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Posted by: Guest Author on August 28, 2013 at 11:36 am

Guest Author: Catherine Evashuk 

In 1980, my pregnant sixth grade teacher, Mrs. R, decided to explain how babies were made in a straightforward way, and debunk that old myth about storks bringing babies to doorsteps.  After she explained how babies were made, she asked if anyone had any questions.  My hand shot up immediately: “If sex is to make babies, that must mean you’ve had sex twice,right?” (Mrs. R was pregnant with her second child). I remember her turning completely red and murmuring, “Not exactly!” This confused me, since she had just explained that sex was to make babies. If sex was for anything other than that specific goal, why would people have it?

Fast forward to 2013, to the Museum of Vancouver’s ‘Sex Talk in the City’. This amazing and comprehensively conceived exhibition is divided into three parts: ‘The Street’, ‘The Bedroom’ and ‘The Classroom’. As a Sexual Health Educator, ‘The Classroom’ is of course my favourite.  Wandering through ‘The Classroom’ where I can read Sex Ed questions scrawled onto desk, is always a hoot. My favorites include: “If a man gets a boner, what does a woman get?” and “What’s a G Spot and where is it located?”

Things have come a long way since I was a sixth grader in 1980.  Many of the questions students are asking today are about the pleasurable side of sex. These days, sex educators are trained to quite differently, and I must admit, do a much better job than Mrs. R. was able to do when teaching their students the basics of sexual health and reproduction . Still, some students’ eyes widen in disbelief when I explain that when people have sex, most of the time it is not for making a baby! In fact, one of the most common questions I find in the anonymous question box after a lesson is “If sex is to make babies, what’s birth control for?”

I like that so many parts of this exhibition focus on the pleasurable side of sex.  In ‘The Bedroom’ section, there’s a wall displaying vibrators, including some dating back to the late 1800s! I guess it shows that pleasure is always part of the equation, but the way we talk about it, has changed quite a bit.  Of course, the educator in me is also pleased that there is a significant portion of the exhibition - In ‘The Street’ – dedicated to showing and explaining an array of contraception options and condoms, which help people enjoy safer sex.

I wish Mrs. R had explained that sex can feel good and that making babies is only part of it.  Perhaps I should give her a call to invite her to the exhibition so we can check it out together!

*Catherine is a Certified Sexual Health Educator based in Vancouver, and is a volunteer at the Museum of Vancouver.

Posted by: Guest Author on May 14, 2013 at 8:31 am

By Adrian Sinclair

Ballot Box, City of Vancouver (1902). Wooden, Cedar. openMOV. H971.259.1

In 2013, Elections BC has taken a few notable steps to make voting more accessible. They have partnered with non-partisan organizations like Vancouver Design NerdsGet Your Vote On, Rock The Vote, , and Bike To Vote to make educational resources available online and on the street for a new generation of voters. 

The evolution of who has been able to access the voting process is quite the read. In 1918, Canadian women were enfranchised to vote in federal elections (except in Quebec, where women were enfranchised in 1940). 

  

Suffrage Blotter, (1917). Rectangular, White Blotter. openMOV. H994.30.9 

Historically, many other groups have been excluded from accessing the right to vote. In 1993 persons with diagnosed mental disabilities were given the right to vote for the first time. In 1970 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 and ten years before that in 1960, First Nations living on reserve were given the right to vote for the first time. There remains further work to be done in order to ensure the vote be fully accessible. Of concern are Young voters (18-35) who have the lowest turn out among registered voters. 

Of course it’s not only the non-partisan institutions that have an interest in making the vote as broadly accessible as possible. A quick look through the MOV’s online collections database openMOV, yields an interesting attempt by a political candidate to get the youth vote out during the 50’s. This faux pep pill containing Teresa Galloway’s political platform on a mini-scroll of paper, was handed out to notify voters that “our city hall needs a tonic … A woman of action can supply pep and vigor.”

Theresa Galloway Election Campaign Capsule, (1955). Plastic, Paper, Ink. openMOV.
H986.26.14a-b

Elections BC’s efforts to ensure fair and accessible elections that represent the political will of the electorate is a work in progress. Here at the MOV, we are also constantly working on how to make our collections more accessible in order to provoke, engage, and animate Vancouverites around our shared material and cultural history. 

After exploring our online collection political artifacts, reading up on the candidates (of past and present), get out there and vote today! 

Engage with the political life of your city and province! 

Other interesting BC Electoral finds on openMOV. Ballot, SoCred, Jim Green, 1960’s Liberal, 1990’s Mayor candidate.

Posted by: Guest Author on April 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm

By Craig Scharien 

My own sex education at school (in the mid ‘90s) was not exactly memorable, but there are a couple sections of Sex Talk in the City that remind me of that time of my life. The group of white desks with graffiti all over them certainly conjure up memories of boredom and a lack of true sexual understanding. The other is the giant black cougar on a striking red wall.

For anyone who was watching movies in the 1960s all the way to the 80’s in British Columbia it is easy to recognize the restricted cougar icon that once acted as a warning about questionable content in film. When I was a kid all it meant was that I wasn’t able to watch anything with the cougar on it. The cougar and the fact that it was forbidden meant that I spent a lot of time scouring the restricted section at Canadian Tire (they used to have movies to rent, believe it or not) looking for a movie I could get away with suggesting to my parents.

These days there are boring rating systems that include things like “18A”, but back then the cougar was a symbol of coarse language, violence, nudity and obscenity in general for movies. It was developed by the BC Film Classification Board and the BC Chief Censor, Ray MacDonald at the time. The hope was that the iconic symbol would help raise public awareness of R-rated films. The cougar plays a very effective role at Sex Talk, by reminding many of us of the way censorship has been approached in our province.

It is also a vehicle for articulating an important point – that obscenity is often in the eye of the beholder. Within the exhibition, it has allowed the Museum to present sexually explicit material and stories of censorship by allowing the visitor to opt in to that element of BC’s history. If you are curious you can take a peek through the holes in the cougar to learn about pivotal moments in the history of the production, consumption and censorship of sexually explicit materials. Like the red drawers in the bedroom section of the exhibition the decisions are left to the visitor, thus making moments of discovery just a bit more and powerful.

Posted by: Guest Author on April 15, 2013 at 4:24 pm

By Arleigh McKerlich

Now that the days are becoming warmer and sunnier, Vancouverites are returning to a long-time favourite recreation spot: English Bay Beach.

Residents of Vancouver have been flocking to "First Beach" since the earliest days of the city. Called "Ayyulshun" (soft under feet) by the First Nations people, the name “English Bay” commemorates the meeting of Captain George Vancouver, along with Spanish captains Valdes and Galiano, in 1792. (This is also how Spanish Banks received its name.)

The beach was opened for recreation in 1893, sand was added in 1898, and by 1900 the Davie Street tram line made it accessible to residents from all over Vancouver. Residents built a pier, summer cottages, a dance hall called "the Prom", and a bathhouse. The original structures were all built out of wood, but the current concrete bathhouse was built in 1932.

As early as 1913, visitors to English Bay who had forgotten their bathing suits could rent one (10 cents for an adult, 5 cents for a child) along with towels and lockers. The wool suits were rented until the 60s at the majority of Vancouver’s beaches.

In 1939, the bathhouse  was converted into the city's first aquarium featuring Oscar the Octopus but by 1956, the aquarium facility was closed and manager Ivar Haglund moved to Seattle and started up a seafood business (Ivar’s Acres of Clams).

Today the bathhouse has new uses, including acting as a stage during the Celebration of Lights each summer and drawing record numbers of people to its sandy shore.

Posted by: Guest Author on April 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm

By Craig Scharien

A highlight of the bedroom section of Sex Talk in the City is a striking wall of red drawers. Meant evoke thoughts of a chest of drawers in the bedroom, it holds fascinating treasures and memories that aren’t always thought of or talked about – and are often, in fact, hidden.

When designing the exhibition, the drawers were added in to pull from each visitor our own memories of digging through our parents or older siblings drawers – and how what you found may have taught you some of what you know today about sexuality.

Dig into the Sex Talk drawers and you will be rewarded with a look at unique items regarding sexuality presented in an informative light.

One of my favourites is a small book, published in 1971 titled A Guide for the Naïve Homosexual. UBC student Roedy Green self-published this pamphlet as an extension to the counselling sessions he often held at his home as way to help people come out. It contains contact information, advice on coming out, sexuality, religion, and thoughts on gay and lesbian life. It was enormously popular and had 12 printings, the last of which was 3,000 copies.

Another drawer that caught my eye features adaptable sex toys for people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. It highlights an oft forgotten fact that disabilities do not make someone asexual. Produced in a joint project by the British Columbia Institute of Technology the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries, these vibrators were designed for those with decreased sensitivity with features like easy to hold handles. These are by no means the only devices of this type, but they give great insight into work that is being done on an issue that few are talking about.

These are just two of the many red drawers in Sex Talk, and you never know what you might find. So pretend you’ve been left home alone and get in there and open some drawers!

Also, share YOUR story of what you've found around your house growing up that taught you about sexuality.

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Posted by: Guest Author on March 25, 2013 at 3:59 pm

By Arleigh McKerlich

A big part of Sex Talk in the City is about breaking the ice and creating opening points for conversation about sex and sexuality. In one of the 4 videos included in the exhibition (all done by the wonderful Gwen Haworth) a former nurse tells the story of how she got involved in sex education – she was frequently seeing women come in to the hospital dying of STDs because they were too ashamed to speak of them.

Thanks to a few cuddly creatures in “The Classroom” portion of Sex Talk in the City, STDs aren’t nearly as frightening to talk about. In fact, when they were being installed MOV staff openly picked their favourites – at least, their favourites as cuddly creatures.  

Founded by Drew Oliver in 2002, GIANTmicrobes Inc. is a US-based company that makes stuffed toys of microbial life of all kinds. At the MOV, we have as our guests a few of their “venereals” series, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, syphilis, herpes, and HIV. Each creature comes with a tag that has an electron scanner picture of the microbe in question and a series of facts and trivia that both inform and amuse the reader.

Originally marketed to children and as gag gifts between adults, the popularity of the toys have expanded from the Common Cold and E. Coli to Red Blood Cells and Dust Mites. Many medical professionals use them to break the ice when talking to patients about difficult topics and educators use them to make important health issues more approachable. On their website, the company states that “the dissemination of information is exactly the point.” Many reviewers speak of how the cuteness of the toys can make the diseases and creatures who cause them seem less scary.

Products like the GIANTmicrobes are part of a recent approach to sexual health education where the belief is that the facts about healthy sexual activity should be accessible to everyone.

If these adorable little diseases seem like common sense, visit Sex Talk in the City to see some of the (significantly less adorable) methods that been have used in the past and present to educate Vancouverites about sex.

So tell us, what STI is YOUR favourite? How have these kinds of learning tools changed how you understand your own body?

Posted by: Guest Author on March 18, 2013 at 3:13 pm

by Craig Scharien

Founded in 1983 by a small group of men in the West End, AIDS Vancouver is now celebrating their 30th anniversary. The founders took initiative despite the fact that only six cases of HIV/AIDS had been reported in the city at the time. The group began attending health conferences, distributing information, and planning local action and forums, thus laying the groundwork for AIDS Vancouver. In the 30 years since, the organization has evolved into a vital component of Vancouver’s health care system. They offer numerous services – case management and support programs, a supplemental grocery service and fundraising, just to name a few. Perhaps their most crucial role is raising awareness about a disease which is now often seen as chronic rather than fatal.

The evolution HIV/AIDS awareness can be seen in posters like the ones on display in Sex Talk in the City. Initially posters were aimed primarily at gay men and focussed on prevention: like reminders to wear condoms. Today, posters are far less direct and are more broadly focussed. The priority has moved from prevention to knowing your status and getting tested. One of the more recent posters features a man of Asian descent with the slogan “Get Tested” showing insight into the population demographics of Vancouver and their focus on testing.

Evolution can also be seen in treatment; the cocktail of drugs has been streamlined and has become far more effective. Viviane Gosselin, curatorial lead for Sex talk in the City was keen to show this progression, but finding ‘vintage’ pills was not easy.

“I had not anticipated that the most difficult artefacts to acquire for Sex Talk in the City would be the HIV/AIDS pills," explained Gosselin. "I talked to several organizations and representatives from drug companies and the responses were either: ‘we don’t keep old pills’ or ‘we are not allowed to let drugs circulate in the public’. We had dedicated people at the BC Centre for the Disease Control who investigated on our behalf and located a researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS Research who ‘collects’ old HIV/AIDS pills, starting with the first pill regimen from the late 1980s. After reassuring this researcher that public access to the pills would be limited to seeing (not touching or tasting!) we were able to proceed with a loan.  This process took several months!”

The evolution of piles of pills to today’s doses can be seen in Sex Talk in the City thanks to her sourcing.

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Posted by: Guest Author on March 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

(Guest post by Arleigh McKerlich)

Children’s book “Asha’s Mums” was one of the first books written for elementary age children that portrayed a family with same-sex parents. Written by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse and illustrated by Dawn Lee, it was first published in 1991.

In the book, Asha is told by her teacher that she can’t go on a field trip because her permission slip is filled out incorrectly and that it is not possible to have two mothers. After her mothers meet with the teacher to explain their daughter’s family situation, Asha is allowed to go on the trip. The other children learn of Asha’s mums and a discussion is had about whether this is a good or bad thing. The conclusion offered by the teacher is that it is just fine, as long as your parents take good care of you.

In 1997, kindergarden teacher James Chamberlain applied for approval of this book and two others (“Belinda’s Bouquet” and “One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads”) for use as teaching aids in his classroom. In response, the Surrey School Board issued resolutions that stated resources from gay and lesbian groups were not approved for use or redistribution in the school district.

After these resolutions were passed, resources like library books, pamphlets, and posters that promoted sexual diversity and tolerance were removed from all Surrey schools. Chamberlain — supported by teachers in other school districts in the Lower Mainland where these materials were allowed — launched a court case to challenge the ruling of the Surrey School Board. After much publicity and appeals by both sides, the case was considered by the Supreme Court of Canada and judgement handed down in 2002. The Court found that the Board’s decision was unreasonable and that the Board had acted contrary to provincial statute as well as its own regulations regarding curriculum materials, both of which stress tolerance and inclusion. The Court directed the decision to be reconsidered by the School District, with Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin noting that “tolerance is always age-appropriate.”

(full text of the decision available at http://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2002/2002scc86/2002scc86.html)

After revisiting its decision in 2003, the Surrey School Board still found “Asha’s Mums”, “Belinda’s Bouquet”, and “One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads” to be inappropriate for use as curriculum material. The Board was critical (among other things) of the books’ depiction of men, problematic and inconsistent grammar, and of the issue of dieting being inappropriate for kindergarden age children.

While 18 of the province's 60 school districts have policies in place regarding anti-homophobia, Burnaby and Surrey School Districts have not been able to develop a policy because of push-back from parents. Recently, protest and submissions from students have led the Surrey School District to say last summer that they would begin developing an anti-bullying policy in the fall that includes anti-homophobia strategies, as well as racism and physical disability

Posted by: Guest Author on November 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

 

 

In an age of rapidly-changing cities, is it time for city museums to embrace a new outward-looking, activist mission? As keynote speaker at the recent International Council of Museums CAMOC conference at the Museum of Vancouver, renowned urban planner Larry Beasley raised the challenge. This is an edited transcript of his address,“The City as Museum and the Museum as City” on October 24, 2012.           

Cities are the most complex and mysterious of human inventions.  They are rich in harmony and contradiction; in accord and discord.  They are as different around the world as the societies that have created them.    They are tenacious and some are actually very ancient.  They are forever changing and evolving.  As of just a few years ago, they have now become the primary habitat of human beings.  And, of course, they are endlessly fascinating.

Also fascinating are city museums – your museums.  You are a repository of the history and culture of your city – you portray the essence of your place.  I have visited many city museums and they are always jaw dropping and awe inspiring. You tell a very compelling, vivid story.  That is what you do – with research and curation and display and all the professional tricks and art of your trade.  As a City Planner, frankly, I am not sure I have much to offer that would positively contribute to the already great job that you do to build and deliver the city museum.

What I may have to offer is a different perspective – looking at a civic museum not from the point of view of the curator of the museum but from the point of view of a creator of cities.  That’s what I do – that is what City Planners are all about – our job is to envision and then manage the creation of the city.  So, I want to pose the question of what the city museum can do as a part of the ongoing creative process of a city that is forever changing and being re-created.  How can the museum of the city join the design energies and the political energies and the bureaucratic energies and the private sector energies and the people in a city as a civic lens to contribute to the form and personality and quality of that city – not just as an observer but as an actual player?

How can museums reorient outwards to join civic life? 

I think that is an important question – and let me tell you why by giving you a sense of how I do what I do.  My profession is an unusual one – it is part science and part politics but a big part of it is art.  Now, having said that, I also have to emphasize that it is a somewhat peculiar art – city planning is a politicized art, it is a collective art.  Everyone shapes the city every day with almost everything they do.  It would be like if a painter picked up his brush to dab the canvas and a thousand hands grabbed the brush with him to decide just where the paint is to go.  The city you experience is created by millions of independent actions.  A City Planner is a choreographer of urbanism, working with people who have their own ideas and take their own action – and generating through interaction with people the plans and the management mechanisms for how the city or parts of the city should grow and change or, sometimes, be protected from change.

Connoisseurs of urban life

That, of course, is the great strength of city planning – but it is also its potential Achilles heel because, like art, city planning needs to be about some kind of coherent result rather than just randomness or the lowest common denominator.  The more people are all over the place, the more of a problem it is to find a shared way to move forward with your city.  On the other hand, the more people share a vision of the city, the more coherent will be the art of building the place.  The more people understand what I call the “urban DNA” of the city – not only its history but also its current dramas, its issues, its opportunities, its patterns, the way it tends to grow and the way it tends to fade – the more coherent will be the art of building the place.  With that collective view, even if people do not support the same solutions, at least they speak the same language, understand the genesis of ideas and share a sense of the options and implications that can help a city find a positive and maybe even an innovative direction.

Of course, what I am talking about is “urban connoisseurship” – an understanding and sensitivity of cities that informs people about what is good and not so good, what works and does not work, what is progressive and not so progressive.  It is an urban connoisseurship that starts at a personal level, and when everyone gets together, it is an urban connoisseurship that becomes collective.  It is also an urban connoisseurship that is dynamic and constantly evolving just like the city itself.

This kind of understanding and sensitivity comes from discussion and debate, it comes from education and being informed about what is going on in the world of cities, and in a very substantial way, it comes from tangible urban experience.   But, it may shock you to hear, that in almost all cities there is actually no agent to convene the discussion and education and experiences that fosters an urban connoisseurship.  Planning departments go out and talk to people when they have a specific job to do – they call it public consultation.  Politicians go to the people at election time.  The media covers issues from moment to moment.  But there is no constant force for an ongoing engagement and dialogue and interface between people and the diverse realities of city life.  And cities are certainly worse off because of that.

I think that force could be the city museum.  I think that force could be you.  In fact, I think you might be the very best institution within local culture, uniquely suited to be that force because of your special skills and integrity and perspective.  And I firmly believe that, if you took on such a role, the city would be a better place for more people.  City planning and urban design would be a more productive activity.  City government and politics would work better.  People would be more connected and therefore more fulfilled by their life in their city.  And a potential for collaboration would be set up that would be genuinely new in the city simply because of the ethics you would bring to the task.

So this leads me to offer a proposition that is the main theme of my presentation today – for the city museum, my proposition is that you pursue:  “the city as museum; and the museum as city”.

Let me explain what I mean and offer a few illustrations of what this might look like in the form and agenda of a museum of the city.

The city as museum

Let’s start with the “city as museum”.  We live in a mobile world – we can easily get around to whatever it is we need or want to see and our institutions need to come to us more than ever before.  We also live in a virtual world – our reality reaches well beyond our physical capacities and so do other realities that touch us every day.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the museum of the city could tap into these opportunities?  Perhaps the city museum of tomorrow could be equal parts physical and mobile and virtual.  Perhaps the walls and spaces within which you now collect and curate and educate can be exploded, blown away, redefined.  Perhaps the city itself – its streetscapes, its parks, its theatres, its neighbourhoods, its palaces and its slums – could become the actual museum; or at least a significant part of the museum.  Perhaps its airwaves and websites and every single I-phone and computer could become a significant part of the actual museum.  Maybe you could take the entire museum package on the road.

You could curate its treasures as well as its embarrassments on the streets. You could program and re-set its spaces to expose the meaning of those spaces to different kinds of people in the past, in the present, in the future.  You could challenge its contradictions and celebrate its harmonies.  You could set up discussions by everyone everywhere about something specific somewhere through social media.

With the city as the actual museum, you could not just interpret your city; you could join the energies that transform it.  The artifacts that you could work with would not just be the artifacts that you collect or borrow – they would be the actual walls and spaces and landscape and water and monuments and even the people of the city.  And I can just imagine the results that could come from you applying your rigorous research and interpretation and curation and presentation and communication and education methods and skills, with the kind of high integrity, independence and inquiry that is de rigueur in the museum world.

And what fascinates me about this whole idea is that you can engage in a way that few other institutions can do, and that government institutions find it especially hard to do – integrating high culture with everyday life;  integrating fun and lighthearted experimentation with serious inquiry and discussion of hard issues; making the funny or sad cross-connections.  Yours is a world of emotion as well as hard facts and it is the emotional side that really connects with people, that causes them to stand up and take notice, and remember, and shift their opinions.  You really do teach people and they are forever changed by your teaching – that is exactly what we need for urban connoisseurship to flourish.

Just imagine you are entering the City of Vancouver and you are also entering the Museum of Vancouver with a lot of cues and urban incidents to let you know about that.  You could bring the museum all around us as a constant force for dialogue and understanding and reconciliation and even to engender critical review on the one hand or love on the other.  The “city as museum” could be a powerful contributor to urbanism.

Now, I am not talking about this idea of the “city as museum” taking the place of the actual museum facilities – these have a very interesting potential in the future that I will come back to in a minute – but I am talking about the city museum team reaching out beyond the walls of its buildings to the larger setting around it.  So, let me give you a few examples that might be a part of this reaching out.  I am going to talk about some things that I have seen that do not necessarily come from museums but could easily have done so.  Here are just a few ideas to get people thinking.

Urban interventions

One way to curate the city is to refurnish it or redress it for a dream of something else.  In Dallas there is a group called “Team Better Block”  They are a somewhat rogue group of activists that pull lots of people together, often over a weekend, to create what they describe as quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great streets.  Their whole gig is to transform one or two blocks of a streetscape to show what it might be like.

One day a street will be in a dull malaise, rundown, with high vacancy rates, a real mess.  The next day it will have trees and landscape, often arriving in pots, it will have temporary little shops and cafes, with lots of sidewalk presence, there will be art and lighting, there will be all kinds of pedestrian activity – there will be a buzz.  Then they invite in the neighbourhood to experience and enjoy the place, with a lot of music and fun.  The result is usually that the community is energized to make the dream a reality.  Landlords are offered new faith.  Consumers make a new commitment to come back to the place.  City officials are charged to make the public realm improvements real and lasting.  A happening becomes a force, which becomes a change on the ground, which becomes an inspiration and lesson for that place and other places.

In Dallas, the Build a Better Block project creates instant and ephemeral street retrofits.

Now imagine if the sponsor for this is the city museum.  Imagine if the idea was diversified by the museum.  Imagine if the refurnishing is not from bad to good but from new to old.  Imagine if you could transform a 21st century streetscape into its 19th century form so that people can understand and experience the reality of an antique street.  What if the effort included players in costume - docents who could also be the interpreters of what used to be?  Or what if the streetscape is re-vamped to illustrate a use or activity that was once typical on the street, to show how an area has evolved?  I think the experiential quality of such heritage curation could be more powerful that all the exhibits that can be pulled together in a museum space – and the experience would be accessible to more people.

Or what if the streetscape is fitted up in an imagined future form to explore new forms of urbanism?  The ideas are endless, but the point is that the streetscape – and there could be many of them all over a city – would become an integral part of the museum; an extension of the museum; a rich canvas upon which the museum can do it job of curation and education and all the rest.  As an analogy, I think of the temporary changes regularly made around Vancouver by the movie industry to make a film scene.  They are always pretty interesting even though they are done for private purposes.  The public interest in public stories would be even more provocative.

Of course, once we start talking urban interventions, we do not have to stay on a street.  The city museum could also be the agent for installation of temporary parks – borrowing the “porta-park” idea from the recreationalists – or of tableaus to tell all kinds of stories in different spaces or buildings or of plays and other performance art to tap into the essence of a place or the anxiety of a community about urban change or to expose social tensions or contradictions or for any number of other fascinating motives.  In Dallas they are initiating a spontaneous temporary program they call “activating vacancy”.  For a city with vast empty surface parking lots and wind-blown empty sites, you can imagine what they have in mind.  In all of this, the city museum would find the setting for its work within the fabric of the city; expropriate that setting for a time; and then move on to other places – with just endless possibilities.

Imagining the future city

Another method of outreach and use of the city as museum is suggested by what in the late-90’s in Berlin was called the “InfoBox” or the “Red Box” in Potsdamer Platz.  Once the Berlin Wall came down, a huge redevelopment of the once no-man’s land was envisioned that would heal the terrible scars.  People were excited; people were worried; people were perplexed.  So the authorities decided that they needed to have a vivid focus for explanation of the new plans and input about those plans.  In the vast open field of the future development they planted a temporary structure that was five-stories high, painted bright red, which offered the whole story about the place – its ecology, its history, its political traumas and ultimately its future development form.  As people went through the building, they learned a lot and then they were engaged by staff to offer their stories and their ideas and their reactions to the new proposals.  The Red Box was big and bold and it drew hundreds of thousands of people over the several years that it existed.

The "Info-Box" on what would become Potzdamer Platz, Berlin. Source: Archnewsnow.com.

Now just imagine a similar installation by a city museum, perhaps more modest in size but nonetheless effective.  Every city has new development areas and they are both interesting and difficult for people.  If the city museum zoomed in with the right kind of dispassionate and helpful facility, it could do a great service for a community.  What would be especially powerful is that as museum professionals you would know better than almost anyone about how to make the installation fun and moving and meaningful as well as just informative and engaging.  What might be even more interesting is that the installation could stay through the development and occupancy process for the new area to become an outpost for exhibitions and presentations by the museum on an ongoing basis.

For example, look at the pavilion for the first transcontinental train, now permanently placed adjacent to the Roundhouse Community Centre, near False Creek in Downtown Vancouver.  It is very popular with residents and visitors alike; and it vividly informs people of what the area was once all about as well as giving them a fun experience of an authentic train – the very train that make that first fated trip.  Maybe cities like Vancouver that have so much redevelopment need their green and red and yellow boxes all over the cityscape to interpret change through the artistry of the city museum.  

My favourite of these outreach concepts that use the city as the theatre for activity is something called the “BMW Guggenheim Lab,” which has operated both in New York City and Berlin.  Charles Montgomery, who introduced me this morning, was part of the team conceiving the original lab in New York.  As Charles describes it, these labs bring together willing, curious participants and offer resources and logistical support for them to undertake informal urban experimentation.  That is why they are called “labs”, because they turn the city into a laboratory.  He is quick to point out that these labs are not research institutes but rather a fun and provocative place to talk about new ideas.  In the New York case, they tested the emotional effects of public places on participants using sensors and in Berlin they added various games and tests to augment the data.  Everybody had a good time, information was collected, and a lot was learned.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab occupied an empty lot in New York City in 2011.

Now that information and those people can be part of actively shaping these cities for a better future.  Well, of course, this idea has so many possibilities for the kind of outreach and city engagement that a city museum might want to do.  For example, what if the lab can be used by residents to do a neighbourhood audit?  You could start the lab in a successful beloved area where the participants could document all kinds of metrics and take all kinds of measurements.  Then you could move the lab to the participants’ neighbourhood to see how their home-base performs in comparison.  Because this would be a completely experiential process, learning would be fast and solid and I bet people would act directly on what they have discovered.  What if the data collection could be channeled through social media to sites where it can be instantly mapped and analysed against other norms and standards and regulations – the whole idea just gets more and more powerful.

And I think the city museum might take all of this even one step further.  Why not actually convene people to key locations in a city to participate in that place in a certain way – to make a point or to learn something or to shift the use of a space.  We’ve seen hundreds of cyclists convened to reclaim streets from cars.  We’ve seen crowded white dinner parties convened to repopulate empty spaces.  We’ve seen schools of children convened to use crayons to rededicate a pedestrian mall and playground.  The convening possibilities of social media are amazing and the civic museum, using the city as its museum, could tap into groups of people and have them become part of the museum experience in vastly more effective ways than are possible by trying to draw them into the museum building.  And the experience can be more fun and hip and edgy and enticing.

The museum as city

Now, let’s shift to the opposite side of my original proposition – let me turn to the idea of the “museum as city”.  This is really the concept to turn the museum of the city into the agora of the city – the place where people come together to learn about issues, debate the future, consider new propositions and evaluate the various development moves that are changing the cityscape every day.  Again, the idea is that the museum barriers come tumbling down and the physical plant of the museum becomes not just a repository but also a safe and respectful gathering place.

We live in a world where there is wide-spread debate but the convenor of that debate is often not what I would call disinterested.  It is often not led by the needs of the people but rather by the needs of those hosting the debate.  We have seen what can happen when people en masse rebel against that arrangement and use social media to convene their own debate and expose their own information.  In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East this provoked its own forums and facilitated a people power like we have not seen for decades.  That was a very good thing, but we all know that that same power can be manipulated for other than altruistic motives.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the museum of the city could tap into these same energies and networks within the context of high ethics and a dispassionate dedication to the fundamental needs of the people and fair democracy of the people?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could become the acknowledged epi-centre for a rich community inquiry and discussion of all the important urban issues of the day?  I can tell you that there is no place to do that and no one is doing that in almost any city right now.

But a city museum could be that place and you, the curators and programmers could be that convenor.  Wouldn’t it be great if every citizen could expect to find a solution to their urban problem or an answer to their civic question by coming to the museum?  Perhaps marginalized people would find a special voice to explain their life position and to draw out resolutions to help them cope that are not coming from the politicians or social workers.

Perhaps regular folks who feel under siege from the change around them could think first of the city museum as the place to go to understand that change and to be offered a way to affect it.  Perhaps people interested in the preservation of urban heritage or the introduction of new urban structures could come first to the city museum to introduce their proposals to the people and to build support for those proposals before starting into the complex City Hall processes for formal endorsement or approval.  Perhaps the city museum could be the custodian for web-based voting by citizens on those new ideas or proposals.

Once we have the “museum as city”, you will enter the fray of the urban revolution or evolution.   You will become the agent of change and the advocate for the fairness and equity of that change.  You will become the actual voice of the people or the facilitator of their voices.  Just imagine what it would be like if entering the Museum of Vancouver you were also entering one of the City Halls of Vancouver, where the business of the day is actually conducted not just observed.  Once again, the “museum as city” could also be a powerful contributor to urbanism.

Now, I’m not talking about these new functions displacing the fascinating activities and shows that you already do.  I am taking about adding this agenda to what you already do.  So let me offer just two examples to give a taste of what this might be all about.

Urbanarium

There is one concept that has long been afloat in Vancouver that would be a perfect format for the museum as city.  It is called an “urbanarium”.  The idea of this is to have a place where everything about the city can be collected and explored and where people can get together to talk and work toward better city forms and processes and images and institutions.  Usually it has a physical focus in a grand model of the city, such as the wonderful one in the Shanghai Planning Museum.  This model has to be big enough so it really thrills people to see it and so they can really understand what they are seeing.  This model has to be always changing and being updated so it is current to the state of the city and to the agenda of change in the city at any point in time.

Scale model of Shanghai in that city's Planning Museum. Image: Harry Alverson, Wikimedia commons.

This model has to be backed up with maps and aerial photography and all kind of statistics so that people can see the relationship between the three-dimensional form of the city and the inputs that generate that form.  This model might also be backed up by a social model and an ecological model and even an institutional or political model.

Then, these models becomes a framework for discussion and experimentation. Proponents can insinuate their new ideas and plans into the model so we can all judge the fit.  We can use the model to test the impacts of big events and climate change.  And, to a great degree, the model can become a focal point for all the dialogue we need to explore any aspect of the future of the place.  It seems to me that a city museum is the perfect institution to become an urbanarium.  You have the venue and the profile and the expertise and the power to convene.  Around the model you can create endless programs and events.  With the programs and events, the link between people and their ideas can be facilitated with their government and with the private market place. 

A related idea is exemplified by a place called the “Centre for Dialogue” at Simon Fraser University here in Vancouver.  This is simply a well-designed place, an agora, for community discussion and debate.  It is designed to facilitate exchange.  It is staffed to offer assistance and logistics.  It has all the digital technology for every kind of documentation and broadcast. This strikes me as the kind of facility that a city museum could offer to the community and as they use the space, the museum becomes the centre of the community.  As a convener, the museum becomes the arbiter.  And, it seems to me that the dialogue can be both active and passive – sometimes more edgy; sometimes more safe.

For example, what if the agora had a wall of ideas or even a wall of protest where, as in Chinese culture, anyone can post their thoughts and once a month those thoughts are collected, collated and presented to the local government and to the world.  Of course, a blog could also be included and with social media, hundreds of conversations could be going on all at the same time.  All of this dialogue would be channelled into the continuing change process of the city – and it could really make a difference, both in what specific aspects of change are endorsed and how people understand that change.

And whether we are talking about the “city as museum” or the “museum as city”, I see a big role for what are called charrettes.  These are big workshops where regular people come together with urban experts to consider problems and find solutions, usually through the medium of design.  These involve a lot of drawing and a lot of talk and a lot of site exploration in a high-energy environment where expert knowledge and local knowledge are merged into fresh solutions to tough urban problems.  These can be convened in the heart of the museum building or they can be offered in tents on key sites that are facing direct change.

In any event, they become the place where surprising solutions can be found.  The civic museum could become specialists in these charrettes and by offering such a venue as a regular feature in a city, they could transform how people deal with hard challenges or big opportunities, how they come together, how they find common ground or, at least, how they frame realistic choices.  I could see charrettes becoming the standard modus operendi of the civic museum as it embraces its mission to be at the centre of civic discourse.

Participants reimage and redesign their city at the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Another form of artful outreach is exemplified by what in Rotterdam is called the “Architecture Biennale” – which is an interesting name because it is not just about architecture and it is not done just on a bi-annual basis.  It is really a public engagement and research format about all city issues and especially urban design issues that comes together in exhibitions based on sometimes years of preparatory work.  The Rotterdam Architecture Biennale raised its head in Istanbul to report on a planning initiative it recently completed in an Istanbul suburb to show how growth might happen consistent with the environment.  It does these events in Rotterdam, focussed on its home city, and at locations all over the world.  Wouldn’t this be a perfect format for a city museum to energize its own space and locations throughout its host city?  Wouldn’t it be a perfect format for a city museum to engage in an ongoing program of creative urban research and even reach out to other cities for a rich exploration of urban issues?

The museum should be a force for democracy

My point in all of this is that the city museum can be as much about urban creation as it is about urban curation.  In the future, I think the city museum could even be a central actor in that creation – connecting citizens with the vectors that re-define the city.  If the museum of the city – your museum – could become the “museum as city” and the “city as museum”, then we could truly join forces in both building urban connoisseurship and choreographing the ongoing re-invention of the city. But more than for City Planners, you would become a vital force for the people of your city and an agent for the kind of informed natural spontaneous democracy that seems to have gotten lost in the halls of power for a very long time.  Our cities need a design fix at this point in history; they need a political fix; they need an environmental fix; they need a social fix – and for that they need to raise the bar of both the processes and the knowledge that we bring to bear.  No one is in the wings right now to offer that – it is a real gap in urban life. 

But in a dialectic of both exploding the traditional museum concept yet reinforcing its solid core presence as an artful arena for urban discovery as well as urban memory, the future museum of the city can be that vital urban force – you have the venues; you have the resources; you have the morality; you have the know-how; and you have the independence.  I am hopeful that you also have the courage.

It might interest you to know that, in the Catholic faith, the patron saint of City Planners is Saint George.  His mythology was that he “slew the dragon and saved the city”.  In a metaphorical sense, the museum of the city may be the Saint George of our time.  If you can slay the dragon of our own urban discontent, our urban disconnect, then it may be you who finally saves the city of our dreams.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, would be a very good thing.

Thank you.

Larry Beasley is the retired Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver. As principal of Beasley and Associates, he teaches and advises on urban planning around the world. He chairs the National Advisory Committee on Planning, Design and Realty of Ottawa’s National Capital Commission. He is Senior Advisor on Urban Design in Dallas, Texas. He is on the International Economic Development Advisory Board of Rotterdam in The Netherlands. As Special Advisor to the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, he oversaw new plans for the city to more than quadruple in pop by 2030. He and his team have just won a competition to design a new capital district for Moscow. He has been named a member of the Order of Canada, the highest honor this country bestows.

  

Posted by: Guest Author on October 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm

By Carolyn B. Heller

Among the many people the late Tobias Wong shocked and surprised with his art was his own mother, Phyllis Chan.

“He really had lots of crazy ideas,” Chan admitted during Show & Tell, an event which brought Wong’s family, friends and admirers to the Museum of Vancouver to discuss the artist and his often-controversial work, now on view in Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong.

To make her point, Chan showed the audience a picture of her son as a young man. There he was, standing on a sidewalk in New York City, selling what he purported to be his own dreams in plastic bags.

If her son could successfully sell sacks of air as dreams for $1 each, Chan said, she knew that the then-aspiring artist “would be able to survive in his future.”

Wong’s audacity did indeed bring him to the fore of the international art and design scenes before his death in 2010 at age 35. Everything he made, every collaboration, every performance, had a story.

Tobias Wong on a Manhattan sidewalk.

From Selling Dreams to Selling Dots

Pablo Griff, Wong’s former roommate and frequent collaborator, described another art adventure that he and Wong launched – the “Dot Placement Project.”

They were working together in a New York design store, where they ordered an array of big, colourful dots.

When customers came into the store, Wong and Griff would offer themselves up as Dot Consultants, telling prospective clients, “If you pay $100, we’ll place dots in your home.”

They actually got several people to pay for their dot consulting services, including some who understood their ironic stunt and used the opportunity to talk with the two about their art.

Their little caper turned out to be a “good learning experience for Tobi,” Griff said, which helped him define and promote his artistic concepts.

For those who took the project too seriously and considered the dots some kind of status symbol, though, Griff confessed, “We looked through their drawers and everything. We basically did this just to look around rich people’s homes.”

Panelists Phyllis Chan, Pablo Griff, Tim Dubitsky and Omer Arbel. Image: Tilo Driessen.

Material transgressions

Designer Omer Arbel told how Wong created his 2003 piece, Doorstop. Wong filled a curvaceous glass vase by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto with concrete, using the piece as a mold. To release his work, Wong had to smash the Aalto vase.

“It was an insult,” Arbel said, “a big ‘f**k you’ to Alvar Aalto.” But it was also more than that. For Wong, "the materials were secondary to the questions that a work raised in people's minds…..[he] had a symbolic way of working with materials that I find totally foreign and totally fascinating." 

Another piece in the Object(ing) show, This is a Lamp (2001), also started with a famous artist’s work. Wong managed to buy a Philippe Starck Bubble Club Chair just before its North American premiere, then wired the chair to turn it into a glowing light fixture.

Displaying his lamp-chair a day before Starck unveiled his own chair earned Wong plenty of attention in the art world. As Pablo Griff told the audience, Starck was reportedly angry that he hadn’t thought of the lamp idea himself.

“It’s a nice chair,” Griff pointed out, “but it’s much more beautiful as a lamp.”

Doorstop, concrete cast in an Alvar Aalto vase.

“This Beautiful Soul”

Despite Wong’s sometimes outrageous antics, his friend Nancy Bendtsen said that Tobi “was very generous, always giving gifts. He had this beautiful soul, where things were always possible.”

Bendtsen met Wong at Inform Interiors, the Vancouver furniture store she runs with her husband Niels Bendtsen. Tobi turned up with “all these ideas. He had, maybe, 50 ideas” for projects they might do together.

Tobi’s world “was full of ideas and friends,” Bendtsen said, brushing away a tear.

Wong eventually worked with the Bendstens to design a sofa shaped like a pentagon, with all its padded seating facing inward. They built a prototype of the unusual five-sided couch, which they intended to display at a design show in Brazil. Unfortunately, Brazilian customs confiscated the crates.

It was shortly after September 11th, Bendsten recalled, speculating that the sofa – named “Pentagon” – may have been seized because of some imagined connection to the attack on the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.

They never retrieved the sofa. In one of the last conversations Bendsten had with Tobi before his death, Wong insisted that he would return to Brazil one day and track it down.

 Tobias Wong/Inform Pentagon: disappeared in Brazil.

Design That (Really) Lasts

Wong loved working with other artists, his collaborator and romantic partner, Tim Dubitsky, recounted, frequently convincing them to “go out of their way to participate” in his projects.

One such venture was a pop-up tattoo parlour, in which patrons would pay “a significant amount” to have various artists’ works tattooed on their bodies.

The idea, Dubitsky said, was to test how far a fan was willing to go for a work they admired.

Wong himself was prone to this compulsion. At a gallery opening in New York, he convinced the artist Jenny Holzer to write her yuppie manifesto on his arm: “Protect me from what I want.” Wong promptly had the words tattooed in place, effectively appropriating the phrase as his own.

(Inspired by Wong’s tattoo parlour, the MOV will host its own tattoo event, “Love You Forever: A (pop-up) Tattoo Spectacle,” on December 8.)

Protect me from what I want: Nancy Bendtsen compares her temporary tattoo to the original on Wong's arm. Image: Tilo Driessen.

Coke Spoons in Heaven

After sharing their memories, Wong’s mother and friends walked the audience through the Object(ing) exhibit, where more stories – by friends, fellow artists, or others who knew or collaborated with Wong – accompany each work.

One of Wong’s most attention-getting creations was Coke Spoon (2005), in which he dipped a long, thin McDonald’s coffee stirrer in 18-karat gold. Pablo Griff said that McDonald’s, which apparently didn’t appreciate being linked even tangentially with the drug culture, got a cease-and-desist order to prevent Wong from producing more of the gold-plated spoons.

Next to Coke Spoon is a comment by artist and writer Douglas Coupland:

“The spoon hung on [my] kitchen wall above the sink for years, and then it vanished…. I hope that Tobi took it and has it with him in heaven.”

Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong runs through February 24, 2013.

As a child, Tobias Wong created this miniature scupture for his mother. He 'appropriated' the form from a sculpture in her home.

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