Wednesday, January 18, 2012


This afternoon to the Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, which as I have mentioned before is one of my favourite galleries in the Lower Mainland, with a great little bookstore specializing in photography.

But right now the gallery is between exhibitions, so we had to content ourselves with the North Vancouver museum downstairs. The woman there commented that she hadn't expected anyone to come in today, what with the snow and all. She turned the lights on specially for us.

The permanent exhibit is small but interesting, charting North Vancouver's history from its establishment as a logging camp called Moodyville in the 1880s, though to its industrial heyday as port and home to shipyards in the mid twentieth-century, and now its post-industrial stress on tourism as gateway to Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour ski resorts, as well as the rather tacky Capilano Suspension Bridge which bills itself as "Vancouver's top attraction."

The museum always has a temporary exhibit, too, which is often very thoughtfully put together and curated. Right now the show is "Made in B.C.: Home-grown Design," a survey of British Columbia's products from (predictably) the staples of timber and shipping to graphic design, architecture, transport vehicles, school yearbooks, stamps, and goodness knows what else. Still, it's rather obvious that in fact British Columbia has never been a place in which very much got produced: its economy has been based on the extraction or cultivation of raw materials (strangely, though, I saw no mention of the current top export, BC Bud) or on the movement of goods.

Now, if anything, the province's major product is the image of Vancouver itself, built up and burnished through international extravaganzas such as Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. No wonder Vancouverites were so embarrassed when a bit of street disorder seemed to sully the city's supposedly good name. We worry about our city's sparkling image the same way residents of Detroit care about the car industry or Venezuelans keep half an eye on the price of oil.

For better or worse, Vancouverites have always aspired to be good citizens, or to seem so at least. One of the most striking objects in the "Made in B.C." exhibition, and just about the first thing you see as you enter the room, is a cardigan knitted by a (male) worker employed by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway sometime at the turn of the twentieth century. As part of the design he had stitched the names of the various towns at which the railway stopped. It's not quite a tattoo, but it's close: a gesture of bearing witness to his employer's achievements on his own body. This may look like hegemony, but of course to call it that only begs the unanswerable question: "What was he thinking?"

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