When you walk past the lobby and down the ramp toward the Great Hall at the Museum of Anthropology, you may hear the voices of knowledge holders, or the steady, rhythmic beating of drums filling the space around you.
The most recent exhibition at the museum at the University of British Columbia titled Shake Up: Preserving What We Value, features different ways of understanding earthquakes. It explores the convergence of earthquake science and technology with Indigenous knowledge.
The museum is undergoing structural upgrades to help protect the Great Hall in the event of an earthquake, and this provided an opportune time to launch an interactive exhibit of these natural disasters. The museum is preparing for a full shutdown of the hall this spring.
The upgrade is part of the museum’s preparation to preserve the building and cultural heritage. The exhibit’s co-curator, Jill Baird, says this is what inspired the curation of Shake Up.
Once the Great Hall officially shuts down next year, a virtual-reality installation will be available for museum visitors to see and experience the space it once was.
Shake Up incorporates multimedia installations, contemporary First Nations art and cultural pieces. One multimedia installation includes a documentary film, featuring Haida artist Kwiaahwah Jones, Hesquiaht artist A-nii-sa-put (Tim Paul), and Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw artist Gigaemi (Frank Baker). They share Indigenous knowledge about earthquakes and tsunamis. For A-nii-sa-put and Gigaemi, this knowledge was passed down from their families. But for Kwiaahwah, she immersed herself in the cultural heritage of her people.
Kwiaahwah discusses her depiction of Sacred One Standing and Moving and the connection between this ancestor and earthquakes. Kwiaahwah explains that the Scared One stands on top of a copper box with a pillar on his chest to hold up Haida Gwaii. When he moves, an earthquake occurs. She explains that Sacred One earned this honour after winning a sacred competition because of the beauty of his Wa’sgo skin.
But this exhibit is not just about earthquakes, and it is not an art show for passive viewing.
The interactivity embedded in Shake Up highlights the central theme of the exhibition – the importance of sharing and passing on knowledge. The exhibits are aimed at underlining how small and fragile humans are in the natural world. It encourages viewers to consider the importance of being in tune with nature to guide how humans build and survive in a world we do not have control over.
The lyrics of New Song, Old Knowledge, a song composed by A-nii-sa-put, his mother, wife and aunt, echo the importance of listening to nature and to watch out for signs that signal disaster.
“The earthquake is coming. We still respect nature. We want everyone to understand and share our teachings. We understand our ancient knowledge. We still respect nature,” the lyrics say.
On Earthquakes and Cultures is another multimedia installation, which displays seven interviews on a vertical screen in the middle of the exhibition.
Earthquakes happen every day – Vancouver Island experienced nine during Christmas week. On the Pacific Coast, earthquakes are frequent but many are minor in size. While Shake Up is an educational exhibit, it is also meant to serve as a reminder.
Earth scientists say the Pacific Coast is due for the “Big One," a mega-earthquake of a magnitude of 9 or greater. But no one is sure when it will arrive.
Dr. Baird says the west coast of British Columbia is a fault zone but it is in the “back of our minds.” These fault zones are breaks in the earth’s crust that are made up of tectonic plates that shift under, alongside or apart from each other. The release of energy from the friction along their boundaries results in an earthquake.
In the film, A-nii-sa-put shares knowledge his maternal grandmother passed down to him about earthquakes and tsunamis.
“Our family cultural teachings tell us that we are survivors of the last three tsunamis because we anchored our canoes to our homelands.”
A-nii-sa-put stresses the importance of respecting nature and having foresight to prepare for what is to come.
Cultural history, he says, must be “put at the forefront of what you do.”
The end of a timeline that highlights the largest earthquakes worldwide and on the west coast of British Columbia provides viewers with information about earthquake preparedness, before and during one.
“The intention of the exhibit is to be prepared, not scared,” Dr. Baird says.
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