Even though the Museum of Vancouver is the largest civic museum in the country, much of its collection remains unseen.
“Members of the public will often ask why we don’t have more of the collection available,” notes curator of contemporary culture and director of collections and exhibitions Viviane Gosselin, “and that’s the question for all museums, really. But if we put everything on display, we’d need a museum that was 10 times the size of what we have.”
Since it moved into its current digs in Vanier Park back in 1968, the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) has been home to all manner of historical and cultural artifacts—from Indigenous art, to rescued neon, to fashion and technology from years gone by. But of its collection—some 75,000 items—a mere 10 per cent is visible to the public at any given time. The rest is securely locked within a climate-controlled vault, shelves upon shelves of artifacts—some dating back thousands of years—that are glimpsed by only a select (and lucky) few.
“There are a lot of reasons as to why a large part of the collection isn’t physically accessible,” Gosselin explains. “It’s dense. Everything is under plastic. It’s not as interesting. It’s all covered up. Certain materials are light-sensitive. Like fabric and paper, for example: they need to stay in the dark most of the time, otherwise it deteriorates. We do have small groups that we’ll take through, potential partners and that, but the general public doesn’t get a chance to come in here. We’re not set up for it.”
The MOV’s vault is a vast, warehouse-like room featuring all manner of international and region-specific gems, including Rogers Sugar artifacts, Chinese opera costumes, and even a hotel switchboard. As a testament to the diligence of museum staff, the vault also contains the first item ever given to the facility: a stuffed Trumpeter swan donated back in 1895. But many items are older still, and today—as evidenced by the museum’s extensive taxidermy collection—they range from the dead to the deadly.
“Many of these are still kept in their original cases,” Gosselin says. “It’s not just a chance to look at how they were originally displayed, but it’s also because when people used to do taxidermy, they used a lot of arsenic. In fact, there’s nothing as good as arsenic when it comes to preservation, provided it doesn’t kill you. When we’re handling them today, we use hazmat suits.”
Throughout much of the 1800s and 1900s, museum collections (and the means by which they were acquired) were vastly different than they are today. For much of its history, the Museum of Vancouver gathered artifacts more or less at random, reflecting the tastes of its staff members rather than a unified approach to collecting. In many instances, artifacts were bought or straight-up stolen from Indigenous people. For a period of time, the collection contained a mummified Egyptian child.
Regular purchasing of items had begun back in 1898 under the direction of the Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver (the predecessor to the modern MOV and Planetarium Association, which oversees the enterprise), which had formed four years earlier. Boasting its “taste for the beauties and refinements in life,” the AHSA hosted its premiere exhibition (of “Paintings and Curios”) on Granville Street in 1894, moving around to a number of temporary locations before settling on its own floor of the Carnegie Library in 1905. The museum had more than 10,000 visitors sign its guest book in that first year, showcasing a broad swath of offerings from all over the world and presenting itself as a sort of expanded discovery shop: a way for the layperson to see the world in the days before movies or television. “For a lot of early museum visitors, this stuff would have been a big deal,” Gosselin says. “If they didn’t have the money to travel to Africa, for example, this was the only way they could get a glimpse of it.”
After the city took ownership of the AHSA’s holdings, the Vancouver Museum (as it was then called) was directly overseen by city council, and by 1958, had such an extensive collection that it took over the entire library building. The museum’s current home began as a Canadian centennial project and opened its doors in 1968, following a substantial donation from timber baron H.R. MacMillan (that money financed the Planetarium). In 1972, council took a backseat to the newly-formed Museum and Planetarium Association, allowing the museum to chart its own trajectory for the first time in almost 70 years; a university-trained conservator was hired in 1992.
Today, the mandate of the MOV is more unified and more specific than ever before. In addition to focusing on Vancouver alone (the previous mandate encompassed the entirety of the Lower Mainland), the emphasis today is less on growth, and more on research, respect, and understanding—and sometimes repatriation.
Owing to collection practices common in the 19th and 20th centuries, the museum has a space containing a staggering amount of human remains bought, sold, or traded by Europeans in centuries past. “Collecting human remains from burial sites as part of archaeological excavations was common practice in the late 1800s, even up to the 1940s,” Gosselin says. “It’s disturbing by today’s standards … We’re working closely with Indigenous communities across Canada in repatriating their ancestors.” It is very sensitive work, she emphasizes, adding that the MOV does not want to pressure Indigenous communities to act fast—only when they are ready. “Some communities are very grateful, and so glad we’re returning these things,” she says. “But others will say, ‘We’re glad to know where our ancestors are, but we’re not ready yet.’ It can trigger a lot of anger, trauma, resentment. And rightly so. Beyond the remains, we’re also repatriating poles and other artifacts to nations up and down the coast.” It is easily one of the MOV’s most important ongoing initiatives.
And while a substantial portion of the museum’s physical holdings will remain under lock and key, the digital age allows for a different sort of access. In addition to high-resolution images being scanned by a team from the Google Institute, Gosselin explains, the MOV is slowly digitizing every item in its collection, providing photos and information in an easily-searchable database. “Today, the saving grace is digitization,” she says, grinning. “The public can’t see these pieces in person, but they do have visual access, and all the information online. Now, wherever you are in the world, you can access a museum collection—the collection, and their stories.”
Keep up with our Hidden Vancouver series.