September 2009

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 28, 2009 at 2:49 pm


When I was an undergrad, one of my housemates papered the walls of his room with maps, mostly of Europe and North America. A history major, he relied on them as a visual reference of the places he studied: “the story of those places in a nutshell.” I didn’t fully appreciate this idea until I read Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley, which tells the story of the region through a collection of maps categorized as “faithful to reality, fanciful, or strictly promotional.” Certainly, most locals know the west was settled by real estate speculators, but many need the blanks filled in. Here’s your filler. Hayes documents most major historical issues and events from settlement to 2005 (the year of publication), relying always on maps, posters, and photographs. It’s an excellent, unsurpassed introduction to the Lower Mainland’s spatiality.

The most entertaining chapters are the early ones, which chronicle the race to become the region’s preeminent city, starting in the 1850s. It’s a tale of land speculation hot spots, among them: Ft. Langley/Derby, New Westminster, and Port Moody, the would-be terminus of the railway, where “land sales began before surveying was finished.” Somewhere in there, Hayes writes, a wise exec at CPR realized they could profit from the real-estate craze instead of private investors, and so inked a deal with the province in 1886 to extend the line to Coal Harbour in exchange for 6,000 acres. Here, a map tells the story far better than the numbers or words (see Map 117 on page 62). The first transcontinental train pulled into Vancouver on May 23, 1887. The rest is history.

Historical Atlas of Vancouver and Lower Fraser Valley is published by Douglas & McIntyre. Details linked here.

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 26, 2009 at 4:34 pm


Last weekend, MOV participated at IDSwest and our booth featured animals from our upcoming exhibit Ravishing Beasts. Specifically: a vole, a snow owl, and a dog by the name of Lucky—all three of them taxidermied.

We’d prepped for possible blow back (”Displaying a stuffed dog? Are you out of your mind?!”), and while there was a bit of that, more often there were double takes followed by incredible conversations, ranging from animal rights to the Museum’s new vision and how Ravishing Beasts fits within it. What a time.

Guest curator Rachel Poliquin aptly describes the exhibit “as a question show.” Don’t come expecting tidy interpretations. Most of the animals displayed are part of the Museum’s natural-history collection, and most are shrouded in mystery. We know little about many of them except that they were donated by Vancouver residents. But more on all that after the show opens on October 22. (Tickets to the opening night party happening on the 21st are now available. Click here.)

We’ll leave you with this: One section of the show looks at taxidermy’s resurgence in art and design (something the crowd at IDSwest was well aware). Other museums are tracking this trend, too. Currently, the MAK art museum in Vienna is hosting Furniture as Trophy, which chronicles the use of animal materials in interior design. There are medieval antler chandeliers, Le Corbusier’s famous leopard-skin covered chaise, and contemporary art pieces, like sculptures by Micha Brendel that use organic materials to explore relationships between medicine, science, and art. Absurd? Surreal? Beautiful? Offensive? That’s for you to decide. Click here.


Image credit: MAK Art Museum

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 23, 2009 at 1:17 pm

When we were deep into our revisioning process (a two-year effort that was half-launched in the spring of 2008 with the exhibit Movers and Shapers, and half-launched this past June with the unveiling of our new brand identity and the opening of Velo-City—confused yet?), we looked to other city museums around the world for inspiration. One institution we kept returning to was the Stockholm City Museum.

The museum’s main building is a trove of photographs, oil paintings, and artifacts, including a vast collection of objects salvaged from buildings that were demolished during the city’s rapid modernization period in the 1950s to 1970s (wallpaper, tiles, mouldings, etc.).

There are also museum “branches” scattered around Stockholm, each one showcasing different eras and architectural moments in the city’s long, complex history. One branch is an “ornamental stucco master’s apartment,” presented as a typical example of an affluent household at the close of the nineteenth century. The gorgeous, ornate plasterwork has been restored to its original form, while the furniture has been selected and arranged by curators. Another branch is an apartment in the city’s first provisional housing project, completed in 1937. The building signaled a major shift in the city’s approach to affordable housing. It’s also an intimate look at how one working-class family lived at that time.

Certainly, the Stockholm City Museum isn’t the only museum out there that uses a branch structure to tell the city’s story: the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is another compelling example (more on them in future blog posts). But the approach of the Stockholm museum is perhaps more comparable to one we might take. We’re not poised to acquire properties, but going forward we hope to offer public programs off-site, similarly to what we did with this summer’s “Vancouverism by Bicycle” tour.

One more thing we love about the Stockholm City Museum: Their current feature exhibit looks at films made in city in the 20th century (Ingmar Bergman’s work figures prominently). As part of the show, they’ve mapped key filming locations in the city and hosted screenings. All sounds like something that could work well here, no? Any thoughts on what made-in-Vancouver films ought to be shown? We vote for JunoMy Life Without MeEverything’s Gone Green, and Last Wedding. Your move…

Image credit: Max Plunger,

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 22, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Committed readers of the Vancouver Courier will be well-acquainted with the material in Lisa Smedman’s Vancouver: Stories of a City. The 12 essays that form the basis of the book are based on a series the newspaper ran in 2006 and 2007. What began as a look at how prominent Vancouver streets got their names evolved into a detailed history on the settlement of city neighbourhoods. If you want to know why Kingsway slashes through the city’s grid pattern, or to read excerpts of Gassy Jack’s letters home, this is the book.

Let us not mince words: it is not a lite read. It’s capital-H history, written and designed as though for a high school history class. Lisa Smedman is an old-school reporter. Much of the material was extracted from interviews on record at the Vancouver Archives and much of it appears in its original form, barely edited (Major James Skitt Matthews, Vancouver’s “original archivist” should get a co-author credit; he is thanked profusely). A strong editor would have made the text easier to wade through, but the intention appears to have been a more original, rough presentation. Overall, it’s a compilation of historical documents, simply described and accompanied with grainy archival photos, postcards, and maps. Vancouverites often complain about the city’s lack of history; Smedman proves we have plenty, you just have to work to find it. She’s done her part.

Vancouver: Stories of a City was published in 2008 by CanWest Publishing. Ordering information is linked here.

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 20, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Tomorrow night marks the opening of our latest exhibit, Ravishing Beasts. Long time coming. Most exhibits take years to plan and execute. In a way, this one has taken decades. Some of the animals and specimens on view haven’t been on public display in half a century; others were acquired and have remained in storage ever since. Credit our guest curator Rachel Poliquin for bringing new life to this historic, eclectic collection. Ravishing Beasts features some 110 species, representing two-thirds of MOV’s natural-history collection. The opening party starts tomorrow at 7 p.m. For details and tickets, click here.

In the exhibit, Poliquin presents a thorough analysis of taxidermy, from its origins to its future relevance, and devotes much space to its current cultural moment in art and design. Taxidermy might not appear an obvious design trend at first, but once alerted to it you start to notice it everywhere from Cactus Club restaurants (note the head trophy mounted over the fireplace in most locations), to contemporary art (George Vergette’s Waning Light is featured in the exhibit), to local design (Pemberton-based Pamela Beattie fashions reclaimed furs into upholstered furniture in homage to B.C.’s pioneer past. Interestingly, her husband is a taxidermy enthusiast with an extensive bird collection. The natural world figures prominently in their home. Click here for details on her design practice.).

Taxidermy is not easily described, running the gamut from strange to profound to provocative to kitschy to offensive. Example: In the latest issue of T magazineThe New York Times’ style magazine, Julia Lohmann is interviewed. The London artist and designer is best known for her piece “Cowbench” (pictured left) in which a single cowhide is “stretched over a  framework to look like the live animal that gave up its skin for us. Except that the cow is without a head. Or legs… It is a depiction of a cow, made of a cow.” In her design “Ruminant Bloom,” a preserved cow stomach is used as a lamp shade. Her stool “Lasting Void” uses a cast of a calf’s internal cavity after it’s been gutted.

Lohmann’s work inspires much controversy, even outright hatred. For her, the outcry is the ultimate hypocrisy. “You kill and cut up a cow and people are outraged,” she is quoted as saying in the piece. “Yet we do that every day. And what percentage of that meat is being thrown away?” For her, the point is to mark the transition from animal to product—and shake up our comfort level. “The transition point is not the killing, or when you take the organs out—we still have emotions for the animal then. It’s only when it’s cut up that it becomes steak, and we feel detached.” (Read the rest of the article here.)

Poliquin, too, has encountered a backlash in her research and documentation of taxidermy (she is currently at work a Ph.D. on the subject through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and will publish a book entitled Taxidermy and Longing next year). Her question is this: Is taxidermy more honest to animal form than fashion or art? Interestingly, one of her least favourite pieces in the show is a stool made from an elephant’s foot because the animal was dissected for the design. She sees Ravishing Beasts as a “question show,” and an opportunity to not only explore the related, and many, controversies, but also to see taxidermy in a new way. “Taxidermy isn’t just about death. Its history is rooted in the wonder and beauty of nature. It reveals much about us, and how we see nature in the world.” For Vancouverites, it’s also a chance to see a collection largely donated by local residents. This is a window into the city’s and the Museum’s past. Much more to come on all of this in the coming weeks.

Image credits (from top to bottom): Rachel Poliquin and Julia Lohmann

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 15, 2009 at 12:13 pm


Quick post: After 16 years, we’ve concluded our fall “Haunted Vancouver” trolley tours. Ghost sightings, unsolved murders, simulated autopsies… It all made for campy fun, but it was time for a change of pace. To the tour’s many loyal followers out there: sorry to disappoint.

There’s good news.

This year, we’re going darker. In the spirit of Ravishing Beasts, our soon-to-open feature exhibit, we’re hosting a Halloween-inspired event on the evening of October 30. It will involve music and a cash bar, guided tours of the exhibit, and a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, the film that left an indelible mark on the practice of taxidermy (and is, by far, creepier than all of its sequels and remakes combined). Note: Our vintage 1968 wood-paneled theatre accommodates just over 200 audience members, which makes for an intimate viewing experience but does limit our numbers. Click here to buy tickets…

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 14, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Is this an obvious choice? Absolutely. Can’t be helped. City of Glass continues to capture the zeitgeist of this place (well, minus the bit on “monster houses”; that battle has been fought and lost). With compelling photos, graphics, and illustrations, author Douglas Coupland has efficiently catalogued what makes Vancouver, Vancouver. Fleece as uniform. Sushi as fast food. Grouse Grind as singles bar. And how the city can stand in for just about anywhere on film. These things are now cliches, liberally quoted. This is the original source material.

My favourite lines are these: “My own theory about Vancouver is that we’re at our best when we’re experimenting with new ideas, and at our worst when we ape the conventions of elsewhere. Vancouver is, literally, one of the world’s youngest cities. Some day we’ll be old and creaky, but not now—right now is for being young.”

City of Glass is published by Douglas & McIntyre. A revised edition is out later this month. Click here for details.

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 8, 2009 at 5:38 pm

While at Interior Design Show West last month, we were drawn to a project commissioned for the show called “Off the Hook.” The show’s organizers had obtained a number of discarded telephone booths and put out a call to local designers, challenging them to create something from the materials.

Contexture Design’s Nathan Lee and Trevor Coghill responded, their first thought going to who is most affected by the steady retreat and removal of phone booths from city streets: the homeless. “We really thought of the telephone booth as a public amenity that is being lost,” says Lee. “Their removal means one less service available to people living on the streets.”

Lee says Contexture’s design process often starts with used materials—their history, their provenance—and a focus on sustainability. One of their earliest designs was the “Coffee Cuff,” a piece of reclaimed wood veneer intended to replace disposable cardboard cuffs, or to be worn as a bracelet. Another project see old maps laser-cut into various objects, like migrating crows or homeward-bound salmon, and suspended in delicate mobiles. (Click here for details and images.)

With Home Phone, there’s even more layers, and more social commentary. The piece reimagines the telephone booth as a temporary shelter. The design addresses basic housing needs, incorporating electricity and running water, as well as liveability: the stowage ottoman offers dry storage while the door removes to form a platform bed. Construction-grade materials, finished to a high standard, are used to present a dignified respite from the street, despite the limitations of the nine-square-foot space.

It’s a concept piece as much as it is a critique of how street furniture is now being designed to shuffle people along and out of public spaces. Picture: dividers on low garden walls to prevent skateboarding and benches broken up into individual seats to prevent sleeping. Home Phone takes a very different approach, suggesting the street can be a place of welcome, rather than alienation.

The exhibit officially opens tomorrow night, in conjunction with the talk “Ending Homelessness,” and runs until October 25.

Image credit: Contexture Design

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm


Vancouver Matters is less a book than a bound exhibitwhich may partly explain its appeal to us. Using photographs, illusrations, and short essays, the various writers (mostly artists, and students and faculty from UBC’s School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture) present Vancouver as an unfinished work rather than an accomplishment (a subtle dig at “Vancouverism” proponents?).

Each of the 16 chapters explores a particular material condition—stucco, hedge, sugar, blackberry—and explores its imprint on the city’s built-form and culture. The opening chapter on andesite stone, for example, details the history of the Haddington Island quarry—stay with me—and how the stone was brought to Vancouver and used to clad key financial and government buildings that called for a resilient, permanent character. Picture the Royal Bank building at 675 West Hastings St., the former Provincial Court House (now the Vancouver Art Gallery), and City Hall. That many of these structures still stand in a city where redevelopment is very much a part of our identity, may indicate their intended goal has been met.

Beyond history lessons, it’s a beautifully rendered portrait of the city that presents the familiar in a bright new way.

Vancouver Matters was published in the fall of 2008 by Blueimprint, a division of the local publishing house, Simply Read Books.

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on September 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm




So, summer has run its course. The air has changed. Kids in school uniforms have reclaimed the city buses. And here at Museum, the fall book catalogues have arrived, something that always prompts lively conversations about the most compelling books about Vancouver, set in Vancouver, written by Vancouverites—or some combination of the three.

Our fall reading list includes Douglas Coupland’s highly anticipated Generation A (if you haven’t watched the clever promos for the book yet, proceed directly to iTunes. The shorts come up when you search the author’s name). On the non-fiction side, there’s A Thousand Dreams, a look at the current state of, and future of, the Downtown Eastside, and co-authored by Vancouver mayor-turned-Senator Larry Campbell, Vancouver Sunreporter Lori Culbert, and SFU professor and criminologist Neil Boyd. Lastly, Charles Demers’ Vancouver Special promises an irreverent take on the state of the things. We’re intrigued.

But what of those books in the back catalogue? Those takes on the city we continue to refer to years after the first printing?

We’ve assembled a shortlist of our favourite titles, recent and not so recent, that we’ll be presenting in a series of blog posts over the next couple weeks. Undoubtedly some of your favourites will be missing, so, do send in your comments.