Touchstones Nelson has just won a prestigious national award for an exhibition that has not yet been shown in Nelson.
‘Roll on Columbia,’ a multi-format exhibit about the Columbia River Treaty was shown for three days at a conference in Spokane last fall, and will be mounted in Nelson in the fall of 2015.
The Canadian Museums Association (CMA) has given Roll on Columbia its 2014 award for Outstanding Achievement in Exhibitions, in its category for museums with an annual budget of less than $1 million.
Touchstones’ executive director Leah Best initiated and oversaw the project and enlisted two local guest curators, writer Eileen Delahanty Pearkes and visual artist Deb Thompson.
A unique mix of history and art
The three approached the treaty, past and present, through art and history. But not history as it is normally told.
Of the eight large historical panels in the exhibit, Pearkes says “My focus was to tell the story from the perspective of the land and the people who lived here. That has not been done before, so the exhibit told the story in a way that the Columbia Basin Trust [one of the project’s funders] would not have told it, or that certainly the government or BC Hydro would not have.
“They might not have talked about the experience of the Spicers losing their farmland near Nakusp.
“Major decisions were made without consultation,” Pearkes says. “There was silence, exclusion and controversy.
“And I have never seen in public a detailed analysis of the treaty as something that almost did not happen. It was on shaky ground. You can see some of the headlines I took from the archives about the great Canadian treaty debate from 1961 to ‘64. It involved a power struggle between BC and the Federal government.
“The exhibit also talks about the negative impacts of storage reservoirs on fish populations. The losses in the non-human element, the fish, ungulates, bears, other mammals, have not been considered in the way I would like people to be sensitive to.”
The purpose of pointing out those repressed aspects of the Columbia River Treaty is so the same thing doesn’t happen again, say the curators, in light of the current re-negotiation of the treaty.
Art from both sides of the border
Thompson decided to use artists’ work from both sides of the border, and have the artists in residence at the conference.
She brought in Mary Babcock, who lives at the mouth of the Columbia who “dredged the mouth of the Columbia for gill nets and washed them and wove them into tapestries, huge and very heavy, and woven with lead leaders of fishing and nautical maps, fascinating.
“And Vaughn Bell from Seattle, an environmental artist,” says Thompson. “In her work she creates mini-ecosystems and you wear them on your head, you stick your head up into these little terrariums (pictured below). These ones were paper casts of Mount Baker, white glaciated peaks, and they hang, and you sit under them, and they have speakers hidden inside with water running. They were a huge hit at the conference, people would go and sit there with their laptop and hear the water flowing.”
“And First Nations artist Toma Villa (pictured below) came and had wonderful presence, a young man who lives at the mouth of the Columbia who has an ancestral fishing camp he goes to every summer, so he has one foot rooted in tradition and in another in the contemporary art world, and he had these big paintings that really depicted these spirit life of a fishing village, big beautiful colourful paintings and masks.”
“Heather Macaskill of Nelson did in-depth research on David Thompson and his travels on the Columbia and made these delicate paper panels, a series of wall hangings that included rubbings from gravestones, some texts from the time, words, salmon, maps.
“And Canadian Jane Kabatoff who lives in Canmore and Kestova, gave a talk about moulins (vertical shafts inside glaciers) and brought moulins created in silk (pictured below).”
“They didn’t know what to do with us.”
Thompson, Pearkes, and Best recall, with frustrated laughter in hindsight, the challenges of putting up an exhibit in the distinctly non-gallery-like environment of a hotel.
“They didn’t know what to do with us,” said Thompson. “It was a logistical nightmare.”
But Touchstones also had to convince its sponsors, the CBT and the Northwest Power Corporation, that their strange artsy ideas had merit.
“We had to influence them to have a conference that included art and culture that hit people,” Pearkes says, “so we had Salish children do a good morning song in their language, and we had a Nelson choral group come down, but that was not easy, to take an institutional conference and press our way in there with history and culture and entertainment and things to hit people at the heart.”
“They let us run with it, even down to the gift mugs and the conference program, that needed to be artistic too, we had an artist create it. They were really befuddled by this.
Scientific reports vs. feelings
“When you get into a room and start talking about the treaty, you very quickly go to scientific reports and numbers from hydro development and the amount of money that is involved, and it is very easy for the head and the rational concerns to overwhelm people’s feelings about what we do to the land and how we treat it and value it.”
If the three were surprised by the logistics of setting up the exhibit in a hotel, they were shocked in a more pleasant way by the way they were received at the award ceremony at the Banff Springs Hotel in mid-April.
“We were the rural renegades.”
They were treated first as oddities, because they come from a small town museum, and then as heroes.
“We were the rural renegades at the award ceremony,” says Pearkes. “It was at the Banff Springs Hotel and we could not afford to stay there. It was reinforcement of how important it is to support arts and culture because we were misfits there as rural residents. Most were big city museums.”
“I did not understand why we were getting this award,” says Thompson, “until we went, and people started talking about how different other museums operate, and that what we did is exceptional. Most museums don’t go outside the box and take a stand. We were heroes, and I was not expecting that.”
Rural history is threatened
“I commend the museum association,” said Best, “because the feds have gotten out of funding museums in general, and it is rural history is being lost because small museums like ours are not able to compete with the resources that these large organizations have, and I can appreciate them for recognizing that small museums can operate at a professional level.”
“Hats off to the City of Nelson,” said Pearkes, “who support this museum and make it possible. It is not an easy thing for a city that is renovating its plumbing and things like that to support these kinds of things. They keep the doors open and Leah working and they keep the archives, which were a tremendous resource for me in doing this.”
A reputation for innovation
Thompson said they also discovered that Touchstones has a reputation among some of the big city museum people.
“It was clear to me at the award ceremony the kind of reputation that Leah and Touchstones have nationally among museums,” Pearkes said, “and among museum leaders, for taking on difficult subjects, using its role as a cultural leader to stimulate debate and not to be afraid of presenting material that might be considered controversial or painful, and that is something that she has known for in that circle of people across Canada.
“All museums should be doing this.”
“They look at our museum as a remarkable success, not just for a community of 10,000 but a success, period. There were people there who teach museum and display stuff who said what Leah is doing is like the prize, all museums should be doing this, but they stay safe in a given way of telling a story. So I am very proud of Touchstones as a Nelson resident.”
Thompson and Pearkes then recited a list of other cutting edge subjects that exhibits at Touchstones have explored in the past few years: affordable housing, tiny houses, climate change, food, and poverty.