Metal shelving, furnace venting and a thick coating of ash are what remain of the Lytton Chinese History Museum, which was destroyed along with most of the rest of the Village of Lytton when wildfires swept through British Columbia’s interior last summer.
Efforts to rebuild the institution have now received a boost from an unlikely source. Friends of MacDonald: the Dutch Connection, a Netherlands-based foundation, has selected the museum as the recipient of the 2021 Ranald MacDonald Award, a prize worth €5,000 ($7,300).
The award is given annually to work that advances “insight into relations between Asia, Europe and North America,” according to the foundation’s website. The prize is named after an American-born Métis adventurer who in the early 19th century lived in what would eventually become Canada. He later travelled to Japan and became one of the earliest native English speakers to teach the language there.
A news release from the foundation calls resurrecting the museum “an enterprise which is true, good and beautiful.”
Before the fire, the museum, which opened in 2017, contained artifacts of early Chinese contributions to life in Interior B.C. – some from as early as the mid-19th century, when labourers from China arrived in the area to build railroads and work in mines.
Lorna Fandrich, the museum’s owner, said her decision to rebuild after the blaze was instantaneous.
“I’m still passionate about telling the story of what happened when [the Chinese community] came between 1850 and about 1945, and how they contributed to this country,” she said. She added that she hopes the museum’s presence, once its renewal is complete, will help Lytton rebuild its community.
Ms. Fandrich said she plans to start construction in fall and reopen in 2023. The award is crucial to the museum’s future, she added.
“It’s another method of giving my museum credibility – credibility with the Chinese community, but maybe with a greater community than that, even … I think more people will realize this tiny little museum in Lytton is actually important to our history in B.C., or in Canada,” she said.
In the seven months since the fire, the museum has made some progress toward rebuilding its collection.
Volunteers came together last October for the largest operation in the history of the British Columbia Heritage Emergency Network, in the hopes of recovering valuable cultural items from the museum’s debris.
They found around 200 artifacts, including 40 pieces of pottery that are intact and can be displayed again. The high heat of the fire destroyed metal objects, and other objects were damaged by melted glass from display cases. Ms. Fandrich intends to use some of the damaged pieces to tell the story of the wildfire.
She said she grieves the loss of the lifetime collections of Reg Beck and Al Dreyer, B.C. residents who entrusted their treasures to her. Those collections, which made up more than half of the museum’s artifacts, included Chinese tools, as well as other objects and materials owned and used by Chinese miners, railroad and construction workers, businessmen and homemakers.
But there have also been victories. Ms. Fandrich has recovered wine jars, ginger jars and “railway” teapots (named after the rail-like design along their tops) – artifacts she said are vital to the museum’s collection. And there was much excitement when volunteers found one of the museum’s six large wine jars. It had remained intact, despite damage to the glaze from melted glass.
The museum had about 1,600 items in its collection. Recently, as postal service to Lytton has finally been restored, Ms. Fandrich has begun accepting artifact donations to replace lost objects.
Members of the Chinese Canadian community have supported Ms. Fandrich’s efforts to rebuild. The Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC recently raised more than $22,000 for both the museum and the Lytton First Nation, and architect Cedric Yu has offered to redraw the museum’s building plans, because the originals were lost in the fire.
The museum isn’t the only Lytton institution struggling to rebuild. Property owners and local officials have spent the past few months dealing with insurance and permits, and resolving infrastructural obstacles that have prevented work crews from doing their jobs.
All this has been compounded by severe weather conditions, including floods and snow that have obstructed the removal of debris and prevented heavy equipment from entering the village.
“It’s a series of unfortunate events for this already pretty complex problem. I don’t think there’s very many places in Canada that had so much happen with so little capacity,” said Ron Mattiussi, Lytton’s policy group liaison officer.
But with roads reopening and snow melting, things are looking up. Mr. Mattiussi said he expects that insurance companies and contractors will start applying for permits in coming weeks, and that new building codes for the village will be confirmed soon.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.