As the Black Lives Matter movement renews discussions about our understanding of history and the value (or otherwise) of certain statues and memorials, it’s worth paying attention to cultural institutions around the world that manage the difficult job of storytelling through the objects in their care. One of the best, is Canada’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver.
Designed by architect, painter, linguist, and teacher, Arthur Erickson (1924-2009), the first thing you notice about the museum is the way it sits in the landscape. For this alone, it’s well worth making the trek out of Vancouver city to the leafy coastal promontory where the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus is hosted on ancestral Musqueam territory.
Erickson’s trademark play with light and dark suffuses the building. Beneath cedar posts and beams and inspired by the north west’s aboriginal architecture, the museum’s Great Hall presents colossal First Nation sculptures against an immense glass backdrop, revealing beyond the sylvan islands and misted mountains that flank the Salish Sea.
MOA has close relationships with cultural communities in the North West and around the world, allowing innovative joint research and exhibitions. A public and teaching institution, it promotes shared understanding and dialogue. It adopts a multi-disciplinary curatorial approach, actively forging respectful relationships with communities, and presenting its collections according to Indigenous criteria, such as the ceremonial applications of objects or their ownership history. First Nations communities can also borrow the artefacts for their own use.
When I visited last year, the scope of MOA’s work was impressive and very accessible. Shadows, Strings and Other Things, a temporary exhibition on the history and significance of puppetry, sat alongside more than 600 European ceramics, as well as the world’s largest collection of works by Haida artist, Bill Reid. Meanwhile, the Multiversity Galleries display thousands of artefacts created and donated by relatives and ancestors of the communities MOA works with.
As the world responds to Covid-19 and the museum prepares to earthquake-proof the Great Hall this coming autumn, another exhibition Shake Up: Preserving What We Know has explored the intersection of modern earthquake technology with traditional natural disaster knowledge passed down through generations. Such dialogue between culture, arts and science, and between peoples, helps us explore not only what we value and why, but also how to shape the accompanying narrative in a truthful way in changing times – a dialogue more urgent and relevant now than ever.