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Renewal plan is 'anthropology in action'

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    Renewal plan is anthropology in action Partnership forged to expand a UBC museum is a study in human creativity ALEXANDRA GILL
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 6, 2006
      Renewal plan is 'anthropology in action'
      Partnership forged to expand a UBC museum is a study in human creativity


      VANCOUVER -- Anthropology is commonly perceived as the dusty exploration of past cultures and extinct peoples. A huge renewal project at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology proves that notion dead wrong.

      The Partnership of Peoples, a $52-million expansion project that is intended to reinvigorate this world-renowned institution, was announced yesterday morning at a ceremony in the museum's Great Hall, a stunning glass-encased, post-and-beam inspired room designed by Arthur Erickson. It houses North America's most impressive collection of Pacific Northwest totem poles.

      "We're not ready to die down yet," Anthony Shelton, the museum's new director, joked after the presentation, which included traditional native drumming and prayers. His comment was more politically loaded than you might imagine.

      At first glance, the renewal plan might seem like simply a major addition to a cultural cause. But if you take a closer look at the larger context of the province's divided arts community and the various controversies, both past and present, attached to the parties involved, this so-called partnership actually sets the framework for a fascinating study in human creativity. You could almost call it "anthropology in action."

      First, the facts: the physical expansion is being funded with a $17.2-million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a matching grant from the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund and monies raised by the university. Construction begins this month. It will encompass a new two-level, 48,800-square-foot addition to the south side of the building (facing the parking lot), expanding the building's current space by 50 per cent. This new wing will include archaeology labs, extensive underground archival storage areas, open-plan administrative offices, research suites, a library and an information centre.

      Additionally, the project will dramatically enlarge the museum's public-program space by 5,800 square feet (allowing it to curate more exhibits and bring in more travelling shows), redesign the research centre (expanding its trademark visible storage vaults), revitalize the lobby, enlarge the gift shop and rental facilities area, spiffy up the front entrance with new stairs and waterfall, and add a much-needed café.

      Perhaps most significant, the research suites in the new wing will house the groundbreaking Reciprocal Research Network, the world's first Web-based system for the exchange of collections information among cultural institutions and communities all over the globe. The RNN is now being co-developed with the Musqueam Indian Band, Sto:lo Nation, and U'mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay.

      Now the background: the MOA is Canada's largest teaching museum, located on traditional Musqueam land in a gorgeous green setting on Vancouver's ocean-side cliffs at UBC. More than half the museum's permanent collection of ethnographic and archaeological objects originate from coastal bands. But when it was founded 59 years ago, originally in the basement of UBC's main library, the local native communities were only marginally involved. Much closer partnerships have been nurtured over the years. But as Musqueam Chief Ernie Campbell commented during his speech at yesterday's reception, "there have been lots of ups and downs."

      The new expansion, planned with extensive consultation and inclusion of the people it showcases, goes a long way to mending past grievances, furthering cross-cultural ties and putting into practice the lessons it purports to teach.

      "It's become much more welcoming to first nations," Chief Campbell said, pledging his support.

      Museum officials have gone to great pains to prevent potential grievances over aesthetics.

      The new facilities are being designed by Stantec Architecture in collaboration with Mr. Erickson, the legendary Canadian architect currently being feted with a retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He designed the original plans for the iconic building, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

      The MOA isn't just any Erickson building -- it's the favourite of his career.

      Over the years, Mr. Erickson has voiced objections to some refurbishments of his designs, Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall perhaps being the most infamous. Mr. Erickson fully supports the MOA's current plans.

      "It really does preserve the existing museum and its important spaces," Mr. Erickson said yesterday.

      To his dismay, however, the redevelopment still does not include his long-hoped-for plan to install a reflective pond behind the museum.

      "It would make all the difference in the world," he lamented, gazing out the windows at the dry gravel pit at the edge of two traditional Haida longhouses that this pivotal design element was intended to fill. (His original plan included the pond, plus an additional outdoor Musqueam lodge, to recreate an original village situated at the edge of the sea.)

      The two major funding programs that are backing this development allow only for infrastructure directly related to research or teaching facilities, not architectural improvements.

      But Mr. Shelton would like to see the pit permanently filled with water by the time the construction of the new development is completed in 2009.

      "I'm committed to making that happen," he said.

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