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Haida Totem Poles in the newly renovated Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, B.C. (LAURA LEYSHON/Laura Leyshon/ The Globe and Mail)
Haida Totem Poles in the newly renovated Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, B.C. (LAURA LEYSHON/Laura Leyshon/ The Globe and Mail)

Arts

Arthur Erickson's UBC gem gets rebranded Add to ...

It's safe to say you might never encounter another person with this kind of passion for storage cases. Anthony Shelton, director of Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology, now called MOA, is showing off the new cases and drawers in what he calls the Multiversity Galleries. This is basically visible storage (although Shelton does not like the term) and it is one of the cornerstones of a $55.5-million renovation of the 1976 Arthur Erickson gem on the University of British Columbia campus.

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More a reimagining than a simple renovation, the overhaul had MOA officials making key infrastructural and philosophical changes, and even considering a name change. After three years of construction, the museum has grown by 3,883 square metres (41,800 square feet) and now includes more storage space, a café, a new temporary exhibition space and those Multiversity Galleries: a sort of hybrid space that brings together high-density storage with some interpretation.

"This is the next stage of visible storage," says Shelton, pointing out that his museum was a pioneer in the concept. "The philosophy behind visible storage [was]put as much of our material out on public display as possible. There was no interpretation, it wasn't specially lit. We had a lot of complaints from First Nations: it was dark, it was dingy, it didn't give dignity to the objects."

Now, more than 10,000 artifacts inhabit lit display cases and state-of-the-art drawers. The public can use computers to call up any item, even by virtually opening a drawer, and read about it - whether it be a Salish canoe paddle or a Cantonese opera costume. The items are arranged by ocean, rather than country or region.

And then there are those cases. Costing about $5-million, they were created by the Milan company Goppion, which has also made cases for the British Crown Jewels and the Mona Lisa. "Goppion are basically the world standard in excellence in case-making," Shelton says, before pulling open a three-metre-long drawer. "They really are feats of engineering." They are also ultra-secure, he points out. MOA has "doubled" the security, says Shelton, since a brazen robbery in 2008 of works by Haida artist Bill Reid.

The museum is branding itself as "a place of world arts + cultures." The new emphasis more accurately describes the collection (only 16 per cent comes from B.C.'s northwest coast), but is also part of a drive to bring in more local audiences who, the thinking goes, are interested in seeing artifacts from elsewhere. Currently, only about 20 per cent of the museum's visitors are local.

In rebranding, officials considered a name change, but ultimately went with the acronym. "It was so controversial," says Shelton. The problem with the term "anthropology," he says, is not everyone has a good idea of what that means, and if they do, they might picture an old-fashioned natural-history museum. "We wanted to be very different from that. We wanted to be contemporary, we wanted to be relevant, we wanted to be part of a kind of urban cool."

The approach to interpreting the collection has shifted too. Labels now feature indigenous names first, with English in brackets. "That's to give primacy to the originating communities, the people who made this material," says Shelton.

Shelton reveals he has raised the money to permanently install the reflecting pool out back that Erickson had envisioned, likely by April. The pool has been previously installed on a temporary basis only, due to concerns about cliff erosion. Shelton says tests show there is no such danger. "I promised [Erickson]I would work as hard as possible to instate that," Shelton says. "And that will complete Arthur's master plan for the site."

MOA opens its doors with free admission for its launch Jan. 23, 24 and 26 (moa.ubc.ca).

 

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