at Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours certainly have a few of our own favourites. So we’ve listed the best museums in Vancouver below, in the latest edition of the Forbidden Five.

MOV: The Museum of Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver front entrance
Museum of Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver, at 1100 Chestnut Street, tops our list of the best museums in Vancouver. Not just because it’s the oldest museum in the city, and the largest of its kind in Canada. But because its collections and exhibitions are top notch, really peeling back the layers of our city and telling its story.

The museum was originally founded in 1894, but moved to its current home in 1967. It is one of Vancouver’s most recognizable and iconic buildings. Its conical rooftop is in the shape of a cedar-woven hat, typical of the Indigenous people of this region.

The MOV shares a building with the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, but the vast majority of the building displays the museum’s numerous collections. There are so many, and they are so extensive, that even in this massive building they are not all displayed. Much of them, sadly, are in storage.

The MOV is a dynamic museum, always featuring new exhibitions. Its ever-changing showcases are fascinating, and truly tell a story. They are certainly well worth a visit.

Old Hastings Mill Store: Vancouver’s Oldest Building

Hastings Mill Store Museum Interior, 1972 - COV Archives: AM1536-: CVA 70-66
Hastings Mill Store Museum Interior, 1972

The MOV deserves pride of place, but now it’s time for our list to get a little weirder. What are Vancouver’s rarest gems, and less well-known historic places? May we present to you Vancouver’s oldest building, which also happens to be one of its quirkiest museums: The Old Hastings Mill Store Museum.

The Hastings Mill was essentially the earliest settlement here, the seed of what would eventually become Vancouver. In 1867, Captain Edward Stamp opened a sawmill on the water’s edge, near present-day Gastown. (He had originally named it after himself, but new ownership dubbed it “The Hastings Mill.”) The men who worked at this mill sometimes had their families with them, so this corporate enterprise was, in effect, a little community. It had a small school and a general store. The store survives to this day.

The Great Fire of 1867 was a devastating event. In fact, you can hear a harrowing account of it on the Lost Souls of Gastown Tour. But somehow, the Hastings Mill Store managed to survive this catastrophic fire. Then, in 1930, it traveled by barge to its current location at 1575 Alma Street, where it opened as a museum.

The building itself is an artifact from a lost time, but the collection it contains are also worth the visit. It’s a mixed bag of indigenous and early settler artifacts. Strange trinkets and idiosyncratic objects fill its rooms. It is perhaps Vancouver’s quirkiest and most charming museum.

Burnaby Village Museum: An Immersive Vancouver Museum

Burnaby Village Museum
Burnaby Village Museum

Without leaving the city limits, you can take a walk through a 1920’s era village. Here, you can be surrounded by more than the artifacts and objects of another era. The restored buildings (31 of them) and village streets will immerse you completely in the life of a villager from this region.

This open air museum, at 6501 Deer Lake Avenue in Burnaby, occupies 4 acres. There is a blacksmith, an ice cream parlour, a bakery, a general store and a school. Furthermore, the costumed staff will walk you through these restored buildings, and talk you through their trades. You can ride the restored interurban tram car, or even take the famous vintage carousel ride – all the way back to the 1920’s.

Roedde House Museum: A Charming Vancouver Museum

Roedde House Museum
Roedde House Museum

To get a feel for life in 1890’s Vancouver, pay a visit to Roedde House, at 1415 Barclay Street. This restored Victorian era house, built in 1893, was home to Gustav Roedde and his family. He was a local bookbinder, and an immigrant to Canada.

Every room here is a wonder. There are over 2700 artifacts in this house. Furniture, clothing, a stereoscope, a bread maker, a chestnut roaster, and all kinds of other household items and fascinating artifacts fill its rooms. The photo exhibition on the second floor is a special treat.

The volunteers who run the museum are knowledgeable and friendly. They will astound you with the tales contained within the walls of this historic house.

Roedde House is a special place for us, because we once staged a live play here, called War for the Holidays.

UBC Museum of Anthropology: A Vancouver Treasure Trove

The Museum of Anthropology at UBC
UBC Museum of Anthropology

This wonderland is located at 6393 NW Marine Drive, on the U.B.C. campus. You could get lost in here for days. There’s just so much too look at, too much to take in at once. There are more than half a million archaeological objects in this building, and tens of thousands of historical objects. While its main focus is the the rich history of the indigenous peoples of the region, it also houses artifacts from every continent of the world.

There are sculptures, totems, ceramics, textiles, masks, weapons, jewellery, paintings, prints, coins… the list goes on. Each of these objects, on their own, could occupy your attention for hours. But seeing them all together, by the thousands, is overwhelming.

The reconstructed Haida Houses outside the museum are exquisite. And they are featured on one of the museum’s regular tours, which run every morning and afternoon. The guides for these tours are excellent. This museum is a Vancouver treasure, and it shouldn’t be missed.

A Bonus Entry: The Vancouver Police Museum

The Vancouver Police Museum
Vancouver Police Museum

Are we allowed to add a sixth entry to the Forbidden Five? Well, we’re gonna! The Vancouver Police Museum, at 240 East Cordova Street, holds a very special place in our hearts. Because it contains within it so much of the history that we love to cover in our walking tours – especially the Forbidden Vancouver Tour.

Vancouver’s dirtiest secrets are on full display here – the crime, corruption, vice and scandal – all our favourite stories!

Located on the edge of historic Gastown, this fascinating museum is located in an old building that was once the Coroner’s Court. Autopsies were conducted here. In fact, the autopsy experience has been fully reconstructed to satisfy your morbid curiosity.

You can look at old opium pipes, firearms, mugshots and other fun items related to crime and law enforcement. True crime buffs will love this place.

The City Itself

Those are some of our favourite museums in Vancouver, including a few that are delightfully offbeat. But don’t forget that the streets of Vancouver are a museum of their own. You just need an expert storyteller to help you understand where to look, and how to see it. Check our our list of walking tours here. Our storytellers (and their stories) will astound you.