Though Vancouver has a rich history, this grand museum may be one of it's biggest secrets.
Unbeknownst to many, the historic Gastown building at 142 Water St, now home to the Vancouver Film School (VFS), was once a massive theatrical museum and one of the city's biggest attractions.
The Storyeum was a unique museum that guided visitors through a multi-media and multi-sensory storytelling experience. It had elaborate sets and enthralling performances that told the history of B.C.
Tales of elevators that could hold up to 200 people, an archaic train, a massive mock-ship and town, and an indoor forest are all true. Yet, of all of the museum's marvels, only a few remain.
Though the building is now occupied by VFS, elements of the former Storyeum are still hidden within.
The story of the Storyeum
The Storyeum was built in the early 2000's in Gastown and had a short yet vibrant lifespan. In 2006, the company declared bankruptcy and was forced to permanently close. In 2010 VFS got hold of the space and by 2015 the former museum was remodelled as a campus.
Between the Storyeum and new VFS campus, the building was used for other ventures, like the Aritzia warehouse sale and a furniture store, according to a 2011 article by the Georgia Straight.
The museum hosted several elaborate exhibits, including one called "B.C. Live" which had "seven different sets that occupy 65,000 square feet of underground space take visitors on an exciting trip through 400 years of British Columbia history," describes an online Vancouver travelogue from the late 2000s.
"Twelve actors portray twenty-four different historical characters and interact with the audience as they teach about the First Nations, the arrival of European explorers, the Gold Rush era, and the Confederation," the travelogue website continues.
Hidden Storyeum artifacts
When VFS took over, the majority of the Storyeum was demolished with the exception of a few parts. These pieces remain because they were simply too expensive to remove. Some parts of the Storyeum, however, remain as scars rather than objects; whether it's the history of a seemingly ordinary room or a marking in the ceiling.
Though the entirety of the upper floor of VFS was remade, leaving barely any trace of the Storyeum behind, there are two twin lecture rooms that mirror each other. Together, they form a huge circle. It isn't a coincidence that the lecture rooms take on the same shape as one of the museum's two 200-person elevators; it's because that is what they are.
The Storyeum had two spacious elevators; one at the start of the walk-through exhibit at Cordova Street, taking visitors down to the displays, and one at the end, returning visitors to street level at Water Street via a five-minute ascent that also had a 360-degree presentation.
On the top floor, the elevator at Cordova Street was turned into the twin lecture rooms. On the bottom floor, where leftovers of the Storyeum are more visible, the elevator shaft was split in half and now serves as a massive green screen for VFS students. The room uses the straight edge for behind-the-scenes setup and the curved edge as a seamless green screen.
The elevator at Water Street was remade into a camera gear rental space for VFS students on the first floor and the bottom half of the shaft was removed to make space for storing and making studio props.
"Ancient Trails" set
Near the start of the Storyeum exhibit was a set dedicated to B.C.'s Tsleil-Waututh nation before European settlers arrived. The set included a spacious indoor forest and an even bigger Indigenous longhouse.
Dubbed the "rainforest" by VFS students and staff, nearly the entire forest set remains intact. Fake boulders, shrubs, and tall trees line the walls and ledges where actors would stand can be seen etched into the rock walls.
The "rainforest" display leads into what once was a giant Indigenous longhouse with four thick poles depicting supporting trees or logs. Though the poles are now painted grey, tree-esque knobs can still be seen carved into them.
Now, the longhouse is used for other purposes and, on the opposite side of the "rainforest," a ramp leads to a space for storing and making set props. The storage room was the Storyeum parkade and has remained entirely intact, including the clearance markings near the top.
The Storyeum ship
Storyeum visitors would then be guided into the next set depicting first contact between European explorers and native Indigenous peoples. What remains of this space is an area with wooden planks lining the wall, supposedly the inside of a ship hull.
In the days of the Storyeum this wooden area would lead into a vast room with a ship and water. Now it leads into the Beyond Capture studio where motion capture filming, including stunts and game-play, takes place.
Beyond Capture shares the 32,000 cb. ft. studio with VFS in a partnership that lets the two organizations support each other with commercial and educational resources.
Now a classroom with a lecture area on the left and a hands-on practice space on the right, Studio 9 was once a replica of a town called Barkerville which was a B.C. destination during the gold rush.
The former exhibit was actually much bigger than the current room. With a church, a main street, and actors disguised as civilians, the Barkerville exhibit spanned across several rooms adjacent to Studio 9.
When VFS took over, the large room had to be split up into smaller rooms.
Continuing along the same corridor, a set of doors at the end will lead into an even bigger enormous room. Between a studio space to the left and a lecture setup to the right, a huge antique locomotive is tucked away in the far centre corner. The railway on which it sits is still intact, trailing across the room to the left.
The train is a replica of a Canadian Pacific Railway engine that is built to 88 per cent scale of the real thing, according to the online Vancouver travelogue. A VFS representative explains that this room was a train station depicting "the boys coming back from the war."
The train "used to be on a big cable and would roll in," they add.
This room is seemingly the end of the Storyeum tour and here visitors would enter the elevator and exit at Water Street.