Last weekend I travelled over to Vancouver for an overnight museums weekend trip! I was able to tag along with my mom (who was heading over for a work trip) so I could use the car and go see some museums I haven’t been to yet. Arriving late Friday morning, we both visited the Vancouver Art Gallery that afternoon before her meeting, and I went to the Museum of Vancouver and the Vancouver Maritime Museum the following day.
Here are some highlights from my weekend in Vancouver!
Vancouver Art Gallery
As an employee of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, I felt it was my duty to go visit our friends in the big city. There’s a lot of cross-over between the two organizations, both in shared exhibits and art pieces, and often in membership. I was excited to see the VAG as it is a bigger gallery than the one in Victoria and I was sure it would have some good displays.
Cool stairs at the VAG
I was not disappointed on the quality displays! The VAG is currently hosting the Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums exhibition. As someone who likes classical art more than modern art, and given that I’m a sucker for anything Scottish, I figured I’d like this. I’m also a big fan of Glasgow Museums after studying some of their programs in school.
(No photos allowed, as is frustratingly typical of travelling exhibits, but check out this promotional video)
The exhibition was amazing. I loved the bright colours of the paintings and the great diversity of works (size, subject matter, different periods, etc.) and the presentation was good too. The paintings were displayed through a series of small, well-lit and colourful rooms bringing the viewer chronologically through the history of Italian painting from the late Middle Ages to the 19th Century. The exhibit was crowded, and the other people in there seemed to be really enjoying it and taking their time to look through the works. I’m not sure the small rooms allowed for the best viewing of some pieces, especially the smaller ones when the room was crowded, but I did like the feel of viewing the paintings up close and personal.
I also really liked Material Future: The Architecture of Herzog & de Meuron and the Vancouver Art Gallery, an exhibit about the architects in charge of the future VAG building project (Herzog and de Meuron have designed such buildings as the National Stadium – the Birds Nest – in Beijing and the Tate Modern in London). As the AGGV approaches its own building project, albeit on a smaller scale, it was neat to see such a large project in the early stages at the VAG. This exhibit also included (or was placed right next to) an area showing the growth of the VAG over its 84 years through smaller pieces. These were really fun to look through, and I learned a lot about the Gallery itself – like the fact that, since 1931, more than 8,560 artworks have been donated to the Gallery as gifts or bequests. This represented more than 75% of the 11,537 artworks acquired for the collection! Amazing! Another exhibit that caught my eye – or my ear – was Stan Douglas’s Luanda-Kinshasa (2013) video of a hypothetical psychedelic jazz recording session. While the concept may be hypothetical, the jazz wasn’t, and I enjoyed 20 minutes of sitting and listening to the great tunes!
A visual representation of how I often feel visiting art galleries.
While the exhibits were interesting (especially Of Heaven and Earth), I was left a bit disappointed by my visit to the VAG. A number of small distractions got in the way of my full enjoyment and experience. For one, there was a lot of security at the VAG, including at least one in every room of Of Heaven and Earth. Perhaps it’s my naive small-town attitude (we only have one security guard at the AGGV) or the fact that some major touring exhibitions have specific security requirements, but this security presence was surprising and off-putting. At times, security would hover behind you, quite obviously too, from when you walked into a room until you moved away from the first painting. It made me feel rushed, distracted, and watched in a way that really distracted me from the paintings themselves, especially in such small rooms. I haven’t seen security in galleries like this since seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
I was able to visit the VAG for free as they honoured the fact I too work in the industry, and I’m very thankful for them doing so. I became even more thankful when I found out almost two full floors of exhibit space (out of four) were closed for installations. This was purely bad timing on my part, I missed two exhibitions by one week, and it was neat seeing the packing process in action. It does raise the question, though, should galleries and museums charge a reduced fee when some spaces are closed? Regular entrance is $20, and while I found Of Heaven and Earth alone worth that, do other non-museum people think the same?
Packing up and heading out. Missed it by that much!
It will be good for the VAG to get a new building too, as some of the exhibition spaces are small and confusing to navigate (NOTE: the new designs were released on September 29. Take a look here, they are…interesting!). The gallery store is quite impressive though, and with a cool location in the main lobby, but my timing was off again as almost nothing remained from the Of Heaven and Earth save for a few postcards.
Museum of Vancouver
Saturday morning brought some heavy rain and a much-anticipated visit to the Museum of Vancouver. I have been looking forward to visit the MOV for a year since they helped me with my week as curator of We The Humanities.
The MOV did not disappoint! I started with their Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibit of neon classic neon signs. The black room was full of colourful light and cool stories of how the city’s lit advertising grew bright then dimmed with changing attitudes towards aesthetics and taste.
I was blown away by the exhibit, it was such a neat look into Vancouver’s past, a subject I had never seen covered by a museum before, and the signs themselves were lots of fun to look at. I could have spent a long time in that room!
After the neon signs, I managed to get my phone locked into a museum display… Thanks to the nice MOV staffer who got it out for me!
(It worked once for five seconds, but the second time I put it in it didn’t allow me to add time to the safe clock. Cue the technology anxiety…)
I was excited to see I didn’t completely miss the recently-closed MOV exhibit The Happy Show. #makesmehappy is a surprise after-exhibit that the MOV put together in the wake of the tremendously successful Happy Show that inspires people to boost their happiness with simple acts. Ten participants from Vancouver went into the MOV’s collection and selected objects that sparked memories of happiness, which were displayed with short texts and activity prompts in the first gallery room alongside a play area for small children and a post-it wall where people could write what made them happy.
Part of the #makesmehappy display, someone reminiscing about keeping a journal. The prompt says “if you kept a diary, what would be the first sentence of today’s entry?”
The other exhibits (c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city, which goes until January 2020 and the other permanent galleries) were just as good. Some highlights included the dress-up box for kids at the beginning of the 1900s-1920s: The Gateway to the Pacific gallery (nothing better than getting into character!), the great use of text panels and artefacts to tell stories, and some of the interactive displays throughout the galleries. In the 1950s gallery you can sit down in a recreated diner booth and read stories of life as a teenager in that decade printed on newspapers and menus (I’ve never seen teen stories in a museum before) as well as drop 25 cents into a working jukebox. The diner seat looks out through a window at an amazing old car complete with White Spot drive-in tray! Those were the days… There was also a rotary telephone in another gallery where you can “call” a recent immigrant neighbour and hear their stories of moving to and living in Vancouver. But the trick is you actually have to dial the phone – imagine how many kids have never worked a rotary before!
A great display for the story of internment and displacement of Asian Canadians during the Second World War
Such a great interactive section! Come sit in the diner looking out at the fancy cars and read about teens in the 50s!
The displays at the MOV are very cool to look at. They remind me of my trip to the Museum of London last year, similar in presentation style where you can walk through time and learn about the development of a city. It is busy, and could be overwhelming for some people as there is a lot to take in, but well worth the reading and the time spent in the galleries!
Vancouver Maritime Museum
After lunch in the car to charge up the phone I walked down the short rainy path to the Vancouver Maritime Museum. It just so happened it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, so what better way to celebrate than by learning about Vancouver’s and Canada’s maritime history?!
I started my visit with a tour around the RCMP St. Roch, one of the most important ships in Canada’s history being the first to navigate the Northwest passage west-to-east and back again, and later to complete the circumnavigation of North America (Halifax to Halifax via the Panama Canal). It is quite a large boat compared to the size of the museum and fills the beautiful A-frame building from end to end and right to the top! It’s fun to be able to walk on, around and even through history when that history has a custom-built home.
The St. Roch goes right up to the ceiling!
After exploring the St. Roch I ventured back into the gallery section of the museum. Across the Top of the World: the Quest for the Northwest Passage was a fascinating look into the early voyages to the Arctic ventured in an attempt to find a North West Passage. I did not know attempts were made as early as the 1500s, and I know very little about the first successful voyages other than the Franklin shipwreck discoveries that have made national news in Canada recently (although the exhibit showed me a lot about the historical searches for Franklin put on by his wife that I had never known about). The exhibit was very well done, with great text panels and interesting maps separated by some artifacts (not a huge amount, but it’s a small gallery).
I found the arctic exhibit reminded me a lot of the exhibit about longitude that I saw last year at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. There was the same sense of exploration discovery, of imperial conquest over nature although with perhaps less success, and the exhibits had the same ‘feel’. I really enjoyed learning about the North and those early voyages leading up to the St. Roch.
The rest of the museum is full of great wonders of BC and global maritime history, from the early steamships that arrived in Vancouver to the children’s pirate play area and discovery room (very cool part of the museum). There was also a history of navigational aids (cool for me as I used to work next to Fisgard Lighthouse), the evolution of fire boats, and some beautiful art inspired by West Coast towns.
This model (and a few others in the museum) are made out of bone! They were made by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum has a great children’s discovery area!
The museum is full of many amazing and highly-detailed models.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum is a smaller museum, and a lot of the collection on display is, perhaps surprisingly, not large boats. This made me think of the fate of my local maritime museum, the Maritime Museum of BC, and how it might look if it is forced to lose some of its collection (with many boats) or move into a place where gallery space changes the approach to the maritime history on display. My visit made me hopeful and positive that it can happen and it can be successful in the long run.
Me with the captain of the St. Roch!
Found it! …that wasn’t so hard…
The Vancouver Maritime Museum staff were very friendly and their museum is one to be proud of. I even managed to pick up the final catalogue for the Across the Top of the World exhibit on sale for only $10! I hope to learn more about how they and the MOV work together, if they do, given they are located so closely together (and with the space centre).
The museum faces onto the mouth of False Creek and English Bay. There’s a great collection of wooden boats out in the little marina!
I had fun taking the 15 second tour videos you see here too, and while I like the idea, I’m not sure I’ll do them again because Instagram doesn’t let you load videos that short (also, reversed type in selfies? ugh…). Something to think about in the future though!
All in all, my trip to Vancouver was a success, I saw the museums I wanted to see, enjoyed my visits, and hope to return sometime soon. Thanks Vancouver!