The GEOCentre of BC

Monday, November 23, 1998

A new Earth science centre to open on Vancouver Island, BC
Rick Hudson

Plans are underway to build a new 7000 square foot science centre on the waterfront in the town of Sidney-by-the-Sea, close to Victoria, BC. The facility, which will be housed in a new 16,000 square foot retail development, will be breaking new ground in a variety of ways.

Tentatively called the GEOCentre of BC, it will be dedicated to showcasing the Earth sciences, with particular emphasis on West Coast processes. Plate tectonics, earthquakes, ocean spreading and vulcanism are obvious choices, but plans are also in the works to exhibit western fossils and gemstones, and to highlight the importance that gold exploration and gold mining had on the development of the province.

In an age of government cutbacks and general fiscal austerity, the GEOCentre will be different, starting with its funding. The development is being financed through private placement, using a Venture Capital Corporation (a provincial incentive to encourage tourism infrastructure). As a result of this form of financing, many of the more traditional mandates and limits of a publicly funded museum or non-profit society may be avoided. Decision making is rapid, staffing flexible and motivation high.

The project's background

The GEOCentre is the evolution of a retail experiment that started in 1991, when owner Phillipa Hudson resigned as Comptroller of Coca Cola Ltd's Victoria office, and started a small outdoor attraction called the Scratch Patch. In a walled garden, she displayed some two tonnes of polished, semi-precious gemstones that visitors could collect, after buying an empty bag. Amethyst, tigereye, agates and jade were just some of the gems that could be found. A new idea to North America, the Scratch Patch was essentially an interactive exercise in high-end beachcombing, with a guarantee of success. Within a month of its opening it had become a hit with locals and tourists alike.

Artist's impression of the new waterfront developmentFigure 1. Artist's impression of the new waterfront development, showing the 130 room hotel on the right, and the 16,000 sq. ft. retail and science centre development left-centre. Georgia Straight behind.

Following on from that, Phillipa introduced a gift store called Mineral World. In its first year, it occupied 1500 square feet of retail space on the waterfront, but within a year it had doubled in size to become an attraction in itself, with large windows, sunny views of Georgia Strait, and unusual and rare natural stone items from around the world.

In 1994 her financial success and creative marketing resulted in her being nominated for a 'Woman of Distinction Award'. Elsewhere, Mineral World was described on CBC Radio as one of the 'ten must-see retail stores in Canada'. Crowds flocked to view what no one else had been able to create - a high end store filled with agate bookends, gemstone trees, soapstone sculptures, onyx chess sets, a wide range of semi-precious jewelry, and much more, all set in a modern and elegant setting.

From the outset, part of the store's drive was to educate the public as to what a remarkable diversity of minerals and gems existed. An informed buyer is a better buyer. Informational cards were prepared on over a hundred different gems and minerals, and are given out daily to anyone interested in finding out more about a particular stone or object.

Phillipa's husband Rick was seconded to give "Doc Rock" lessons to school classes, which became a steady stream during the quieter winter months. Museum displays and interactive exhibits were introduced to illustrate interesting and unusual features. Gold panning became a popular pastime in the Scratch Patch, and a pool full of tropical shells was added, to round out the beachcombing experience.

Architect's model of the retail and science ceter area in the new Port Sidney developmentFigure 2. Architect's model of the retail and science ceter area in the new Port Sidney development. The GEOCentre occupies 7000 sq. ft. in the middle of the flat-roofted building (centre).

In 1997, the Mineral World/Scratch Patch complex had grown as large as it could, within the existing waterfront building. At that point, the Toronto-based property owner approached the Hudsons to ask if they would be interested in creating something "bigger".

Following a series of meetings with tourism consultants, museum architects and planning advisors, Phillipa Hudson went back to the Toronto corporation with an ambitious project. Based on travels to three continents, and visits to over twenty well known museums and science centres, the Hudsons proposed creating an Earth sciences experience that would both educate and entertain.

The evolution of museums

Science centres and their predecessors, museums, have been evolving ever since their inception in the 18th century in Europe. Initial expectations of a museum were that it serve solely as a repository of artifacts to be viewed by the public - essentially 'the stuffed tiger in a glass case' exhibit. This idea of a visible archive dominated the next two centuries (1750-1950), with its zenith being the great Victorian museums of Great Britain.

After the Second World War, however, there was a marked shift away from passive viewing, towards interaction. The 'press-the-button-and-see-what-happens' exhibit was born, notably by German museums, picking up after the ruins of 1945, and starting with fresh ideas. Phase 2 in the evolution of museums had begun.

By the late 1970s, interactivity had reached is peak at such centres as San Francisco's Exploratorium where designers were achieving a very high level of visitor involvement. But while interactivity is well suited to illustrate physics, the life sciences and chemistry struggled to match the new 'button and lever' phase.

In the early 1980s, new forms of multi-media were spilling over from the entertainment world. Disney's EPCOT merged knowledge and entertainment into a new adventure. The third age of museum exhibits had arrived in the form of the 'total experience', with the visitor being swept up in the complete event, not simply punching a button and waiting for something to happen.

Is this what museums are supposed to be doing? The debate will last much longer than the existence of museums themselves. The facts are, however, that with declining public financial support and greater private investment, museums need to adapt or decline.

The GEOCentre

The new GEOCentre of BC is being built against this evolving background. Completion is now scheduled for May 2000. Visitors will enter the centre through a mine elevator that 'drops' them deep into the earth - in reality, they do not move at all - where they emerge into a darkened crystal cavern. Thus begins the traveler's experience, from the bowels of the earth up through the crust and ultimately, to the planets of the solar system.

Along the way, the visitor will be introduced to the basic building blocks of the Earth, followed by the great forces that form and destroy it. The West Coast of the continent is particularly sensitive to its seismic history, so ocean spreading, subduction, vulcanism and tectonics are dealt with in detail.

One of the tour's highlights is a highly interactive earthquake room that is built to resemble closely an ordinary room in an average house. While other museums have re-created seismic events (notably the Japanese supermarket in the Natural History Museum in London, England), the designers at the GEOCentre wanted to involve visitors in a way that would make them experience near-reality. The room is no theatre or abstract area. It is a room much like one they might be in when a seismic shock strikes at home. Over 30 separate mechanical controls operate during the space of an 8 minute cycle, including sliding books, falling vases, dropping rafters and blasts of air.

The development of the province of British Columbia is inextricably linked to the great gold rushes of 1858-98, and these are highlighted as part of the local history. A 20 ft. waterfall drops into a goldpanning creek, and visitors are encouraged to 'catch the fever' by panning for nuggets, which they can keep.

Exciting new fossil finds, both on Vancouver Island and in the Rockies, are featured on the second floor of the centre, and there are plans to re-create a highly interactive fossil dig where children can don goggles and help in the excavation of a find.

While Canada is better known for its northern diamonds and Canadian Shield gemstones, the West Coast is host to most of Canada's jade, and some impressive rhodonite deposits. Large works of art in these two media will be displayed, along with some of the more conventional gemstones.

Finally, reaching beyond our own terrestrial plane, the visitor will get a chance to sense the scope and mystery of space. Meteorites, and their impacts on our planet, are the subject of a major exhibit.

Knowing the market

Sidney-by-the-Sea is a small town of 10,000 people, located half an hour's drive from the provincial capitol, Victoria. How can such a regional site hope to attract the required number of visitors, without recourse to public funds?

Before any effort was put into the development of a science centre, this fundamental question was addressed in considerable detail. In reality, the southern end of Vancouver Island hosts over half a million bus tourists and a million car tourists annually. The provincial ferry services, which carry over 90% of these visitors, create a special set of conditions which limit visitors' access, but provide a form of control that makes a venture like the GEOCentre possible. Creative marketing, minimal administrative overhead, and an innovative retail outlet adjacent to the facility, are what sets this project apart from other similar projects being done today.

About the author.

Rick Hudson holds a B.Sc Engineering from the University of Cape Town and a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge. He has owned a number of hi-tech companies. He is the author of "A field guide to gold, gemstone & mineral sites of British Columbia - Volume I - Vancouver Island". His second in the series, "Volume II - SW British Columbia" is due for release from Orca Book Publishers in early 1999.

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