Today’s visit was an exciting exploration on preserving both artifacts and an architectural masterpiece. Touring the Museum of Anthropology with architect Noel Best and facility manager Brannen Bell was a delight and provided some unique insights into the museum's history that I was unaware of even after visiting numerous times. There was also an interesting juxtaposition between the morning and afternoon sessions. In the morning, we saw artifacts from Indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest. In the afternoon, we sat on expensive ‘artifacts’ of designer furniture like the iconic Eames Lounge Chair from the 1950s. While a couch at Inform Interiors may sell for $30,000, we can’t put a price on stolen Indigenous furniture. We know that many museums and governments worldwide were involved in stealing Indigenous artifacts, displaying them in glass cases and sometimes misrepresenting or misinterpreting their use and meaning (MOA, 2008). There is even an ABC podcast (which I would highly recommend) called ‘Stuff the British Stole’ hosted by Marc Fennell. The podcast dives into different objects that the British Empire Stole that are now housed in institutions across the UK and the world. It is critical that this subject is acknowledged and understood, especially since nothing about the like was mentioned during this visit.
Something that I learned today that I never realized was that the site of this museum, the traditional land of the Musqueam xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Nation, was a former WWII Military Base. As a Jewish Canadian, I hardly ever think about the locality of the war in Canada. I have been focused my entire life on studying the war in Europe and how my ancestors were executed at the hands of the Nazis, ripped away from their homes in Ukraine or Poland. It was grounding to be at a site formally used to fight against the people who murdered half of my family. Built as a response to a Japanese naval attack, the grounds of the MOA contain three gun emplacements, all connected with an underground tunnel system. While the rest of the facility was deconstructed after the war, the emplacements and tunnels were left (Chan, 2018), and Arthur Erickson decided to work them into the design for the MOA.
While I found this fascinating, I couldn’t help but also wonder about the Canadian Forces’ engagement with WWII affected the Indigenous populations of the time. I was surprised to discover that according to Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (2021), more than 3000 Indigenous people enlisted in WWII. Unsurprisingly, these individuals did not have the right to collect any benefits available to non-Indigenous veterans because of policies put in place by the Indian Act. Additionally, between the two world wars, plenty of Indigenous reserve land was sold to the Soldier Settlement Board for non-Indigenous veterans. More land was given to non-Indigenous farmers, justified in the eyes of the Canadian government because Canadians relied on these farmers for agricultural production during the war (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., 2021).
All this is to say that this site has a rich history. These grounds played a role in protecting Canadians during the war and, at the same time, perpetuates a history of colonialism, racism, land theft, and artifact theft. I find it interesting how Erickson has integrated these post-war artifacts within the design of the MOA. In the Rotunda, we have Bill Reid’s best-known sculpture, “The Raven and the First Men” (1980), installed atop a gun emplacement where an MK7 was once positioned (Chan, 2018). While I believe it was Erickson’s intention to integrate these into the design, I wonder how much of that thinking was attributed to these emplacements being probably tricky and expensive to remove. Was this juxtaposition between Indigeneity and war intended all along?
Chan, Kenneth. “Did You Know: UBC Museum of Anthropology Built on World War II Military
Base.” Urbanized, Daily Hive, 23 Nov. 2018, bit.ly/3FRCfnw.
“Indigenous Veterans: Equals on the Battlefields, But Not at Home.” Indigenous Corporate Training
Inc., 9 Nov. 2021, www.ictinc.ca/blog/indigenous-veterans.
“Returning the Past: Repatriation of First Nations Cultural Property.” Edited by Jill R. Baird et al.,
Museum of Anthropology, BC 150 Years Programme and British Columbia Museums
Association, 2008, https://bit.ly/3yEHN36.