Unbelievable, A Provocative Exhibition About Stories, Opens at the Museum of Vancouver

A carved wooden bear with open jaws. Collected at Nootka Sound by Midshipman Thomas Dobson on HMS “Discovery” under Captain George Vancouver 1791-1795.

Whether you’re a visitor to Vancouver or a long-time resident, we often conceive of the city through stories, symbols, and purported truths. In our own way, we ponder what Vancouver is, what its history is, and what our place is within these narratives.

The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) has taken these questions, delved into their vaults, and created a new, provocative exhibition that allows visitors to explore and consider the many threads of perception that make-up this vibrant and diverse city.

Unbelievable launches this weekend on June 24, 2017 and runs until September 24, 2017 at MOV (1100 Chestnut Street). In this post-truth, post-fact era, Gregory Dreicer, MOV’s Director of Curatorial and Engagement, wanted to put together an exhibition that played with believability in relation to Vancouver.

Found within the exhibition space are displays of objects, artifacts, and replicas–many iconic–that tell different stories about the city. For those from Vancouver, some will invoke nostalgia and memories, and others are globally known symbols of this place.

Many of these artifacts consider the Lower Mainland’s First Nations communities and the complex, painful, and resilient stories of these objects. The first artifact visitors will encounter is the Thunderbird totem pole, originally commissioned by Chief Tsa-wee-kok for his Gway’i/Kingcome Inlet home. Since it was carved by Yakuglas (Charlie James), the pole has been used in a controversial 1914 film (In the Land of the Head Hunters by Edward Curtis), recarved for Stanley Park, and been replicated countless times. The fact that it is not actually representative of local Coast Salish carving has been lost in this history.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

There’s also a fascinating (and disturbing) smallpox mask, probably used for healing, which was later appropriated by a White imperialist group, the Native Sons of British Columbia; as well as an outfit of Pauline Johnson, a part English and part Mohawk writer, who wore a stylized “Native” dress as she performed for White audiences and their expectations. A printing press used by missionaries, as well as crafts produced at residential school examine attempted assimilation and cultural survival.

A carved alder bird mask depicting smallpox with an articulated beak that is activated by the wearer with a lever. It has a built-in bent wood harness to support the shoulders.

Museum of Vancouver Collection

Other well-known Vancouver objects also make an appearance, like the original “R” from “The Ridge” sign, which was the beacon for a popular theatre and shopping/entertainment complex in the city. The complex has been torn down and replaced by condos and a grocery store. A replica sign now adorns the top, getting visitors to think about Vancouver’s various eras and the ways in which the past gets memorialized.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Girl in a Wet Suit can be found in Stanley Park and is a local rendition of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. A full-scale bronze cast model appears in the exhibition, questioning what makes something a unique symbol of Vancouver. There is also a lion statue, the lion being representative of the Lions Gate Bridge and British colonialism. Other artifacts showcase and examine the city’s evolving diversity (eg the future of Vancouver’s Chinatown).

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Proponents and detractors of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics will enjoy the inclusion of a Quatchi costume, contrasted against a mock version called Squatchi that became the mascot of protestors.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Together, Unbelievable shows visitors that Vancouver isn’t made of just one story or one version of history. Instead, it is an interactive, evolving, and often conflicting set of narratives and perceptions.

The exhibition is intended to be thought provoking–and it is. Visitors will find themselves questioning their assumptions as they look at each object. They’ll also be invited to engage in the interactive components of Unbelievable. For example, they’ll be asked to write suggestions on sticky notes for new Vancouver symbols.

Ultimately, you’ll be provided with more questions than answers, so that, hopefully, you can continue this line of inquiry as you leave the exhibition and continue to get to know the city and its many places, people, and symbols.

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