THERE are spaces inside this nondescript industrial warehouse where treasures might be waiting, behind a stack of unopened file boxes or slipped in against the side of a motor.
It's hard to see to the back of some alcoves, packed with the detritus of the past. A large cardboard Santa from someone's long-ago office leans backwards tiredly. The dark shape of an old printing press crouches in dim light.
There's about 4,000 square feet on the main floor of the warehouse leased by the North Vancouver Museum in an industrial area of the district, plus at least a further 2,000 square feet on an upper mezzanine floor. And the warehouse is packed with stuff - large wagon wheels, a bilge pump from a ferry, old TVs and radios, a collection of doorknobs and wood planers. Furniture sits draped in white dust covers.
"One of our big challenges is just getting into the space," says Magdalena Moore, collection manager for the museum.
There are switchboards, washers and children's porcelain dolls. Shelves of trophies and biscuit tins.
Museum staff estimates there are about 20,000 artifacts in their collection. But that's just a guess, says Moore. "We've found a number of things not previously recorded."
Staff including Moore and collection co-ordinator Luc Desmarais sometimes find themselves challenged to answer the most basic questions about the items they discover: "What is it and do we own it?"
Among artifacts of obvious value - handmade skis used by early mountaineers, for instance - are others that can best be described as unusual. One - known by staff as "the souvenir" - is a lichen collected by schoolchildren as they hiked to the Lynn Valley zinc mine in 1924, with the route map of their hike and their names drawn on it.
Then there are the teeth. "The first time I opened a box that was full of false teeth I was surprised," says Moore. Among the decisions being made by the museum about what to keep and what to get rid of from the collection, the teeth are definitely on the "going" list.
Other decisions may be more difficult. "People have strong feelings about objects and what they mean," says Moore.
Over the next three years the majority of artifacts stored here will be going too, taken out of the warehouse and sold at public auction.
Six months ago, the museum started on a three-year, $493,000 project to go through the collection and get rid of things deemed no longer useful. Starting this month, the museum at Presentation House is closed to the public, except by appointment, so staff can focus on the task. When they finish, they hope the artifacts that remain will have more to say about North Vancouver and how the community has grown and changed over the years. The target is to get down to about 8,000 artifacts. That requires getting rid of about 12,000.
The less there is to store and look after, the more those items can be used, says Nancy Kirkpatrick, director of the museum and archives. "We want to get the collection out," she says. "There's no point having it stored for 40 years in a warehouse."
The eventual hope is the leaner and more relevant collection will be housed in a new museum on North Vancouver's waterfront - a project estimated at $9 million, currently being studied for feasibility.
Since the collection clean-up process started, more than 700 items of minimal value and significance have already been approved for sale at public auction next month. Among those on a recent list this month: switches, sockets, insulator tubes, an ashtray, a stuffed woodpecker and a ceramic frog.
The first choice is always to transfer an artifact to another museum - often one that specializes in a particular field. The stuffed woodpecker - along with 55 other stuffed birds - is being formally transferred to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia.
"We're looking forward to getting rid of things that are big, bulky and not in great condition," says Kirkpatrick. Likely in that category are Canada Post mailboxes from the 1970s, dental office furniture, and many motors that ran equipment in the shipyards.
The biggest of these is a massive tugboat engine from the MV Reliant, a dark green 11-tonne behemoth, acquired when there was a push to create a national maritime museum. "Apparently it was a big production to get it in here," says Moore, noting the process involved a crane.
But now, says Kirkpatrick, it's time to ask hard questions, like, "How much space do we have? How much interpretative value is in a motor if it's not actually going to be hooked up and running anything?"
Jettisoning the past can be a touchy subject. It also costs money to go through the collection, sort it and make decisions. Of the total budget for the project, $250,000 is coming from the two North Shore municipalities. "Many museums would love to be able to get rid of thousands of things," says Kirkpatrick.
Like other small museums, the North Vancouver collection was built around the passions of its founder Bill Baker, who started the first museum in 1972 and ran it for the next 20 years.
It was a time when a lot of museums were created, spurred by federal grants to mark the 1967 centennial.
Baker had no training in museum curatorship, but he had a passion for North Vancouver and was a "voracious collector," says Kirkpatrick. "He would go to swap meets and trade things with collectors, and ask people before they threw things out to bring them into the museum. It was one way to build a collection in a short period of time if you didn't have any money to buy anything."
Baker's son, Morley Baker, remembers his father as a man always connected to the past. "He lived in another era," says Baker.
"We couldn't drive past a swap meet or an antique store as a kid. My early recollection as a kid going out with my dad on Saturday was to an old junk store down at the bottom of Lonsdale. Dad would go in and rummage around."
In their rambling North Vancouver home, "More than half the house was filled with his collections," says Baker. There was a full horse-drawn sleigh and wagon in the basement.
Baker pursued the politicians of the day to start a North Vancouver museum and promptly became its first director, earning about $5,000 a year. The museum started out in the Pacific Great Eastern railway station, which was moved to Mahon Park. But the collection soon outgrew the building.
Baker's dream was to one day create a heritage village that people could walk through and observe scenes of life in the early part of the century. He collected everything from logging equipment to early washing machines - but often they weren't from North Vancouver. "The way museums collect now is quite different," says Kirkpatrick.
In 1976, the museum moved to its current home at Presentation House. By the late 1980s, Baker had also secured the warehouse to house the growing collection.
Morley Baker says he's not sure what spurred his father's interest in collecting. "He hated to see a loss, the things he was familiar with disappear," says Baker. "I guess he saw it changing quite rapidly."
The sentiment wasn't unusual, says Kirkpatrick. At the time many museums started, there was a feeling, "If we don't take this, it'll disappear and then we'll lose our history."
But she says that's not really the case. Many private collectors keep artifacts. Museums share objects from their collections. "Each museum doesn't have to have one of every single thing," she says.
After the shipyards closed in the early 1990s, there was another museum director and another focus - this time on shipbuilding and maritime history, in anticipation of a national maritime museum being created. "They grabbed everything," says Moore, from shipbuilding tools to office supplies.
"We have patterns for rudders and all kinds of different things," says Desmarais. Many of those objects still haven't been sorted.
By the time the idea of a maritime museum was finally mothballed in 2010 due to lack of money, it was well past time to consider the collection in a more critical light, says Kirkpatrick.
There are practical reasons to pare down the collection. Currently it costs about $100,000 annually to store and take care of the 20,000 artifacts - many of which aren't well documented or of good quality.
Philosophically, museums today are less about "stuff" and more about the stories those objects tell.
"We're much more interested in using an artifact to start a conversation about something that's important to the community than talking about how it was made," says Kirkpatrick.
In recent years, museum staff has come up with criteria to judge objects both when acquiring and getting rid of them. "We think about how was it significant," says Kirkpatrick.
Recently the museum was given a wedding dress from a member of the Fromme family. "It's an important artifact for us because it's associated with an important family," says Kirkpatrick. "If we were just given a wedding dress and we didn't know anything about it and didn't have pictures of anybody wearing it or know if it came from North Vancouver, we wouldn't just take it."
Significance is not always obvious or "comes with bells and whistles," says Moore.
Among the cameras on a shelf in warehouse's mezzanine level is a small one the size of today's point-and-shoots. It was owned by Fred Williams, an early member of the B.C. Mountaineering Club and taken on many of his ascents into local mountains. Another gem is the ice axe used in the first ascent of Mount Garibaldi.
Because outdoor recreation has been such a big part of the community, it's an area museum staff is hoping to build as they sort through the collection. Another probable keeper is a chair from Mount Seymour's Mystery Peak chairlift, in place for 35 years and replaced with more modern equipment last year. So is a large sign from recently closed Lynnwood Pub, which arrived when the iconic hotel closed last month. "They have a strong resonance for people that a lot of other things don't," says Moore.
There's a baby Jolly Jumper - a device beloved of parents around the world first invented by Olivia Poole, a mother of seven who eventually settled in North Vancouver and who first patented and manufactured Jolly Jumpers here.
One of the strangest items likely to escape the cull is a sad little taxidermied bear cub - his mouth pulled back into a grimace - that acted as a lamp stand in the original Grouse Mountain chalet. "There's a huge ick factor," Kirkpatrick acknowledges. But the bear cub will probably stay, "Because of where it came from and what it tells us about how we used to relate to the environment."
Before most objects are disposed of, staff must go through a formal process of documenting them. "I can't just say, 'I don't like that thing,'" says Moore.
Lower value items can be jettisoned more quickly. So can anything dangerous.
Many old bottles that came from McDowell's Drug Store, North Vancouver's oldest pharmacy, and from other drug stores, for instance, were still full of powders and liquids when they were handed over. Mysterious elixirs labelled with ingredients including opium, lead, strychnine and heroin were among them. Museum staff eventually called in hazardous materials experts to dispose of them.
Staff does try to tell donors - or their heirs - about the decision to get rid of things. For the most part, "They've been understanding of our reasons" says Moore.
Museums don't give artifacts back.
"You can't return it to them, because it's municipal property," says Kirkpatrick. "Anyone who donates something now, we're very upfront with them. We can't promise to always keep it. If that's problematic, don't give it to us."
Artifacts don't have to be old or connected to the long-ago past to be relevant. These days, there is a broader view of history that encompasses the present and also a broader sense of the community.
"For a long time, (history has) taken the view of the settler, who founded North Vancouver, who hacked the trees down and built the community," says Kirkpatrick.
But not anymore. One project the museum is launching is an oral history project aimed at capturing the voices of first-generation Iranian immigrants to North Vancouver. "You walk up and down Lonsdale and you can see it and feel it but there's almost nothing in our collection about the importance of that community," says Kirkpatrick.
Museums are not solely focused on the past, she says, but on interpreting the community to itself.
"We ask ourselves all the time: Is it relevant? What does it mean to us today? Why should anyone care about this?"
"Our whole gaze has changed."