Vancouver is often referred to as a new city, with the common misconception that its history only dates back 200 years. However, before the 200 years of recent history, there are thousands of years of forgotten Indigenous history. Before Vancouver, there was ćǝsnaɁǝm*. As part of CTLT’s Classroom Climate series, Susan Rowley and Jordan Wilson facilitated the session Engaging with the Museum of Anthropology: ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city. Susan and Jordan discussed their new exhibit, which explores some of the Indigenous history of the city.
Susan, co-head of the UBC Department of Anthropology, and Jordan, a Musqueam community member and graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, co-curated the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) exhibit ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city to enlighten the public about ćǝsnaɁǝm. ćǝsnaɁǝm is an ancient village and burial site located in the traditional and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Though it is now more commonly known as Marpole, Susan noted that, “[Marpole] is not the real name. The real name is ćǝsnaɁǝm.” The exhibit aims to bring awareness to the deep-seated and often neglected Musqueam history beneath Vancouver.
ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city is a series of three exhibits at three locations: the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre, the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), and MOA. The exhibits were organized by an exhibit team from each of the institutions. The exhibit team recognized the importance of being respectful to Musqueam stories and voices, and planned the exhibits with consultation from an advisory committee of Musqueam leaders. Susan explained, “We talked to the community, and we listened to what people said. We listened to the advisory committee. What was it they felt was important about ćǝsnaɁǝm? What did they want to share?”
The exhibits, though unified in their exploration of ćǝsnaɁǝm, are each distinct and have a different focus. At the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre, the exhibit is focused and written for a youth audience. “It’s trying to get across that sense of respect for the knowledge of the peoples of the past,” Susan said. To do so, one of the approaches they use is directly addressing language.
“When we talk about people of the past, [we say] they built houses, but we don’t actually use the term architect. They built canoes, but we don’t refer to them as shipwrights or marine engineers,” Susan said. She noted that too often, there is a simplification of skills, which ignores the wealth of knowledge and expertise people of the past held. The exhibit hopes that by using terms in current language, it will highlight the expertise of people in the past.
At the Museum of Vancouver, the exhibit is catered towards a more general Vancouverite audience. One of the main focuses at MOV is the concept of home and belonging. On display are personal items of the Musqueam band that were excavated from ćǝsnaɁǝm in the early 1900s. Hundreds of artefacts—referred to throughout the exhibit as “belongings”—were removed from their original site. The belongings are the starting point to a larger discussion. The improper removal of the belongings from an ancestral burial ground symbolizes the colonial history of the Musqueam people, displaced from their original home. Jordan emphasized that the exhibits are not about archaeology. “They are exhibits about Musqueam culture and Musqueam voice,” he said. He noted that the exhibit focuses on community perspectives of the belongings, in order to bring a deeper understanding to them.
The third exhibit, located at the Museum of Anthropology, is targeted towards the university audience. When Susan and Jordan were planning the exhibit and what to display, they had to decide between more than 9,000 belongings. However, they felt it was not their place to choose which pieces could most accurately depict thousands of years of Musqueam history, tradition, and culture. Instead, they focused on community voices, values, and worldviews.
Texts and dialogues, all told in first person, regarding genealogy, history, teaching, ancestry, and land, can be found at MOA. A variety of multimedia is used to present these teachings, with some of the content having never been shared with the public before. In one section, the curators invited members of the Musqueam exhibit advisory committee to share a meal and conversation. With their consent, the conversation was recorded, giving audiences a chance to be part of a personal exchange that highlights the importance of listening to Elders and gathering together.
Jordan explained that the exhibit is created not only to share knowledge and history, but also to demonstrate Musqueam practices of education and oral tradition. He discussed how Musqueam community members grew up listening to their Elders sitting around the kitchen or living room, absorbing stories and history about their family and community. The exhibit aims to provide a similar experience and give audiences a sense of how Musqueam teachings are passed down.
Susan noted that, since 2012, “Musqueam people became more willing to share their stories.” Their openness is largely a result of the supportive response from Vancouverites after the 2012 vigil at ćǝsnaɁǝm. The vigil was a protest by Musqueam people and supporters in response to planned construction on the site after ancestral remains were uncovered. The support from Vancouverites was overwhelming. They were not only willing to listen and welcome stories from Musqueam people, but they were also eager to learn more. Musqueam community members were impressed, and Susan explained that, because of this, some Musqueam community members became more comfortable in sharing their stories.
Susan and Jordan hope that their exhibit effectively draws on Musqueam based knowledge and creates an authentic Musqueam story. “All three exhibits aim to shift discourse and change the way things are discussed,” Jordan said. They hope audiences will listen to the stories and critically engage with the history and perspectives presented. Susan emphasized that the exhibit is “Musqueam sharing part of their value systems,” and, Jordan adds, “sharing Musqueam perspective of this territory.”
ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city is a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver over the next five years. The exhibits at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and the Museum of Anthropology will be on display until January 2016.
* How to pronounce c̓əsnaʔəm:
ć = “ts” and a little force adding a slight pop
ə = u in “but”
ʔ = a consonant with no sound like the space in “uh-oh”