Truths to be Told at the Burnaby Village Museum

The Burnaby Village Museum is currently hosting two feature exhibits which look to showcase two different stories pertaining to B.C.’s South Asian community. Truths not Often Told, curated by Jane Lemke and Anushay Malik, and OVERCASTE, curated by Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra and Anita Lal, are aiming to bring attention to underrepresented and under-discussed stories in British Columbia.

With B.C. Museums week taking place from May 13 to 19, the exhibits mark an opportunity to engage with both the past and present, including challenging truths that audiences stand to learn a great deal from.

“This is a good example of how museums can be such a wonderful conduit for conversation and education in a way that’s so subtle,” says Lemke.

Truths not Often Told is focused on the story of Burnaby’s South Asian communities in the early 1900s. The exhibit tells these stories by documenting the experiences South Asian families were going through at the time. It uses photographs, documents and possessions to support and bring their stories to life in a way that people of all ages can engage with.

Photo by Eric Damer

“I think that was an important part, for me at least,” says Malik. “How academic work should be accessible for everyone. It should be tactile.”

OVERCASTE was developed by The Poetic Justice Foundation. It addresses the presence of caste discrimination in Canada through the stories of people who have experienced it. Like Truths not Often ToldOVERCASTE consists of interactive and visual elements to help museum visitors engage and learn more effectively from the material.

“We need to be able to have a space and a setting to hold these really conflicting conversations and truthful conversations around things like caste-based oppression. The impact and power of museum exhibits are huge,” says Sandhra.

Building an experience

Telling stories like these and educating people about subjects they may not have previously understood or even been aware of are often some of the most prominent and key functions of museums. However, Lemke notes, the task of putting together a comprehensive window into historical events that have not been well-documented can be a a challenge.

“To start, we went into archives and libraries, looked at newspapers, photographs, textual documents and spoke to people in Burnaby to try and find out what the Burnaby South Asian community was like 100 years ago,” says Lemke. “How did they arrive? What were their experiences like? And what we found is that there wasn’t very much to find.”

For various reasons including racism, discrimination, language and cultural barriers, a lot of information about Burnaby’s South Asian community was not recorded in the early 1900s. As such the curators were faced with the challenge of finding another way to unearth and present the stories they were looking for.

“You’re unable to see a particular event from the perspective of South Asians or people of colour, people who don’t have access to English,” says Malik. “The strategies that you would use to look at it from the archive don’t work.”

To develop the exhibit, rather than starting with records and moving forward as would normally be the case, Lemke and Malik started looking into the current state of Burnaby’s South Asian community. Through a variety of outreach efforts, they were able to find stories from families still living in the community and essentially trace them back to the time period they wanted to examine.

From OVERCASTE, at the Burnaby Village Museum. | Photo by Francis Santos

“We began a process of working backwards,” says Lemke. “We started with people that were living today and then tried to find out what they had to contribute, looking back to when they arrived and what they knew when they did arrive.”

Although OVERCASTE’s focus was different, it took a similar approach to building its story. To flesh out its depiction of caste discrimination there was an emphasis on first hand accounts and experiences. That meant that Sandhra and Lal had to reach out to the community to gather the information they needed.

“We went to [Vancouver Island] and interviewed people together, interviewed people here in the Lower Mainland,” says Sandhra. “So our exhibit is really decolonized in that way. We are only looking to the communities’ experiences and opinions as fraught and controversial as they may be. They are the driving force behind the exhibit.”

The sore need for a permanent display

Both exhibits have been on display at the Burnaby Village Museum for over a year now and in that time Malik says they have had a profound impact on many visitors. With both exhibits, the curators highlight that they have seen a lot of young people take interest with the material, something which Malik says she is happy to see as they tried to make each exhibit as accessible as possible for young people.

“The feedback that I got from students and the way that they engaged with it, they got so excited by seeing those stories represented at the museum,” says Malik. “So I think it was really meaningful to students to see that these stories matter.”

However, while these exhibits have impactful stories to tell and important conversations to provoke, they are still temporary and both will be gone within the next year. That means a substantial lack of learning potential for any future generations on these important histories.

As such, while attempts to continue these exhibits and projects like them are in progress, Malik stresses how essential it is to ensure that a designated space exists to tell these kinds of stories, and says that relevant parties must show a much more substantive commitment to preserving and displaying these under-discussed histories.

“It’s always amazing to see the glimmer of potential when we do smaller scale exhibits like this,” says Malik. “But the elephant in the room is that we were promised a museum four years ago by the province, and we have not received s— all.”

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