Museum of Vancouver

Story: Emily Friesen
Photography: Emily Friesen
Monday, May 6, 2019

Tucked away from hustle and bustle of the downtown core, the Museum of Vancouver (MoV) is located in picturesque Vanier Park, Kitsilano. Located on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nations, the iconic white roof was designed to reflect the woven cedar hat worn by some First Nations groups. If it also looks like a planetarium dome, that was quite on purpose- the H.R MacMillan Space Center also shares the building.

The MoV is separated into two areas, two temporary exhibitions and their permanent Ugly Vancouver sit on the right side of the entrance, while c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city (2020) and their permanent 20th Century history galleries are towards the right. Currently on display are Haida Now (April 2020), and Wild Things (September 2019). They have done many fabulous temporary exhibitions in the past: The Happy Show (2015) by Stefan Sagmeister, and Unbelievable: Secret, Rare & Amazing Treasures (2017). Unbelievable was one of the best narrative exhibitions I’ve ever seen; they presented objects in their collection with little-to-no provenance, highlighting what little we understand about the stories of our community.

Haida Now was co-curated with guest curators from the Haida Nation, using the Haida collection at the MoV. This exhibition was created in the spirit of reconciliation, continuing a decolonized museum practice. The artwork displayed were a stunning example of Haida craftsmanship and artistry, similar to what you could see at the Bill Reid Gallery, or Vancouver Art Gallery. Each object title was bilingual and narrative led object labels- a third person account of the Haida people’s perspective telling the visitor the meaning of their objects. The use of story was a brilliant interpretive device to connect the visitor with the objects on display; not only did the stories inform the visitor of an interesting fact or idea about the object, the personal connections that make me care. I became invested in the information in a more genuine way. The exhibit also had a living room adorned with contemporary first nation art in the form of blankets, pillows, books, and prints. Visitors were invited to sit on the comfortable sofas, a way of connecting the past and present in an informal and personal space. The final gallery was a series of video screens on a wall around three small pieces totem poles that were reclaimed. The resistance, strength and determination of the Haida People in fighting for and preserving their culture was shared through video and audio interviews on the screens. Haida Now showcases exquisite artwork by talented artists, but the gem of the collection is the Haida People who inform the interpretation around their work and how they chose to share it with the world.

Wild Things was an investigation into the role we have with nature in urban spaces. Stuffed predators like wolves, cougars, and bears are placed high on display in a darkened room, evoking a playfully freighting atmosphere- they’re always there watching you. The second half of the exhibition explores issues like water, ecological relationships, and the fear of the unknown in nature with an ethical perspective. What the visitor may not have realized -save for a few small panels labeling the materials of the object it’s placed on- is that everything constructed was using recycled materials, hoping to create a circular economy. Read more in this blog here:

Also in that section of the gallery is Ugly Vancouver, a permanent exhibition displaying a small portion of Vancouver’s neon signs. Long before I was born, Vancouver had a problem with neon signs. Angry letters were written and people (probably) shook their fists (unconfirmed) at business owner and their aggressive storefront marketing. All throughout the Downtown core, everything from tailors to drugstores had bright and buzzing signs, to the point where the City of Vancouver had to step in and enforce some regulations on neon signs. Hearing the lyric in ‘Life is a Highway’ by Tom Cochrane referring to ‘Vancouver’s Lights’- visible at the time he wrote this song- makes much, much more sense now. Today, neon lights are limited to the theatre district, along Granville Street.

On the other half of the museum, you enter the 20th century galleries through c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city. Beginning as a three-part exhibit between the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and the Musequeam Cultural Centre, c̓əsnaʔəm critically reflects on the museum’s early practice and collection of the ‘Great Fraser Midden’ and ‘Marpole Midden’, the historic Musqueam village of c̓əsnaʔəm. Early archaeologists excavated the site taking over a thousand artefacts then displaying them in the museum. As the MoV website states, “The museum constructed a story about Vancouver’s past that distanced and excluded the Musqueam, viewing the village as an ancient forerunner to the City of Vancouver instead of as a place of ongoing significance to Musqueam.” This exhibit opened in 2015 and I have written at least three school papers on how ground-breaking it was, and it’s still just as exceptional today.

The 20th century history galleries follow, broken up into: Gateway to the Pacific (1900-1920), Boom, Bust, and War (1930-1940), Vancouver in the Fifties, and, You Say You Want A Revolution (1960-1970). These galleries are intertwined in an experiential timeline, with recreated streets and shops, giving the visitor a taster of every day life in each era. Don’t miss the section on transportation in the 20s, I say, having worked at a tram museum and love shamelessly plugging tram history. Also of note is the case about the Asahi Baseball Team, a hugely successful Japanese-Canadian team from Vancouver wining a number of championships, until the entire team was interned and forcibly removed from the city during the Second World War. This is also the feature of the new Heritage Minute, if you feel like drowning in your feelings today:

My visit back at home was unfortunately a short one, so I’ll be unable to see their new exhibit opening April 5th, There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Day Schools (2020). I was lucky to take a class with Dr. Andrea Walsh, curator of this exhibition, during my Bachelors in Anthropology at the University of Victoria and even work with part of the collection that’s related to this exhibition. There is Truth Here began at the Kelowna Art Gallery and the Legacy Gallery in Victoria, and promises to be incredibly powerful, emotional, and personal. These paintings were created by the students at different Residential Schools across the country; some of these painting are the only surviving items from their childhood.

So please, if anyone in Vancouver has a chance to see There is Truth Here, I’d love to hear your opinions about it. The Museum of Vancouver is a fabulous way to discover the history of the city in dynamic, powerful, and entertaining displays. I am continually impressed and amazed with this museum and the way it challenges the visitors to think twice about this beautiful city, this country, and expand your frame of mind in ways you never thought possible.

Website: Location:
1100 Chestnut Street
Vanier Park, Kitsilano
Vancouver BC, V6J 3J9

Sunday-Wednesday: 10-5
Thursday: 10-8
Friday-Saturday 10-9

Adult: $20.50
Student: $17.25 (requires valid student ID)
Senior: $17.25 (age 65+)
Youth: $13.75 (ages 12-18)
Child: $9.75 (ages 5-11)
*Last Thursday of every month, 5-8pm is pay-what-you-can.

Bio: Emily Friesen is an Interpretation Assistant working in Exhibition Design and writes for her own blog, Exhibits Etcetera ( She completed her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2018, and has previously worked in Visitor Services, Education, and Collections Management in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyMarisa_ and Instagram @EmilyLikesMuseums

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