Vancouver is not a new city, and a series of exhibitions titled c’əsnaʔəm, the city before the city seeks to challenge this misconception about a region that has been occupied for 9,000 years. The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) is one of three sites that seek to fill in this gap of historical and cultural knowledge by sharing the stories and perspectives of the Musqueam people and their past and present connections to the ancient city of c’əsnaʔəm, an area of land located in South Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood.
Although many Vancouverites do not know this area as c’əsnaʔəm, it was once one of the largest ancient villages and burial sites of the Musqueam people. It was first occupied approximately 5,000 years ago and generations of Musqueam families have lived here since.
“There is a very long history,” says Jordan Wilson, co-curator of MOA and a member of the Musqueam community. “Musqueam are still here and it is a very strong community.”
Wilson explains that there was an ongoing conversation about what the exhibition at MOA should focus on, as the other two exhibition sites (the Museum of Vancouver and the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and Gallery) were featuring artifacts, or belongings of the Musqueam. He feels c’əsnaʔəm is about much more than the materials and belongings that were removed from it.
“The exhibition at MOA is distinct in that there aren’t any artifacts. The focus is on the intangible,” says Wilson.
In this case, the intangible that he refers to is the voices of the Musqueam community and their ways of seeing the world. Susan Rowley, co-curator of MOA, explains that they wanted visitors to gain an understanding of c’əsnaʔəm through the words of the community members. These personal statements about c’əsnaʔəm are presented through text, audio, and video.
“We wanted the text for the exhibition to be authored by the people and to make a connection with people,” says Rowley. “We felt the words contained the personality of the authors.”
Gathering together to share and learn
One of the museum’s exhibits, called Gathered Together, invites visitors to enter a room set up as a kitchen and listen to an audio recording that shares a conversation between several Musqueam members. It includes a statement by Larissa Grant that reflects on the significance of the kitchen gathering as a way of teaching and learning: ‘If you have the opportunity to sit and listen to somebody that has knowledge to pass on, don’t ever pass up that opportunity because you never know when that opportunity will be gone.’
Rowley remarks how generous the Musqueam have been in sharing their worldview and value systems. She hopes the exhibition encourages visitors to think about their own value systems.
The museum also includes a display of press clippings that highlight recent efforts by Musqueam First Nation to protect the ancient territory and burial grounds of c’əsnaʔəm when it was threatened by possible construction of a new condo development. In October 2013, the Musqueam community paid millions of dollars to purchase and protect the land.
According to Rowley, many people in Vancouver supported the community’s protests and actions to preserve c’əsnaʔəm and wanted to learn more about the Musqueam. For Wilson, the exhibition has been a significant and special opportunity for his community to share their history and who they are in their own words.
“I think people were excited to share,” says Wilson. “And I think Vancouverites have a growing desire to know more.”
For more information, please visit www.thecitybeforethecity.com.