Out of bounds: city museums ponder their foray into the city


Still Life With Tree (2008) Installation for a landscape, marked by volcanic activity. Cornelia Konrads.

Talk after talk affirms the city museum’s connection to its urban context, and they loom larger than life. But how much influence can a museum really wield? Well, the Écomusée du Fier Monde in Montreal conducts literacy programs. The Frankfurt Historical Museum positions itself as a common ground for immigrants who would typically see no relationship between themselves and the museum. And the Queens Museum of Art has demonstrated such dexterity in participatory planning that the New York City Department of Transportation approached it to partner on public engagement to redevelop Corona Plaza, a neglected public space a mile away.

Jack Lohman, recently arrived at the Royal BC Museum from the Museum of London, suggested that here, where water, mountains, and forests overwhelm, museums should act like the landscape, creating an experience as compelling as standing at the edge of water and land, on the cusp. He meant it as a metaphor, but in crasser terms, he was getting at this crux: here, museums must compete with the landscape.

The Museum of Vancouver has made major strides in the past few years, not just rebranding, but revisioning itself. Now the MOV claims its place, albeit small, in the city’s consciousness, no longer a reliquary of odd artifacts of Vancouver history, but a destination for provocative, relevant exhibits. The upcoming exhibit, Sex Talk in the City, promises to allow for the “conceptual knots” and “porous narratives” (in the words of curator, Viviane Gosselin), which necessarily arise from convening queer youth, health administrators, sex workers, and educators on an advisory committee. And the MOV is developing a Neon Vancouver app, allowing users to engage with history as they walk through the city. Unfortunately, this digital development will still require that users seek the app out, first downloading it, and then choosing to use it in the face of endlessly enticing competition.

Ultimately, in spite of the MOV’s newly expansive attitude, the odd building in Vanier Park, part Haida hat, and part modernist investigation, circumscribes the museum experience. The city museum’s domain can be simply interpreted as overlapping realms: onsite, offsite, and online. In its full definition, onsite contains the key component of ‘around the building.’ In Vanier Park, and adjacent to the high traffic seawall, the MOV is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its site, expanding its territory and conception of itself. Though staff tend to bemoan the location as too removed from the city centre, this site could provide the opportunity to come to Vancouverites where they are: outside. In other words, don’t compete with the landscape, but be the landscape. An intervention in, on, and around the seawall could capture the attention of the thousands who walk and bike past every day.

This simple move offers clues to further maneuvers as onsite blurs into offsite. Where Vancouver lacks the obvious historic sites of many major cities, it offers other points of attraction. The local ski hill, trailhead, and bike greenway lure locals and tourists every day. Each one of these gateways to a sought-after experience could also act as a portal to thinking about and debating this version of the city, the city outside. If one of Vancouver’s unique problems is that outdoor recreation overshadows cultural life, conflating the two just might be an answer. Challenging people where they are, cultivating moments of self-reflection and city-reflection could help achieve Gosselin’s aim of increasing urban literacy, fostering a Vancouver rife with critical readers of, and actors in, the city.


Hannah Teicher attended the conference City Museums: Collisions/Connections, held October 24-27, 2012 at the Museum of Vancouver. The conference was presented by CAMOC, the International Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities.