Friday, 7 July 2017

Masterworks at Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology

On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Destination British Columbia (HelloBC.com) and Tourism Vancouver.

I've been to Vancouver three times, but never before made the minor trek out to the University of BC campus for the Museum of Anthropology. The recent opening of its Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks prompted me to finally get there, and I'm very glad I did.

The museum itself is excellent. Its focus is on works created by the First Nations peoples of Canada, particularly those of British Columbia. Thus the entrance leads down a ramp to a big airy space containing totem poles and other large carved pieces.

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On a sunny Sunday, with natural light illuminating the room, it was an impressive place to be; far removed from the stereotypical austere museum space.

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This central hall leads to several smaller rooms with various exhibitions. One of the most interesting to me contained a single work by the late Bill Reid. This big timber sculpture depicts a creation myth of the region, in which the raven discovers mankind within a clamshell and lets them out (reminding me of the legend of Pandora's Box!).

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My favourite room was the new gallery, which has a very clever and specific idea behind its set-up.

During the colonial years of the 19th century, as traditional cultural practices were disrupted, many First Nations artworks were acquired by private collectors and public institutions such as museums.

Over a century later, the provenance and precise significance of such objects has often been lost. So in this gallery, First Nations artists of today comment on these objects from the past, using their knowledge of both craft and culture to shine a light on each item's construction and meaning.

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It's a brilliant concept, which breathes life into what could otherwise seem dusty museum pieces. The artists' commentary, both in written form and audio, is warm and inclusive, often illustrated with personal stories which add context. You can literally feel the emotion these pieces spark within their creative desendants, and that's a marvellous thing to be able to share in.

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It's also respectful to the current-day First Nations people of BC, a reminder that they are survivors and their culture has endured. I'd love to see this approach used in every museum where indigenous cultures are featured.

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I know in my own city, Museums Victoria worked with the people of the Kulin Nation in the set-up of the Bunjilaka section of Melbourne Museum, which is devoted to Indigenous culture. Perhaps even more can be done to bring forth the voices of creation from past and present.

The Museum of Anthropology is located at 6393 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver. Check out its website for admission fees and opening hours.