The Museum of Vancouver’s City Before The City Exhibit is Blunt but Refreshing

The West Coast “winter” has really hit, meaning that more often than not my weekend days involve chilly, torrential rain. As a result, I have almost no excuses to go visit museums in the Vancouver area. This past week, I visited the Museum of Vancouver, and I wanted to highlight a few powerful panels in their new permanent exhibition that I really appreciated. The curators of c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City willingly acknowledged the damaging colonial past (and present): not just the role of the city in dispossessing Indigenous people of their land but the role that the people employed by the museum have played in furthering damaging narratives.

The panels were refreshingly blunt. Museums have a moral responsibility to combat damaging misinformation and should be able to acknowledge difficult stories of the past and how they continue to impact people in the present. I loved this panel at the doorway to the exhibit, asking visitors to mentally hang their existing misconceptions on this nail to leave them at the door, entering with an open mind.

When you first enter the exhibit, you see arrays of beautiful but practical historical artifacts and videos of modern Indigenous people sharing stories of the objects and their cultural significance. The exhibit did a good job making what could have been relatively sterile artifacts interesting and meaningful. (I have indeed seen many a museum display arrowheads and other archaeological finds in a way that only seems interesting to archaeologists and makes my eyes glaze – and I’m actually interested in the subject.)

Around the back of one of the big signs, not immediately visible upon entry, is this bit, which really struck me as a historian used to casting a critical eye on museum exhibits:

In a fascinating bit of design, this section uses historical artifacts created by anthropologists in a more racist time and displays them in a way that they are obscured by text condemning them. It doesn’t sweep that past under the rug. Instead, it forces the visitor to confront that chapter of 20th century colonialism, in which museums used their academic authority to actively promote the theft of cultural artifacts and ancestral remains, and used them to tell racist narratives and viewpoints (which weren’t even always accepted by professional scientists of the time).

It would be too easy for a museum about the history of a city to call pre-Vancouver history out of scope, but these hard-hitting histories are essential to understanding how the city of Vancouver came to be shaped over time – how it came to be the way it is today. Kudos to the curators and the work that went into consulting with Indigenous peoples and taking steps to do things right, or at least better than before.

If you are in the Vancouver area, particularly if you are a resident, I highly encourage you to visit the museum’s c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City exhibit and its temporary exhibit Haida Now and admire all of the beautiful objects and stories I didn’t have time to write about in this post. Most of these are best experienced in person!

2 thoughts on “The Museum of Vancouver’s City Before The City Exhibit is Blunt but Refreshing

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of December 9, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Kevin J. Baron

    Nice review. Thanks for it.

    Thoughts: I wonder if it isn’t a bit too convenient for an anthropologist to say “we wouldn’t do that anymore”. It could be a little self-serving in that is has the effect of bringing the authorial voice of the experts back: “those bad museum people in the past did naughty things but we present museum people are good. Look, as a token of our goodness we’re willing to criticize our forbearers.” That’s a good first step, I think it’s to be applauded, and it is more than many museums are willing to do. But it’s much more difficult (and brave) to criticize present-day practice in museums (and wider the academy and arts & culture worlds) which, for example includes “heritage resource management” or “compliance archeology” focused on quickly digging up, cataloguing, and warehousing things so that industrial development that happen, or which relies on corporate sponsorship to keep museum doors open.

    But I enjoyed the review, keep up the good work.

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