“Unbelievable”: a look at Vancouver’s history for Canada’s 150th anniversary

A carved alder bird mask depicting smallpox | Photo courtesy of Museum of Vancouver Collection

Vanier Park is home to Unbelievable, the Museum of Vancouver’s latest exhibit. Current trending ideas about fake news in a post-truth world inspired the idea for the MOV’s newest exhibition, which runs June 24–Sept. 24. 

Ironically, B.C. wasn’t even part of Canada 150 years ago,” says Gregory Dreicer, Director of Curatorial and Engagement.

B.C. was the sixth province to join Confederation on July 20, 1871. Dreicer focuses on how stories are told, how they are perceived and how this relates to national identities.

The stage is set

Gregory Dreicer, Director of Curatorial and Engagement for the Museum of Vancouver. | Photo courtesy of Museum of Vancouver

Of the 110 pieces showcased from MOV’s 75,000-piece collection, the Stanley Park Thunderbird Totem is one of the largest. Originally located at Lumberman’s Arch, in 1962 it was moved to Brockton Point. The house-post totem was carved by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Charlie James in the early 1900s and later appeared in the controversial 1914 film In the Land of the Head Hunters by filmmaker Edward Curtis. The totem was moved to MOV in the 80s, as Tony Hunt carved a replica in 1987.

Sharon M. Fortney, associate curator, spearheaded the First Nations consultations. Fortney has Klahoose (Northern Coast Salish) and German heritage. Upon talking with the Kwakwaka’wakw cultural center about displaying the pole in the exhibit, Dreicer commented that their reaction was extremely positive about the MOV telling these stories.

Hannah Turner, contributing guest curator from SFU, establishes that the storied symbols, iconic artifacts and odd objects were thoroughly researched to give the audience a complex and diverse perspective to rethink established perceptions. With this diverse team assisted by HCMA Architecture and Design, the Unbelievable exhibit came to fruition in four months.

Other iconic artifacts include the original ‘R’ from the Ridge Theatre sign, whose story discusses the origins evolution and transformation through time. Also on display is the full-scale bronze-cast model of Stanley Park’s notable Girl in a Wetsuit, which Turner says many think is a mermaid. A variety of explorations look at local history unearthing backgrounds based on contrived stories versus original concepts.

The backstory

Pauline Johnson’s dress. | Photo courtesy of Johnson, Pauline (Estate)

For a long time, I’ve been focusing on stories or historiography – why we tell the stories we do about ourselves and our communities. Story equals community,” says Dreicer.

He says that while ideas of inclusion and exclusion have plagued humans within communities for a long time, the exhibit looks at how current culture engages this concept within perceived belief systems.

“There are always two stories to something and multiple ways to look at it,” says Turner.

Turner alludes to the idea that there seems to be this increasing trend in museums to consider the object not just at face value but to dig deeper for the origins of the object’s contextual history as witnessed at the Smithsonian’s Objects of Wonder.

Dreicer and Turner discuss how the process for the exhibit unearthed a variety of truths behind Vancouver’s past, which complicate today’s believed realities. They said that like current trends in truth seeking, finding the whole story of an artifact became challenging at times.

They said the smallpox mask, for example, has been something of a mystery. Its bumps may represent smallpox; it might have been used in a healing ceremony. Based on stylistic traits, the museum identified it as Tsimshian, but it is not known how the mask came to the museum (before 1940).

The MOV curators concur the exhibition is about thinking critically and reflecting. At its roots, it becomes a foundation to start a conversation within communities and outside into the bigger world.

“These stories shape the way that we are brought together in communities and possibly the way we are pulled apart,” Turner says.

For more information, please visit www.museumofvancouver.ca.