Acclaimed Vancouver museum has a new face

Snow or no, one of Vancouver's iconic visitor attractions will re-open in time for the Olympic games. The Museum of Anthropology has knockout displays of Northwest Coast native cultures.
Crosscut archive image.

The Dancers of Damelahmid will perform at the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

Snow or no, one of Vancouver's iconic visitor attractions will re-open in time for the Olympic games. The Museum of Anthropology has knockout displays of Northwest Coast native cultures.

Vancouver's acclaimed Museum of Anthropology, long known for its magnificent totem poles, has added a whole lot more, and shows its new face to the public this weekend, just in time for Olympic visitors, regardless of the snow pack.

The museum at the University of British Columbia has been crafting its new face for three years, expanding by 50 percent and adding new dimensions to one of the Pacific Northwest's premier cultural showcases. The museum is a masterwork of Vancouver's celebrated architect, Arthur Erickson, and is one of his most admired works. A formal launch of the new museum at 10 am Saturday begins three days of free admission to the public; hours are Saturday 10 am to midnight, Sunday 10 am to 5 pm and Tuesday, 7 pm to 9 pm. (The museum closes on Mondays.)

Totem poles continue to dominate the museum's Great Hall overlooking English Bay, and the culture of Northwest indigenous people still makes up the core of the museum. But much of the $55 million expansion and remodeling has gone into advancing the museum into other native cultures. The new Audain Gallery, a 5,800 square foot exhibition hall, allows the museum to bring major performance groups and exhibitions to the museum. One of the region's premier First Nations ensembles, the Dancers of Damelahamid, a traditional Gitksan dance group, will perform at Saturday afternoon's opening, and will co-host a First Nations Dance Festival on Feb. 1, including performances at the museum.

Because the museum is associated with the University of British Columbia, it has always had a serious research component, and the expanded facility will link to other research museums and communities. The museum will also provide greater access to materials for local researchers. A new oral-history suite is part of the new emphasis on community research.

Previous visitors to the museum will be pleased to learn that cultural artifacts are housed in entirely new cabinets, over 100 cases of glass and steel that can be opened by visitors. My wife and I had not visited since the renovation began, and immediately noticed the contrast of new cases with the dreary old cabinets of earlier times.

Sixteen percent of museum objects are still from the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, including the dominant Haida artifacts that greet visitors as they enter, and they remain the images that linger with a visitor from Washington state.

The museum dates to 1949, when it opened in the basement of UBC's library, where it lived until its move in 1976 into its current home across NW Marine Drive from the university's main campus. It is Canada's largest teaching museum; when we visited this week, a clutch of grade-schoolers was seated at the foot of a massive totem pole, hearing stories of the culture that created the artifacts

During renovation and expansion, the museum remained open except for six months in 2009, and museum workers were still scrambling to label and place many of their new exhibits this week. But such acclaimed exhibits as "The Raven and the First Men" and other masterworks by Haida artist Bill Reid, will greet visitors for the first time in many months. New to the public are an expanded gift shop and new cafe.

Major exhibitions are still being arranged for the new quarters, but the opening weekend will inaugurate "Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures", which the museum describes as the work of 12 artists who "use the idea of a border space to raise questions about migration and identity, knowledge protection and access, and the permeability and construction of boundaries cross-culturally." The exhibition formally opens Tuesday night at 7 pm with performances by two of the artists, and runs until Sept. 12. Artists work in a variety of contemporary media.

Lena Sin, reviewing the renovated museum for The Province, found "a more immersive experience for visitors. Many of its labs are now living displays themselves, with glass walls that allow visitors to watch anthropologists at work."

The museum's collection is among the major anthropological collections in North America. The web site states, "MOA houses some 36,000 ethnographic objects, as well as 535,000 archaeological objects under the care of UBC's Laboratory of Archaeology. The ethnographic materials derive from many parts of the world, including the South Pacific, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. There are approximately 6,000 objects from B.C.'s First Nations in the museum's collections; we also house 5,000 textiles from around the world, 3,500 coins, and 4,400 works on paper/made of paper."

Nothing we saw in a quick tour of exhibits (truncated when a museum worker found we had wandered into a "wait until Saturday" zone) rivaled the poles, but there was so much more than before, better housed, and with new ways for the public to relate to the exhibits. Long after the snow is gone from the 2010 Olympics, this will remain as an article of pride for the Olympics city.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.