New Musqueam exhibition schools us on civic origins
Where we started
Before tall concrete towers started casting shadows on the unceded Coast Salish territory known as Vancouver since 1886, the Musqueam people inhabited the region for generations spanning thousands of years. But mainstream historical narratives of European settler-colonizers paint a skewed history of Vancouver’s founding citizens, both in terms of who they are and what they were about.
The widely untold history of the Musqueam, once a thriving community before settler contact, is being featured in simultaneously run exhibits at Vancouver’s Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and Gallery, Museum of Vancouver (MOV), and the Museum of Anthropology. The three distinct exhibitions, opening this month, are called c̓əsnaʔəm, The City Before the City.
“We didn’t know there was a village here”
A 2012 South Vancouver candelight vigil sparked inspiration for the exhibition. The vigil, part of a 200-day peaceful protest initiated by the Musqueam community, was intended to raise awareness about the human remains of Musqueaum ancestors found in an archaeological dig on the site of the vigil, a site controversially slated for a condo development.
The protests stopped construction in its tracks. In the wake of the protests, the Musqueam community was able to purchase the former construction site at Marpole Midden on Southwest Marine Drive, plus two other sites in the area.
“That is really, in my mind, is where it starts because that is when our community came forward and tried to protect that area from being further desecrated from the 1930s,” says Larry Grant, Musqueam cultural advisor to the MOV. “And that is when the public became aware. All of a sudden the neighbours are saying, ‘We didn’t know there was a village here.’”
For the last two years, the Musqueam people have worked with the MOV and the Museum of Anthropology to share that important, often untold piece of history with the public to paint a more accurate picture of what life for his ancestors was truly like, according to Grant.
“It’s a natural fit for all three of us that we work together because we have articles [Musqueam artifacts] in three different places,” Grant says of the three-part collaboration between the Musqueam people, the MOV, and the Museum of Anthropology. “If we don’t work together it won’t come together to be, what I hope to be, one of the best exhibits of First Nations people in British Columbia.”
“What little they know are stereotypes”
For the past 125 years, archeologists have explored the Musqueam village in Marpole’s burial ground for artifacts and ancestral remains, many of which are now featured in museums and collections the world over. The South Vancouver site was once one of the largest villages of the Musqueam people, who now have a population of 1,200. Nearly half live on a small portion
of their traditional territory located South of Marine Drive near the mouth of the Fraser River, where their ancestors harvested the resources of the delta.
“[The] project realized ... that no one knows anything about Canadian aboriginal history. What little they know are stereotypes,” Grant says. “The real stories of how rich the people were in the sense of richness in culture, richness in articles and trade and having lived on this river delta for approximately 14- to 15,000 years, that’s discarded in the way aboriginal people are described.”
That’s why when the Musqueam started to work with the two museums on the exhibition, much of the terminology was readjusted as part of efforts to move away from the objectification that had previously been central to indigenous historical narratives. Historical items are referred to as “belongings” instead of artifacts to reflect that they belonged to people. And instead
of calling them “human remains,” those are referred to as ancestors because they were once people.
Adjusting terminology marked a significant change to the community: the new words helped articulate a new reality of owning their history rather than having others speak for or over them.
“I think that’s really, really important to have that story out there and it’s to right the history, to right the historical perception of an ancient Stone Age people that survived by blundering along,” Grant notes. “And that’s the part that needs to be corrected.”
The three exhibits will have different features and interactive displays drawing on Musqueam history and targeted for the different audiences who frequent each museums. A common thread between them all: digital storytelling devices to weave together historical and contemporary components of the Musqueam experience.
“In the museum community, it is uncommon to have three venues, three gallery spaces or institutions working in the same city working with similar themes and stories,” says Viviane Gosselin, the MOV’s curator of contemporary culture.
It was a steep learning curve for the teams to collaborate, she acknowledges. According to her, the best thing was to “zip it and listen and pay attention to really understand what people are talking about.”
Of the three institutions, the MOV had the most extensive archival collection of Musqueam work since most of the excavation took part in 1920s and ’30s.
“We want to make sure the Musqueam perspective is predominant,” Gosselin says. “Hopefully, when people come in here they don’t think the museum is speaking, but rather Musqueam presenting and representing the community.”
It was important, Gosselin adds, to articulate the Musqueam experience into the 21st century alongside a rich historical narrative—one built on respect, understanding, and not further objectifying the community and its history.
“We’re limited by space and time also, but what we’re hoping is this is the beginning of a stronger and better relationship with Musqueam,” she adds. “How do we move forward and make Musqueam feel that this is their place, so they can come any time? We’re hoping this is the beginning of new terms of a relationship.”