Out of the Closet

Museums work with researchers to bring B.C.'s hidden treasures to the public

Date published: 2006-04-13 10:16:58 AM

Thousands of little-known works of art and artifacts from British Columbia’s rich past lie hidden and all but forgotten in the province’s museums, archives, galleries and historic sites.

“Without research into the vast, often uncatalogued holdings of our cultural institutions, the public can’t learn anything new,” observes Martin Segger, director of the University of Victoria’s Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery.

And without new exhibitions, there are fewer reasons for visitors to spend time in cultural and historical institutions.

Enter SSHRC’s Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program. CURA funding has enabled the University of Victoria to partner with British Columbia cultural institutions to help them research their own collections.

The seventeen projects underway include studies of visual art created by Aboriginal children in the 1930s and 1940s, the relationship between industry and art, and the legacy of Chinese culture.

“We’ve made some wonderful discoveries,” says Segger.

One of these is a collection of over 200 artworks created by students at the one-room Inkameep Day School. Researchers are working with the Osoyoos Museum to document and digitize the collection, as well as record former students’ recollections of the school and of the teacher who encouraged them to express their own culture and values through art.

Another group of researchers is looking at some of the first examples of colour printing in British Columbia—salmon can labels.

“These labels are works of art, but they were produced for economic purposes,” explains Segger. “They featured idyllic scenes of people enjoying themselves fishing, which was far from the reality of the business side of things.”

The team recently opened an exhibition to demonstrate the richness and variety of Chinese culture. It aims to help visitors better understand some familiar British Columbia traditions, such as dragon boat races, and to bring to life centuries of Chinese history. Beautiful porcelains testify to China’s active role in international trade between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries.

“We’ve never had the resources or the opportunity to go out and work with these collections before, and the institutions haven’t had the resources to make their collections available,” says Segger.

With the buried treasure being uncovered by the researchers, British Columbia cultural institutions are providing lots of reasons for people to spend time with their past.