Once upon a time by the bay

McNeill Bay history being explored in exhibit at Oak Bay municipal hall

University of Victoria grad student Ben Clinton-Baker

University of Victoria grad student Ben Clinton-Baker

It’s part art exhibit, part history lesson.

Chikawich, a display being mounted at the Oak Bay municipal hall starting Monday (Aug. 22), looks at some of the earliest images of one of the community’s most scenic spots: McNeill Bay.

Sponsored by Heritage Oak Bay, the new exhibit uses photographs, artwork and maps to take viewers through the area’s early days.

The emphasis is on some of the area’s first inhabitants.

“What we’re really trying to pay attention to is the pre-colonial era,” said Ben Clinton-Baker, the University of Victoria history grad student who is curating the exhibit.

“That’s been difficult, because not a lot of photos and imagery existed at the time of the First Nations people who lived and traveled in the area.”

However, with a lot of help from the Oak Bay Archives and the Royal B.C. Museum, Clinton-Baker has been able to assemble a display that takes viewers on a trip into the past.

“I find I can stare at these photos for ages and I really get drawn into them,” he said. “It’s kind of unavoidable for me to place myself in the time that the photos were taken and to imagine what it was like.”

It’s point A on a journey which he hopes will eventually lead to a permanent home for Oak Bay’s history.

“We would like to have a permanent gallery or – I hesitate to use the word – museum in the Oak Bay Village,” Clinton-Baker said. “This is kind of a step in that direction. We’re using this temporary exhibit to gauge public interest in the project and hopefully stimulate it more.”

An Oak Bay museum or some form of historical gallery has been a popular topic of discussion for local heritage advocates for some time now.

Now that the exhibit is being mounted, it’s back at the forefront once again.

“This is a test, and we’ll see,” said Jean Sparks, who oversees the Oak Bay Archives on a volunteer basis. “(Establishing a museum) would depend on if we could find a sponsor. You can imagine how much a museum costs.”

At the very least, Clinton-Baker would like to see the municipality make its history more accessible.

“The Oak Bay Archives are understaffed. They do a great job and we would be lost without them. But I’m really hopeful that we will have a full-time paid archivist.”

Chikawich runs weekdays from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the lower level of the Oak Bay municipal hall. Entry is by donation.

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All things McNeill

• The bay was named after William Henry McNeill, a master mariner employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company

• McNeill captained the SS Beaver, which anchored in McNeill Bay — then known as Shoal Bay — in 1843.

• Also on the trip was James Douglas, who founded Fort Victoria.

• McNeill returned in 1850 and built a homestead in Oak Bay, one of the first five estate farms in the area.