Tomb Raiders

In the vaults of the Museum of Vancouver, past the upholstered chairs and the shelves of household ephemera recognizable to generations of children, rests a set of thin collection trays in units three metres high. These trays, labelled DhRs1, hold the key to a controversial period of history not just for the museum, but for the city itself. The fragments of bone, shell, and stone contain clues to a past that has been — in the dishonourable tradition of colonialism — misrepresented, misappropriated, and miscategorized. 


Imagine the scene: it’s the 1920s, and the local historical society (which would later become Museum of Vancouver) hiresHerman Leisk, an amateur archaeologist, to explore a site of potential interest. The dig is haphazard, starting at the top and just plowing on down. All manner of objects are found, including human remains. The curious intellectuals have stumbled upon something significant. The site becomes a focus of interest to members of the public, who come on weekends to peek, picnic, and poke about. Sometimes they take home a piece of ancient history to show their friends. It is a treasure hunt, a free-for-all.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the site, below Southwest Marine Drive between Granville Street and the Arthur Laing Bridge and now home to a condo tower under construction, produces more human remains, including those of infants. Attempts to draw media attention fail until protestors close down the bridge and, thus, access to YVR. Suddenly all eyes are back on a lot that was apparently empty yet has been classified since 1933 as a Canadian Heritage Site.

Beginning this month, the history and significance of the area commonly referred to as the Marpole Midden are explored in Cəsnaʔəm: The City Before the City, an exhibition straddling three institutions: MOV, the Museum of Anthropology, and the Musqueam Cultural Centre. Running for a year, it’s a remarkable undertaking that seeks to address a century of mis-understanding and redress at least some of its effects.

Cəsnaʔəm (pronounced “tsuss-nuh-um”) gives the telling of the village’s history back to the Musqueam. Curatorial teams from all three organizations have worked together, their programming led by the Musqueam First Nation in a consultation process that has led to unexpected decisions about what will — and will not — be seen.

In an almost absurdly counterintuitive move, MOA, with access to a massive UBC Laboratory of Archaeology collection, will display nothing. Sue Rowley, an archaeologist with the museum, says the decision was the result of a very long conversation with co-curator Jordan Wilson, an anthropology graduate student and a member of the Musqueam nation.

“The discussion was about, When you put something on display, who chooses? And how representative is that of the culture?” Rowley explains. “People tend to put out the goodies, the stellar, the spectacular. Because that’s what draws people in. Jordan asked, ‘Shouldn’t we just put everything out? Show everything that there is?’ ” After multiple plans that wrestled with an exhibition of 9,000 pieces, they settled on the opposite.

The irony is not lost on Rowley as we sit in MOA’s Great Hall, surrounded by the spectacular. Using video interviews with Musqueam people, MOA’s exhibit will be part installation, part first-person text, and concerned with ongoing ways of being: what it is to be a Musqueam. It will be provocative without, she says, “beating people over the head.”

Questions of place and identity will arise, alongside an exploration of a colonial system that makes free with natural resources and leaves behind a devastated people. “Except we, the colonists, are still here, and we still treat the people of the land as though we have the right to be here because we developed it.” It’s difficult for many of us even to acknowledge our connection to European settlement. “That’s a hard mind-set for many people to deal with: ‘Oh, wait. That was my parents, my grandparents. My family.’ “

The key across the project is to re-establish a connection between past and present, to show the continuum between the early Musqueam people and their descendants still here, still looking for justice and recognition.

“That whole early archaeological, anthropological view was that those people lived there and died, and these people are different,” notes Jason Woolman, senior archivist for the Musqueam First Nation. “The whole notion that people could still be here was foreign to them and they refused to accept that, despite the community, despite the oral history.”

The musqueam cultural centre stands near the mouth of the Fraser River, in the (relocated) building that for the 2010 Olympics was the Four Host First Nations Pavilion. This is the heart of the village of Musqueam. Vancouver Island is visible; on a clear day, Mount Baker too. “We have been on this delta for 14,000 years or more; 4,000 on this site continuously,” Musqueam elder Larry Grant notes, sweeping his arm across the stunning vista. “The perception given to the world is that we have not evolved over centuries, that we carry a Stone Age mentality.”

Reclaiming the lexicon of industry and advancement — shipbuilding, structural engineering, pharma-cology, psychology, trade — as it applies to the Musqueam is important, Woolman says, in order to educate not only the general visitor but Musqueam youth as well. “When they go to university and see courses listed, they don’t have to be worried,” he explains. “This is something their people have been doing for 10,000 years. It’s nothing new.”

The Musqueam Cultural Centre exhibit will begin with a welcome and an acknowledgment that what is on display is notwholly representative of the past, that as much as 90 percent of the objects have long disappeared. Organized thematically, it seeks to make clear the sophistication of the early Cəsnaʔəm villagers, showing the tools of hunting and fishing, construction (of longhouses and canoes) and medicine, and putting them in context with the help of sketches, stories, and video testimonies. Replicas of important items, including blankets and a sturgeon harpoon, will feature next to surviving ones.

The most extensive timeline on display will be at the Museum of Vancouver, where the exhibit of 200 of its 1,500 Musqueam belongings, as they are termed, will run for several years. It will be the first space visitors encounter as they travel through the museum’s permanent history galleries. (It will also be the last time the belongings will appear at MOV. Negotiations have already begun to repatriate them, possibly for a museum on the site of Cəsnaʔəm.)

Sensitivities are high: the way the belongings came to be here is, frankly, an embarrassment in contemporary museum studies, and MOV is committed to making amends. “Museums have been very good at badly representing cultures they don’t know,” admits Viviane Gosselin, one of the museum’s curators. “Here we are asking the Musqueam to be in the driver’s seat of the exhibition and the space.”

That means making sure the Musqueam language appears first in text, there are more Musqueam than non-Musqueam voices, and the community consultation was not just part of the process but is referred to in the exhibit itself. “We want it to be obvious that the people primarily responsible for the interpretation are Musqueam.”

That interpretation has, she says, fundamentally altered the direction of the show. First off, MOV had planned to focus strongly on the museum’s history with Cəsnaʔəm and look critically at its past practice, but the Musqueam told them to hold off. “They said, yes, we had to own this history, but it shouldn’t be the focal point, because then once again the story is all about the museum. They said, ‘We want visitors to see us first.’ ”

Gosselin was even more surprised by the decision to include a series of busts created by early-20th-century anthropologists to reconstruct the faces of Musqueam from unearthed skulls. “They believed you could actually do facial reconstruction and make further theories about the people.” She pauses to raise her eyebrows. “It’s like 1930s CSI.” The Musqueam think the busts will help visitors understand the mindset of the time — an important part of the wider context. “To tell you the truth, if it had been just me deciding, I would have self-censored.”

Back at the Musqueam Cultural Centre, Larry Grant shows the wall where an installation evoking the 2012 vigil will be placed. The protest is seen as a turning point — the moment when the Musqueam, feeling the interest of the wider Vancouver community, found encouragement that an exhibition of their history could be well received.

Despite the anger he felt as a younger man around the means by which his ancestors’ belongings had been taken, Grant says his views have mellowed. “They have preserved so much of our cultural background expecting us to disappear from the world, and now that is giving us something back to fill the void created by all those legislative acts of denial andexclusion. Inadvertently, they have done a good thing.”