MAJOR COLLECTOR: Major James Skitt Matthews

As part of our exploration on the relationship between public and private collections in All Together Now, I conducted an interview with Heather Gordon, Vancouver City Archives.

Major James Skitt Matthews - Vancouver historian, collector, featured in All Together Now

I wanted to know more about Vancouver’s first historian and collector, Major James Matthew (1878- 1970) whose work continues to have a huge impact on Vancouver’s historiography. Local historians, filmmakers, authors and other creatives researching Vancouver’s past are bound to stumble upon Major Matthews’ extensive records.

Heather’s insights and knowledge of Major Matthew’s collection were most helpful:

Viviane: How did Matthews started collecting?

Heather: Major Matthews arrived in Vancouver in 1898, twelve years after the city’s incorporation. Shortly after his arrival, he began writing about Vancouver. To get information, he searched old maps and spoke with old-timers. In the process, Matthews became acutely aware of the imminent loss of the Vancouver’s “pioneers” and of the city’s rapid transformation. He saw himself as the champion of Vancouver’s history.

Viviane: As someone who is surrounded by his collection and is constantly interacting with it, how would you describe Major Matthews’ collecting philosophy, in three words:

Heather: Eccentric – both the items he collected and how he catalogued them. Even today, some things are almost undiscoverable unless you 'think like Major Matthews.'

Subjective – he was the quintessential collector-archivist. He collected what he wanted to collect, interpreted it and edited it. He worked exactly opposite the way professional archivists work today. We leave the interpretation to our researchers. Not so the Major.

Militaristic -- he loved anything military.

Viviane: What would you say is one of Matthews’ most important contribution to the city archives?

Heather: His collection forms the core of the Archives’ private-sector holdings, holdings that have grown substantially since his death. Those holdings complement the City government records in our care, and are crucial for telling the non-government side of the story of Vancouver’s development.

Viviane: Could you tell us a bit more about the digitization of the collections of books Early Vancouver?

Heather: Early Vancouver is one of the most used resources at the Archives and we wanted to make it more widely accessible. Written between 1931 and 1956, and over 3,300 pages, it is a collection of Matthews’ interviews with pioneers, along with annotated photographs and maps and transcriptions of letters and newspaper articles. What you see online is actually a transcription of the text, not a digitized version. The paper Matthews used was too thin and his typewriter ink too blurry to result in a scanned image we could keyword index. Funded by the Vancouver Historical Society, hundreds of hours of transcription was the answer, with digitized versions of the photos and maps added to the transcribed version.

Viviane: Could you mention a few examples of people (not just historians) using Matthews’ archives for their work (you can be as specific or generic as you want)

Heather: Academics, of course, but also bloggers and social media enthusiasts who love to feature his photographs. The photos are also popular among business owners (particularly restaurateurs) who exhibit large reproductions of his photos, complete with his handwritten annotations, on their walls. One of my favourite uses, though, is by author Lee Henderson. He consulted Early Vancouver extensively in order to evoke the Vancouver of 1886 for his novel The Man Game.

All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds features Major Matthews' collection of Vancouver history.

All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds featuring Major James Matthews’ collection closes Sunday, March 19.




The Ship That Saved Vancouver

Countless vessels have transacted in Vancouver’s port throughout the city's history. Few ships, though, hold such an important place in Vancouver’s history as the Robert Kerr.

The Robert Kerr was a sailboat built in 1866 in Quebec. In 1885, she was sold at auction and retrofitted into a coal barge, pulled around by a tugboat. The Robert Kerr travelled between Vancouver Island and the mainland on a regular basis. It was during one of these trips that the ship earned its reputation as “the ship that saved Vancouver.”

Robert Kerr - the ship that saved Vancouver
S.S. Robert Dunsmuir on the left, and Robert Kerr on the right. City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Bo P127.3, 1898.

On June 13, 1886, work crews for the Canadian Pacific Railway were clearing land between Cambie and Main streets. A strong wind picked up the controlled brush fire and carried it towards Vancouver. The fire engulfed the city, killing dozens of people. Witnesses reported that within forty-five minutes, the city was reduced to ash. The crew of the Robert Kerr opened their ship to people who were fleeing the fire. Approximately 150 people climbed on board and watched the city burn from the relative safety of the ship’s deck.

The Great Vancouver Fire
Map drawn by city archivist J.S. Matthews showing the path of the fire. Note the Robert Kerr in Burrard Inlet. City of Vancouver Archives, sketch by Major J.S. Matthews, AM1562-: 75-54, 1932.

However, the ship's role in the Great Vancouver Fire began long before June 13, 1886. A year before the fire, the Captain of the Robert Kerr donated the ship’s bell to the city of Vancouver for use as a warning bell. The bell rung a year later as the fire first spiraled out of control. Those peals were the first warning for many residents.

The bell that the captain of the Robert Kerr donated to the city of Vancouver in 1885. This bell was rung on June 13, 1886 to warn residents of the fire. Museum of Vancouver collection, H973.539.1

After the fire, the Robert Kerr continued to haul coal throughout the west coast of British Columbia. In March 1911, the tugboat Coulti was tugging the Robert Kerr from Nanaimo to Vancouver when it accidentally pulled the Robert Kerr across a coral reef just north of Thetis Island. The crew removed the coal on board, abandoned the Robert Kerr, and left it to sink. The shipwreck, designated a heritage site under the BC Heritage Conservation Act, is a popular site among recreational scuba divers. 


Montanna Mills is a recent graduate from the master’s program in public history at Western University. As a member of MOV’s curatorial team, Montanna is conducting research for an upcoming exhibition focusing on the city’s development during the 1860-1880s period.  Occasionally, she will share research on the MOV blog.

Join Us... January/February Events

Check out these upcoming events...
Become a MOV Member and attend many for free!


All Together Now contributor Maurice Guibord and curator Viviane Gosselin acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Expo 67 with insights, memories and collectables from this ground-breaking Canadian event.   7pm   +
Explore the MOV, H.R MacMillan Space Centre, Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Academy of Music and the Maritime Museum all for $5. There will be food trucks, performances and family activities!  10am - 5pm 
Rebecca Blissett, Richard Lam, and Jon Lehmann discuss journalism’s shift from film to digital photography and the role it has in altering the media’s approach to documenting news. Moderated by Jennifer Moreau.  6pm   +
On the last Thursday of every month, the Museum is open late and admission is PWYC between 5pm - 8pm. 

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Become a MOV Member today. Members receive unlimited free admission to the Museum for one year, complimentary events, 10% discount in the MOV Gift Shop and more.

Shop Local at the MOV Gift Shop

If you're having a hard time finding a uniquely "Vancouver" gifts -  make sure to stop by the Shop Local @ MOV store.

The Museum of Vancouver is proud to be carrying amazing products that are locally made or from local retailers. We also have a new line of MOV products including mugs, totes, water bottles and more. 

We hope you shop local and treat yourself or special someone to these special items!


1) These vintage felt pennants were created by several local designers including 10four Design Group who has worked on several of MOV's exhibitions. Partial proceeds from the Expo 86 design sold online will be donated to MOV. The Creative Director at Pennants of Canada is Vancouver is Awesome's very own Bob Kronbauer.


2) These delicious jams - created by East Van native Natalie Ferrari-Morton - proudly contains a 4:1 ratio of real fresh fruit to sugar. Get them while you can - we're down to just two flavours!

3) New to the store, we have these gorgeous prints of local artist Elena Markelova's hand lettered and illustrated map of Vancouver. The whimisical map includes the MOV! The full size version is on the wall in the store and makes for a great place to take a "Very Vancouver" selfie.


4) These great vintage baseball caps from Nine O'Clock Gun are stylish but also tell a bit about Vancouver's sports history. The caps pay tribute to some of the city's original althetes and amateur leagues including, the 1901 Vancouver Burrards and the 1914 Japanese-Canadian baseball team The Vancouver Asahi.

5) These coasters from Reclaimed Print Co. feature cool Vancouver themed graphics which are printed on locally sourced and sustainable wood!


FRIDAY Five Favourite Photos - 1975

Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from a Decade that Changed the City is now on view at the Museum of Vancouver.

The exhibition displays over 400 photos from The Vancouver Sun collection. To get a closer look and to celebrate some of these stunning photographs, each Friday we'll be selecting our Five Favourite Photos from each year of the seventies. 


1) A great shot showing the development of what is now the iconic city centre in downtown Vancouver.

September 11, 1975 - Aerial view of the new Vancouver courthouse and Robson Square complex. Photo by George Diack (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 75-3297)


2) I love how the photographer finds a new percepective in representing an otherwise ordinary shot.

March 24, 1975  -  Couple walk past the skylight at the Sedgewick Library at U.B.C. Photo by Deni Eagland (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 75-1230)


3) Perfect horizontal lines with a distinct foreground and background. The man is in the prime spot. Yet despite its immpecable composition there is something haunting and surreal about it.

October 14, 1975 - Man walking in Burlington-Northern freight yard with the misty city in the background. Photo by Ian Lindsay (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 75-3724)


 4)  A gorgeous shot of Grouse Mountain with impressive lighting and contrast.

December 16, 1975 - A picture-perfect night of skiing on Grouse Mountain. Photo by Ian Lindsay (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 75-4528)


5) Tina Turner looks strong and stunning in this photo. Her signature legs never looked longer. Also incredibly interested that this show happened at BCIT!

February 8, 1975 - Tina Turner puts on a show with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at a dance at the B.C. Institute of Technology. Photo by Glenn Baglo (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 75-0459)


Exhibition Sponsor

FRIDAY Five Favourite Photos - 1974

Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from a Decade that Changed the City is now on view at the Museum of Vancouver.

The exhibition displays over 400 photos from The Vancouver Sun collection. To get a closer look and to celebrate some of these stunning photographs, each Friday we'll be selecting our Five Favourite Photos from each year of the seventies. 

1) A rainy noir like photo captures the current moods in the city. 

March 8, 1974  - People with umbrellas on a rainy day. Photo by George Diack (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 74-0740)

2) Fun energetic photo. Looks like a still out of a buddy-cop film.

June 19, 1974 - Spanish Banks lifeguards Jim Harris and Glenn Schultz demonstrate an amphibious beach buggy and the art of the walkie-talkies to Bonnie Stefanko and Lois Tomlinson. Photo by  Ralph Bower (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 74-2140)

3) I like how Kits Beach looks pratically the same as it does today. There's even a road bike propped up in the middle of the beach which is such a classic Vancouver symbol.

August 5, 1974 - Kitsilano Beach on a summer day. Photo by Deni Eagland (Courtresy of The Vancouver Sun 74-2782)

4) A slice of life photo that captures the humour in everyday things.

August 19, 1974 -  A Canada Post worker takes a break in the mail relay box on the corner of Beach and Chilco in the West End. Photo by  Rob Straight (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 74-2926)

5) Looks like dating in Vancouver was no fun in the seventies too.

December 5, 1974 - Couple at Harry C’s singles bar. Photo by Glenn Baglo (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 74-4329)


Exhibition Sponsor


Burrard Bridge upgrades underway

The City of Vancouver have annouced that they will install heritage-style lamp posts and suicide prevention fencing on Burrard Bridge starting this week. The construction will begin on the west side of the Burrard Bridge.

The final design of the new bridge fencing was designed in collaboration with a stakeholder group made up of representatives from Heritage Commission, Heritage Foundation, Heritage Society, Active Transportation Policy Council, Urban Design Panel, Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Crisis Centre, the Vancouver Police Department and representatives from the film and television sector. Fencing was recommended by the BC Coroners Service and the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

"We applaud the City of Vancouver for adding the barriers," says Vancouver Coastal Health Medical Health Officer Dr. Emily Newhouse. "This new fencing will save lives. The research shows that suicide attempts from bridges are impulsive. Generally, if someone is prevented from jumping off a bridge, they don't try other means of killing themselves."

Several designs were considered, including netting below the bridge, glass fencing, and several fence designs. A picket fence design with strong vertical detail and heritage style pedestrian lamp posts was selected as the final option for several reasons, including:

  • The design respects the heritage elements of the bridge more than other options
  • The simple design of the fence pickets maximizes views for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle passengers
  • The design is constructible and has lower construction and maintenance costs

FRIDAY Five Favourite Photos - 1973

Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from a Decade that Changed the City is now on view at the Museum of Vancouver.

The exhibition displays over 400 photos from The Vancouver Sun collection. To get a closer look and to celebrate some of these stunning photographs, each Friday we'll be selecting our Five Favourite Photos from each year of the seventies. 


1) Interesting skyline shot to compare to how the city looks today.

 June 26, 1973  - Seaplane and skyline of city at Coal Harbour. Photo by John Denniston (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 73-2344)

2) I find this photo inspiring as it shows a young Svend Robinson delving into his passions and supporting the community at an eary age, unbeknownst of the influenitial Canadian political figure he will become.

August 1, 1973 - Svend Robinson, who went on to become a long-time Member of Parliament (1979-2004), working at the Youth Referral Centre for transient youth at 1845 West Georgia Street. Photo by Brian Kent (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 73-2881)

3) Chinatown feels bustling and exciting with the wall of signs and power lines overflowing to the point where the family crossing the street is almost camouflaged into the background.

August 30, 1973 -  A mom and her children cross East Pender Street in Chinatown early in the morning. Photo by John Mahler (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 73-3391)

4) The composition really mirrors the mood in the photo and the faces of the reporters says it all. The way they are hovering down on Bill Bennett and pointing their mics directly in his face, further emphasize the discontent and the pressure coming down on him.

November 25?, 1973 - Bill Bennett wins the leadership of the Social Credit Party at the convention. Photo by John Mahler (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 73-4426)

5) This photo accompanies a series of fashion shots, however this particular one stands out because on top of the man's cool fashion sense, it feels extremely candid and natural. There is also a nice balance of masculine and feminin with his muscular build and stern look juxtaposed his long flowing hair and big heeled shoes. This image is the cover of the Vancouver in the Seventies book which inspired the exhibition.

August 14, 1973 - Summer street fashion on West Georgia Street with the Devonshire Hotel in background. Photo by Vladimir Keremidschieff  (Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun 73-3098a)

Exhibition Sponsor

Exploring MOV's History Galleries

Written by Greg Sikich, Post-Graduate Museum Studies student at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

The Vancouver History Galleries at Museum of Vancouver provide a chronological story of place. With a diverse range of information, visitors can select from multiple entry points to develop an understanding of the Vancouver story. 

Energy, good fortune and the evolving aspirations of a diverse people are all woven into the story. A key theme of change, and a willingness to routinely re-vision the social, environmental, political and economic fabric of Vancouver life is displayed over six galleries.

Provoking conversation upon entering the first gallery is the Musqueam First Nation story: c̓əsnaʔəm, the City Before the City. The Musqueam are one of the oldest continuing inhabitants of the Vancouver area. The objects on display unpack the rich societal traditions of the Musqueam people. Dialogue in this introductory section to the Vancouver History Galleries expands the traditional narrative of the colonizer by sparking an open discussion about the Musqueam influence in shaping Vancouver. The ongoing story of the Musqueam enables conversation about the rich land that Vancouver shares and the long standing traditions embedded.

Moving further into the Vancouver History Galleries, entering:1900s-1920s: The Gateway to the Pacific, one begins to sense the excitement that early migrants would have felt arriving in such a humble port town. For example, the Chinese migrant is positioned as a valuable asset to early ‘Saltwater City’ by making positive contributions in logging, sawmills, market gardens and as domestic hands. In addition, the Jewish migrant is reflected in the working class fabric of young Vancouver, taking on roles as furriers and shoemakers. Commerce, labour and a driving spirit to achieve financial fortune is echoed throughout the beginning part of Vancouver History Galleries.

Notions of urban growth becomes clear when visitors walk across a massive town planning map on the floor in the centre of the first gallery. The Victorian values of “clean, moral pursuits” are coupled with sound financial opportunities in the shop window displays around this floor map. In addition, the challenges posed by a city growing into a melting pot of cultures are fused into the didactics as Vancouver ripens into a new cosmopolitan centre during the early twentieth century. It is interesting to read how new ideas and perspectives on sharing a geographically rich space are embedded into the story of Vancouver.

An immersive history experience gobbles the visitor up with re-created shop facades, period houses, street scenes and even a tram to jump on board for a photo opportunity. Visitors can ‘step inside’ Vancouver’s past by becoming fully immersed in each decade of the exhibition. Numerous objects, photographs and tactile materials allow visitors opportunity to engage in each immersive section. This helps visitors gain a real sense of the everyday experiences of Vancouverites through the ages. This approach to showcasing history in a museum brings to mind recent visits to the Chinatown Museum in Melbourne, Australia, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and Glenbow in Calgary, Alberta. All three feature immersive, recreated sets of significant historical moments that engage with the senses.

The notion of Vancouverites truly knowing how to push boundaries and embrace change during both prosperous and challenging times becomes evident during the interwar years as explored in the gallery, 1930s-1940s: Boom, Bust, and War. Topics of amalgamation, labour movements and local gardening initiatives all establish an innovative population. Visitors are able to participate in this space by posting childhood memories from growing up in Vancouver on a cork board; thus, connecting the present to the past and enabling conversations about change and continuity. Vancouver History Galleries becomes personal at this stage of the experience as visitors can contribute their story to the chronologic history unfolding throughout the space.

A highlight in Vancouver History Galleries is the portion that discusses the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.  The Japanese began arriving in Vancouver in 1877. They comfortably established themselves in the Powell Street area. As more migrants from Japan arrived, nagaya (side alleyways), reminiscent of cities in Japan, filled with an assortment of businesses and social facilities. Though gaining citizenship rights was limited, the Japanese community continued to establish a proud identity within Vancouver and demonstrated support for the young nation of Canada.

In collaboration with the Japanese Canadian National Museum, Vancouver History Galleries provides a factual and unbiased look at the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. A variety of perspectives are evidenced using primary source documents from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Department of Labour and the Department of the Secretary of State. Through these viewpoints, the plight of Japanese internment becomes a discussion point. Adding a further layer of reality to these documents of exclusion and confiscation without consent are the voices of those Japanese who experienced forced re-location. These testimonies of forced uprooting delivers an honest and reflective part to the World War II portion of the gallery. Visitors engage with both written and visual accounts, past and present, to assist in developing an understanding to a challenging moment in Canadian history. At the conclusion of the gallery, visitors leave a turbulent time in human history with the 1988 Government of Canada acknowledgement of the injustices imposed upon Japanese Canadians during this period of global conflict. It is good to provide opportunities to discuss these moments in our collective past. By having these types of provoking conversations in museums, Vancouver, and Canada as a whole, can thrive in an internationally integrated world and facilitate meaningful intercultural understanding.

At the conclusion of the Vancouver History Galleries, neon lights and music change the reflective wartime tone and trumpet in an exciting future for Vancouver through to the 1970s. Immersive and tactile exhibition design continues by evoking the senses. Visitors can take a seat in a downtown 50’s inspired diner in the 1950s: The Fifties Gallery, listen to local 60’s bands, and watch urban plans to change how people will live in a future Vancouver in the final history gallery, 1960s-1970s: You Say You Want A Revolution. The modern era of Vancouver’s development spoils visitors with choice as they wander through these exciting decades. It is common to hear visitors share stories and relate to challenges Vancouver faced in its social, environmental, political and economic development. Entry points are ample with mega objects, anecdotes from the time and didactics. 

Vancouver History Galleries leaves the visitor spoiled with choice. Whether discovering Vancouver for the first time or re-discovering a long loved city, the curatorial voice is one that provides the sparks to provoke memory and discussion. There is an energetic plot to the Vancouver story that animates the past, present and future of the city. Conversation is echoed throughout the exhibition and there are ample opportunities for visitors to engage with the historical content being displayed.

Recollecting Expo ’86 – Happy Hour Event

May 19, 2016 the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) continued to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Expo ’86 inviting the city to recollect the days of big hair, synths, neon fanny packs and the biggest public event in BC’s history. The evening began with drinks and snacks while guests mingled and checked out the display cases of retro artifacts and archive footage.

Followed was a special presentation featuring four architects and designers who contributed to Expo ’86. The talk was hosted by landscape architect Margot Long, who first introduced Bruno Freschi, the Chief Architect and famously known for designing the Telus World of Science, or better known to locals as, Science World. Other presenters included Alan Hart, key developer of the Expo Line/SKYTRAIN, Clive Grout, designer behind the corporate pavilions such as General Motors and Plaza of Nations, and Peter Cardew, contributor to Expo Gate and the CN Pavillion.

An ongoing mention was the scale and just how many people came together to make it happen. Expo ‘86 put Vancouver on the map and pushed the city forward in terms of urban and transportation development. The event provided thousands of jobs to designers, architects and exhibitioners across the country and helped launch the careers of budding designers such as Long, who like many contributors to the Expo made the move to Vancouver from Calgary and other neighbouring cities. To this day, Expo ‘86 remains the most recent World’s Fair to be held in North America.

From left to right: Bruno Freschi, Peter Cardew, Alan Hart, Margot Long and Clive Grout.

To see more photos from this event, please visit this gallery.


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