Museums like to show off their collections to the public. It’s rarely the other way around. And yet, the Museum of Vancouver is now scouting for the nifty, funky, unique private collections in the region for an upcoming exhibition.
Since beginning the search I’ve had several conversations with some incredible local collectors. A few months ago, I came across Lyanne Smith’s collections on Vancouver transit history. Listening to her talking about her collection was mesmerizing. I got a crash course on urban history using the lens of public transit from the perspective of someone who knew the biz firsthand. Below is a short Q&A with Lyanne. We’re just warming up here! There will be more on Lyanne and her accomplices (a tight network of local transit historians and collectors).
Please continue to check our blog. We’ll be providing updates on the exhibition planning process, featuring more collector profiles and teasing out some of the larger themes that come up every time we ask the question: why do people collect?
Viviane Gosselin: How would you describe your collection?
Lyanne Smith: My collection is an assortment of transit memorabilia from the Vancouver/Lower Mainland areas. The bulk of the collection consists of historical documentation from each of the operating companies, including National Electric Tramway & Lighting Company, BC Electric (BCE), BC Hydro, Metro Transit, BC Transit, SkyTrain, Translink and Coast Mountain Bus Company. Over the years, I’ve collected several thousands of items.
VG: Why did you start collecting?
LS: I started driving a bus with BC Hydro in 1975 and began collecting various pieces of literature about the transit system at that point. The same year, my parents gave me two “Reddy Kilowatt” items used in BC Electric (BCE) promotional campaigns in the 1950s. Since BCE was the forerunner of the company I was working for, they thought I would like these pieces. It kind of kicked off my collection. My collecting became an addiction after I met several of the old conductors/motormen from BCE in 1990 during the centennial celebrations. Having met these transit pioneers, the collection took an even more personal look at Vancouver’s transit history. In some ways I felt responsible for preserving the memory of men and women who dedicated a big part of their lives in the service of public transportation. Collecting is an emotional thing for me: I get so excited when I pick up a piece I hadn’t seen before! I want to know the whole story behind it.
VG: What kind of collector are you, how do you go about collecting?
LS: I focus on fare/transit tickets, the Buzzer, employee magazines, and promotional material, but I also have coin changers, transfer punches, tokens, and other interesting pieces related to that industry. I was given a lot of items from men and women who had worked with the transit system. I also had one antique dealer who looked for unusual pieces for me. I’ve always been very strategic about going to specific antique stores and shows as well.
VG: What are some of your favourite collection items?
LS: Two of my favourites are the “Reddy Kilowatt” pieces my parents gave me: my father’s tie tack (see below) and my mother’s earrings.
Another favourite is the rarest piece in my collection: one of the only -- if not the only -- remaining ticket from the National Electric Tramway and Lighting Company. This company opened in 1890 and was the precursor of BC Electric. (see below)
VG: Looking at your collection of transit archives, what do you think people living in this region today can learn from that history?
LS: They will quickly realize that politics have always shaped the development of transit systems; Vancouver is no exception. Lack of funding, increased user fares, and the nature of expansions have always been at the centre of debates these past 100 years. When people start delving into the historical literature and primary sources on Vancouver transit, they can see that every decade or two, new ideas were introduced for addressing those issues, so that the system could be maintained and expanded; it’s very typical of any transit system. The thing I would like people to remember about the history of transit in Greater Vancouver is the front line employees who made the system run. Without them, there would be no transit system in the Greater Vancouver area.