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Look What I Found in the Museum's Basement!

Bill Richardson's favourite five things discovered in the archives of the Museum of Vancouver.

Bill Richardson 19 Jul 2011TheTyee.ca

Bill Richardson is a writer and has been the host of a number of CBC radio programs. His books include Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast, which won the Stephen Leacock medal for humour, and After Hamelin, a novel for children and winner of the Silver Birch award.

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Charles Marega sculpted this bust of Mussolini -- and also the lions that grace Vancouver's famous bridge.

[Editor's note: The Museum of Vancouver exhibits "5 Things" chosen from its holdings by "people from the city who can offer a unique perspective on the city," explains an MOV spokesperson. The latest person tapped for the job was author and radio host Bill Richardson, whose selection is about to end its run and be taken down on Thursday morning. The Tyee shares Richardson's picks, and his commentary about each item, here.]

All public buildings are temples of concealment. No Entry. Staff Only. Door Alarmed. Who doesn't find this alluring? Bluebeard, Pandora, Eden: the hankering to embrace the forbidden is a throbbing pulse point of some of our most pivotal myths. Everyone knows that museums can only display the tiniest fraction of their holdings at any given time and that somewhere, on or off site, in some verboten vault or secret storeroom, are stockpiles of paintings or sculptures or manuscripts, artifacts of whatever description, some quite usual, some utterly priceless, all of them catalogued and accounted for and there for a reason.

When offered the chance not only to see the what and the where of the Museum of Vancouver's extensive holdings, but also to excavate a few of these treasures, and give them the chance to bask in the light of day for a stretch, I was, of course, honoured and thrilled; when the question "would you like to?" is appended to such an opportunity, there's only one possible answer.

There's something both spooky and moving about the vast rooms where all those corralled objects wait for whatever's going to happen next. Materialism is invidious, as we know; on the other hand, by our stuff shall they know us, and in that lockup there is much much that is revelatory. On stack after stack of high, earthquake-proofed shelving units are oddments from near and far, ancient and recent, from First Nations and Asian and European peoples, and there is not one single dimensional object in there that doesn't have a story to tell, if only because once upon a time, someone thought it was worthwhile saving.

What the objects I've selected from among the many have in common, apart from the fact that they betray my Western roots and my domestic biases, is that they seem to me to express ideas of heroism, for good or for ill. They demonstrate how we aspire to heroism, how heroes fall, and how the heroic can be read in the "merely" quotidian. These are the things I chose in 30 minutes on a Tuesday morning. Thirty minutes on a Wednesday afternoon would, I daresay, have ended in a very different exhumation. If ever offered the chance, I have my answer at the hair-trigger ready.

1. Bust of Mussolini

I have a 1905 house in Strathcona in which an Italian family lived for round about 40 years; they added a room to the front of the building in the '20s and ran a grocery there until the mid-'60s. In one high window, still, is the faded image of a stenciled Coke bottle, and it was for that, as much as for anything else, that I bought the place. The house's founding family would have been in residence all through the '30s and '40s, during the Mussolini years, and I wonder if any of them ever had cause to go into the then Italian embassy, in the 100 block of West Hastings, in the Flack block, and if they saw this big plaster bust of Il Duce which must have had pride of place until the war dictated the shooing home of the embassy staff and the shuttering of its office. When diplomatic relations were restored, after 1945, Mussolini's was not a welcome mug, and the bust passed into the hands of Major Matthews who installed it, discreetly, with its face averted, in the city archives.

It's the work of Charles Marega, who also deeded us the lions on the Lions Gate Bridge, and the Pauline Johnson and Joe Fortes memorials, among many others. Why Marega carved it in the first place, I have no idea. Was he commissioned? Was it at his own behest? Did he think that, at the embassy, he would find a likely buyer?

Mussolini was a hero to millions -- his vaunted status remains intact in certain quarters --and when he fell, he fell hard. How many such likenesses were made and how many statues were roped and toppled when Italy surrendered and the dictator's body was paraded for all to see. That happened a long time ago and a long way away, but it is a living and lively memory still, for many people. The slightly keystone kerfuffle attached to the hiding away of this bust and its slow re-emergence is quaint and quasi-comic, but it's also revelatory of certain aspects of human nature: of the power we invest in graven images, and of our deep-rooted need to invest in some charismatic other all our hopes, and then to stone and bury them when they disappoint us, which, inevitably, they must.

2. Joe Fortes's chair

Charles Marega, who sculpted Mussolini, also made the memorial to Joe Fortes, opposite Alexandra Park. Fortes was, as we all know, a local hero. He died in 1922, and his quite unique celebrity has endured, and not just via the Joe Fortes branch of the Vancouver Public Library, or Joe Fortes restaurant on Thurlow Street. Unlike many lapsed worthies and civic functionaries whose names are attached to streets or schools or community centres or parks, but whose deeds are now obscure, we remember who Joe Fortes was and what he did. In a coastal, beach-ringed city, where thousands of lifeguards have plied their full or part-time trade over the years, Joe Fortes is, I think, the only one that anyone can reliably name. Why is that? Far and few would be living citizens who were on the receiving end of his legendary swimming lessons, and if anyone survived a tidal undertow owing to his intervention, well, something else has long since carried him or her off.

"Old Black Joe," he was called in the (we must hope) naively racist, Stephen Foster-inspired parlance of the day, and I suppose it's not too facile to wonder if race plays a role in the creation and the sustenance of his legend. He did a job that many have done and he did it, by every account, with expertise and genuine caring. As well, he did it while wearing the visible cloak of otherness, a big black man in what was then, a mostly European city. Of Hogan's Alley, of course, we know, but it was at a remove from the resort-like stretches of English Bay. There is a quality of the heroic about otherness, about surviving and prospering among those who are, in the main, conspicuously different. And of course, the job was heroic, and the persona heroic: how could one who guards lives, and who helps children learn to negotiate the waves, be anything but? This squat, wide chair -- it was in Joe Forte's beachside cottage -- is so at odds with the idea we have of a life guard's chair, elevated and view enhancing. It's the chair of a man at home, the chair a man might enjoy during his time off, from which he might watch the waves and tide without, for once, the slightest trace or hint of worry.

3. & 4. Childhood summers

We know that the past is a place where things are done differently, and the evolution of the idea of childhood is one telling example. Terry Taylor was born in 1939, and kept his illustrated diaries in coil-bound notebooks which are now in the keeping of the Museum. They are documents of great charm and sweet testimonials to the free-ranging, unguarded recreations of children in the '50s and '60s, before the terrible specters of abduction and violence began haunting neighbourhood streets, spawning the dire imperative of close and constant supervision. Terry Taylor and his friends on the west side of Vancouver went fishing at the beach and played with their dogs and took the street car and worked on their leaf collections and studied the ways of ants and went to the movies: Leave it to Beaver stuff, for sure, but here reported with candor and no trace of self-consciousness and -- this I envy -- with a kind of discipline. Every day an entry! That's something to admire.

And of course, summer was a time for hero's play. It was in summer, I imagine, that this sword and shield would have been made and used in some kind of game of Knights and Damsels. These beautiful, evocative handmade toys were donated by Moira Irvine -- exactly whose they were is not clear, and Ms. Irvine died in 1989 -- and because the cataloguer (S. Crosbie) did such a fine job of describing them -- you can read the evident delight between the lines of the clinical parsing -- I quote the description here in full.

"(A) Sword and (B) shield made from found materials. Hudson's Bay rum boxes cut in shield shape; white cotton stretched over frame and nailed on sides, with red stylized dragon painted on front; plaid wool ties, for holding shield, nailed to reverse. (B) Broom (?) handle 'blade'; plywood hilt; blade stained red/brown with 'I am Durandel which Trogan Hector wore?, let honor be unto him who most deservath it' carved into sides."

Happy summers of the past, children left to their own devices, and no one butting in about the spelling: a paradise that many still remember.

5. Ken Brock's mask

Not long ago, for CBC Radio, I interviewed the young and very successful composer Nico Muhly. I asked him how, or if, being gay played itself out in his work. "Not at all," he said, "it has no bearing on my creative life." It would be inaccurate to say that Mr. Muhly came of age at a time when there were no obstructions to being gay, but he's of a generation where, increasingly, such aspects of being as sexual attraction no longer require the weighing in of apologists.

Ken Brock began living his gay man's life some 40 years back, at a time when there were few examples or precedents and a great many social and legal impedimenta that stood in the way of leading a life that was fully declared. He has been donating various personal items -- his journal included -- that document his experience. Much has happened to change the meaning of gay in that time, of course. Legalization, politicization, the AIDS pandemic, all the various individual and group struggles for equality under the law, the right to marry.

This mask, purchased on a cruise, in New Orleans, in 1996, is one of the artifacts. Everything about it speaks of roguishness and party-time and exuberance: the stuff of Mardi Gras, and certainly the stuff of gay party culture, once upon a time. Perhaps it still is, for the young and/or the stubborn. It's a lovely, kitschy thing and no doubt there were beads to accessorize it. As a mask, it also speaks to questions of identity and concealment; it's a symbol of what, just a very few years ago, was a requirement for survival but that, thanks to the heroic action of first a few, and then of many, is something that can find a place of rest, in a case, in a museum.  [Tyee]

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