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‘Incredible treasures’ at core of redesigned Museum of Anthropology

The museum has been rebuilt with input from an Indigenous advisory committee. It re-opens Thursday. Learn more

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When visitors enter the Museum of Anthropology at UBC when it reopens on Thursday, they will be greeted by three new exhibits and other changes.

The museum, which drew almost 70,000 visitors in 2022 before being closed for 18 months for a massive seismic upgrade, has been rebuilt with input from an Indigenous advisory committee.

What changes there are to the building itself are mostly not in plain sight.

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“A lot has changed, but we wanted to maintain that sense which I think this space has always had of huge respect of these incredible treasures and belongings,” museum director Susan Rowley said.

Musqueam house posts by artist Susan Point have been moved inside and are front and centre in the Great Hall, as is a giant totem by the late Art Thompson that used to sit outside the Kenny Building on campus, moved in consultation with the Thompson family.

“It’s been devastating not being open to the public for almost two years,” Rowley said.

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The Museum of Anthropology at UBC is re-opening this week following an 18-month closure that saw the successful completion of cutting-edge seismic upgrades to its Great Hall. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /101045015A

One of the new exhibits, “In Pursuit of Venus (infected)” by New Zealand Maori artist Lisa Reihana that explores the worlds of all Pacific Indigenous peoples, was not completely set up yet earlier this week, but Damara Jacobs Petersen of Squamish Nation, the only Indigenous curator at the museum, promised it will be ready by Thursday’s grand re-opening.

“It’s going to be so cool,” Petersen said. “Yes, it will be ready by Thursday.”

It looks like it will be something special to see and hear, with a screen 17 metres wide that has super-high resolution (15K), eight speakers and four projectors displaying Indigenous performers from around the Pacific.

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The title reflects a reimagining of Capt. James Cook’s quest to trace the transit of Venus in the Pacific night sky and thereby open up global navigation, and the resulting diseases.

Elsewhere, workers this week were still busy drilling in screws, applying floral patterns on glass, and getting the entrance ready.

Cranes that were working on rebuilding the Coquihalla Highway needed to be brought in for construction to align giant support columns within a millimetre while being cotter-pinned to special glass installed to keep the spirit of architect Arthur Erickson’s 1976 design.

The new seismic base isolation technology — the museum now “floats” above its foundation and uses movement joints to limit the transfer of ground shifts to the structure — is only the second such in Canada, said Jay Hiscox, UBC’s director of project services and infrastructure development.

“Beneath all this,” Hiscox said, sweeping his arm at the exhibits and workers scurrying to get last-minute details completed, “is a giant slab all this is sitting on, which allowed us to redesign and reimagine the museum.

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“What people don’t see is that the whole place has been completely re-engineered.”

The cost was $40 million, and the project came through not just on time but on budget, too.

“It sounds counter-intuitive to rebuild in order to save a building,” Hiscox said. “In this case, you can see standing here it’s such a unique space.

“To fill it up with diagonal bracing or steel to save it would have robbed it of all its power.”

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The museum’s renovations have brought revitalization and reinterpretation of displays of Northwest Coast Indigenous artworks and belongings. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /101045015A

Another new exhibit is called “To Be Seen, To Be Heard: First Nations in Public Spaces, 1900-1965.”

Co-curators Karen Duffek of the museum and scholar Marcia Crosby, who is Ts’msyen and Haida, demonstrate how B.C.’s Indigenous people presented themselves to their colonial masters, as well as the way in which those masters reduced Indigenous people to caricatures for events such as Dominion Day and royal visits.

A 70-minute film, not meant to be viewed all at once but to be rejoined at different points upon return visits, is accompanied by voices from the beginning of audio recording to the present day.

“Audio fills the space and gives you a feeling of sitting at the table with (the Indigenous speakers) while you watch the film and view their large objects and belongings,” Duffek said.

“The underlying theme is Indigenous people being in B.C.’s urban spaces.”

The museum officially reopens on Thursday at 5 p.m.

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