The John Feathers Map Collection

This lovely video is an interview with Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason. He tells the story of a house in Los Angeles whose owner, John Feathers, died, leaving behind a massive collection of more than 10,000 maps, street guides, atlases, and globes. The house was slated for destruction, and Feathers had left no will. It was only because the real estate agent had read an article written by Creason and contacted him, that the collection was saved. “Everywhere I looked in the house, there’s maps,” Creason says. “It’s almost like he wanted to collect every map ever made.” There’s more on the back story here. And the article on the Beat Generation map that Creason mentions in the interview is here.

Lost Museums


In May 2015 I went to the Lost Museum symposium, a conference focused not on the founding or expansion of museums, but on their disappearance and decay. The symposium was organized around the Jenks Museum, a natural history museum at Brown University founded by John Whipple Porter Jenks in the nineteenth century. Though it was popular at the time, the museum’s popularity declined after Jenks’ death (he actually fell down the stairs of the museum and was found at the bottom), and in the mid-twentieth century the collection was dumped in the nearby Seekonk River. 92 trucks of artefacts and specimens (including the walrus in which Jenks was rumoured to have slept) were thrown away.

Over the course of 2014, students in the MA in public humanities at Brown researched the museum, collected as many original artefacts as they could, worked with the artist Mark Dion to recreate Jenks’ office, and built an art installation that included the “ghosts” of the lost artefacts. It was a truly fantastic conference. The papers were great: my favourites were Joanna Ebenstein’s discussion of an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Morbid Anatomy (which I visited last year) and Maia Wright and Kate Jarboe’s talk about their project “the George Bush Library and Museum Museum.” Essentially, Jarboe made herself the unofficial artist in residence at the George Bush Library and Museum, and created a series of satirical and thought-provoking art works while there. No one questioned her presence, seemingly in part because of her authority as an artist in residence (which of course, she wasn’t – the ruse was maintained solely by her wearing a t-shirt that said “Artist in Residence”). I also enjoyed Andrew Yang’s talk about growing plants from the seeds found in the bellies of birds donated to the Field Museum in Chicago, and Alison Loader’s tale of the raucous battles over the installation of telescopes for tourists in Edinborough in the 19th century.

I found out about the symposium at the last minute, and made a split second decision to go, but I’m so glad that I did. It seems that the future of conferences lies in leaving behind the dry and tiresome presentation of papers and more in these kinds of multi-scalar considerations of themes and ideas. I hope that they’ll have another one – surely there are plenty more lost museums!

IMG_4794This made me laugh.


A detail from the Rosemary Trockel installation at the Brown University Library

IMG_4744The RISD Nature Lab (students are allowed to sign out specimens!)



The Jenks Museum installation – objects recovered from other collections (and the corner of a portrait of Jenks himself)

IMG_4771IMG_4761The Ghost objects

IMG_4764Mark Dion’s installation of Jenks’ office

IMG_4774Performance at the Annmary Brown Memorial Gallery (with the distrubing Partition of Poland painting in the background)

IMG_4775The gallery just happens also to be a mausoleum. The flowers are replaced once a year (on Annmary’s birthday?), and dry out over the course of the next 364 days. It’s a little creepy.

The Disappearance of Arthur Nestor

ArthurNestor-Install19 copy

Every year I teach a full-year curatorial course to undergrads, that culminates in a fairly large-scale (though small-budget) exhibition. After my sabbatical, I had hoped to curate something on micro-museums, or perhaps even create a micro-museum. But, it turns out that one of the most important components of a micro-museum is time. The time to think about and hone an idea, the time to collect the objects, the time to allow the dust to collect. There was no way that I could create a micro-museum with a group of undergraduates in 8 months without having it look unbelievable, fake, or shoddy. So in the end, we played with the fakeness, creating an exhibition that wasn’t so much a micro-museum (though it was definitely influenced by my travels) as it was a para-fiction, or a fictional tale told outside of the normal vehicles for fiction (such as books or films).

The story was that of Arthur Nestor, a professor at Western (where I teach) who disappeared in 1975 without a trace. I found out about Nestor over the summer of 2014, when renovations at another building on campus had turned up his archive. Not knowing what to do with the dusty boxes of stuff, they ended up with me, the museum studies professor. Students were given the task of sorting through his files, and his collections of puffer fish, magazines, notes, bottled specimens and detritus seemed to suggest that at the very least Nestor was something of an eccentric. His notes clearly showed that he believed strongly in cryptids, in lake monsters that populated the Great Lakes in the region and were under threat from human pollution. Through studying his archive, students suggested that he may have disappeared in 1975 to work with Dr. Roy Mackal, a cryptozoologist from the University of Chicago who was working in Scotland, and in that year had taken the most realistic (to date) photos of the Loch Ness Monster (which were published in Nature Magazine). Of this description, only the last sentence of is fact (and even there, Mackal’s photos were also proven not to show a lake monster). The story in the exhibition was built entirely through “artifacts,” material objects that moved the narrative forward and seemed to hold some kind of truth or authenticity (which just goes to show how shaky those concepts are).

MonsterDrawing2 copyBoxofStuff copyArthur Nestor’s archive and packed up office, which included “real” 1970s objects, among them a rolodex, several globes, maps, books, slide carousels, notes, photographs, magazines, journals, ashtrays, and on and on, were created entirely by students. So was the “story,” which was told through a vintage map of Loch Ness, a 1975 travel brochure for Scotland, notes (apparently taken by Nestor) on airfares to Glasgow, and copies of Roy Mackal’s real books on lake monsters.

ArthurNestorStudy2 copyWe were also helped by a very kind colleague at the university (not in my department), who was a willing participant in the role of Arthur Nestor, and posed for numerous portraits (including one in the almost untouched Biology Museum).

ArthurinBioMuseum copyI’m convinced that the detail of the exhibition captured the imagination of viewers. People wanted to believe that this story was true and that Nestor had existed. And there were also a few tricks. Prior to the exhibition, we created Arthur Nestor’s 1975 office in a room in the front office of my department, took photos (black and white), and then “recreated” the office in the gallery space, with the “1975” office photo pinned up beside it so that people could compare. There were enough differences that it was very convincing. And of course, as many people as there were who wanted to believe, there were just as many who wanted to find the faults in the story (which could certainly be found, once one started looking).

ScotlandEvidence copy

western times article copyArhurNestor-Install2 copyArthurNestor-Install20 copyArthurNestor-Install24 copyBeneath the Surface: The Archive of Arthur Nestor was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had curating an exhibition with undergraduates. There were times where the line between truth and fiction blurred even for me and I would have trouble remembering what was real and what wasn’t. I received a number of emails from confused members of science departments at the university who had worked there at the time of Arthur Nestor but didn’t remember a disappearance, and we did have a few angry visitors who felt that we were trying to trick them. On the whole, though, it was received as something in the same spirit as the museums I’ve been visiting. An avid collector, a fascinating story, a group of evocative objects: visitors found the space magical even as they questioned it (or not). At the end of the exhibition, we created two memorial plaques to Arthur Nestor. If one searches hard enough on the university’s campus one might stumble upon them. Hopefully they’ll be there for years to come.

See more at the student-created website here.

Curiouser and Curiouser

While the major micro-museums road trip did end in 2014, the project has been ongoing over the last year. I’ve decided to relaunch the blog as a part of it. Further travelogues and further updates on micro-museums to come.

See the full project description here.

The Last Post ….


After we left Drumheller, the road was pretty straight through to Regina and then Winnipeg.



What I didn’t know is that south-western Saskatchewan is extremely beautiful, full of salt-water lakes, and pelicans! Our conversation went something like this:

“Why are there seagulls flying around? Is that a seagull?” “No I think that’s a Canada goose.” “What’s wrong with it? It looks all weird.” “Maybe it’s a heron.” “But it’s bigger.” “I think that’s a pelican.” “What?” “No really, I think that’s a pelican.” And so on and so forth. I asked Facebook, and was quickly told that, yes, south-western Saskatchewan has lots of pelicans – prairie pelicans. And not two minutes later, we saw an entire flock of them. And found evidence in Regina, where we stopped to take Lucy for a walk.


The next day we went looking for some of the places where Tim’s family had (possibly) lived in the early twentieth century. We ended up finding a whole lot of prairie gothic, crumbling buildings and A MEGATON OF VERY LARGE mosquitoes. I have never seen mosquitoes like the ones in Saskatchewan. It’s less like a cloud of mosquitoes than a full-fledged whirling blizzard of giant bitey flying critters, most of them an inch long. Really, they’re more like pterodactyls than insects per se. I think it was safe to say that by this point we were out of the pretty part of Saskatchewan, and into the part full of mud and things that will eat you. I am writing this from the safety of London, ON, two weeks later and thousands of kilometers away and the car is STILL covered in Saskatchewan mud despite numerous torrential rain showers. I doubt it will ever come off. Fortunately I think we left the mosquitoes behind.




There are lots of tiny towns in this part of Saskatchewan. Their names change, they disappear, they get incorporated into other towns and so on. We weren’t sure if we found any of the places where Tim’s family lived, but I think we got a sense of the area in any case. We did stop at the Whitewood Museum to see if we could find any evidence. We didn’t, but it was a fun little community museum nonetheless.




I love community museums where people just donate whatever might be important to them – like a KFC trophy.


The museum also had this stellar piece of Canadian history: are you a secret feminist? The questions are hilarious.



And this was the super creepy ad on the following page.


Right across the Trans Canada from Whitewood is Old Geo’s Antiques. All that’s really visible from the road is this sign.


And at the end of a gravel driveway is this house (this isn’t my picture – I was so overwhelmed that I forgot to take one):


It looks like a junkyard, and the day we were dropped by there was a lot more junk than in this picture. So much junk that you couldn’t see this:


To say we were both a little nervous would be an understatement. It looks like the setting for something very, very bad; like those bones might not be the only bones on the property (I have to say, if we’d seen the bones, I don’t think we would have gotten out of the car). But we did … and all of the rest of the photos are mine. We knocked on the door, and a man with unkempt long hair and yellow glasses immediately opened it. This was George, he was obviously used to somewhat timid visitors, and he launched immediately into a prepared spiel. Which lasted two hours and was definitely one of the most unexpected and amazing tours of this entire trip. First though, we had to douse ourselves in mosquito repellent and make our way through this path to…actually, I don’t know where. The entire time we were outside I had no idea where we were.



The path opens up into George’s Old West Village – some 30 buildings, many of them historic and forgotten pioneer structures that he’s hauled back to his property.


George seems totally unphased by the mosquitoes.


Not so much for us. Tim actually got a giant pteradactyl in his eye, which George then tried to pick out. Trip memories that will last a lifetime. The pain lasted a couple of days.


In any case, each separate building has a theme, and the buildings are chock-a-block full of stuff that George has found, bought, traded for and (mostly) been given. A lot of it is junk, all of it is covered in Saskatchewan mud and dust, but there are definitely some treasures, and the whole thing is completely and totally amazing.


The chapel, outside and in.



The Chinese laundry.


The lamp room.


George himself, telling us stories (and he’s got some good ones, believe me).


Tim listening intently.


At this point we were in one of the cabins (you can stay in them overnight if you wish). Up to 40 people at a time can stay in the village, and by all accounts they do! So many, in fact, that George is on the lookout for another outhouse….




The star attraction is the saloon. George built everything himself, all from stuff he had collected. What resulted is an 1890s old west saloon, that actually functions as a bar when anyone is visiting.






The (original) workmanship on one of the cabins.


This was the “deserted” cabin. He wanted it to look like a family had just upped and left, like they might have during the Dust Bowl.


The store.






Shelves and shelves of enamel.


The blacksmith shop, not organized yet, he told us, but functional.





30 cabins later, we made it back to the house. George is actually from the area, but he’s only lived on this property for 29 years. Prior to that the house was sort of crumbling away. Now it’s possible that it might be held up by the stuff that’s in it … there is so much stuff. All organized.


The kitchen and living room.


The living room is where the treasures are kept.



Including this. 22,000 visitors, he said, and no one knows what this is. I had no idea.


These photos are from upstairs, where the rooms have themes.


Radio room.



This is the attic.


And this is the basement.



And finally, the “primitive” room, with an extremely old birchbark canoe.



Here’s George himself.


Honestly, it would have been easy to spend hours here. The collection is immense. George asked what we did and found out that I am a Museum Studies professor. He asked, on the way out, what he could do with the collection. It’s sad, really, that there isn’t an easy answer. He said he’d already contacted a museum, and they wanted it, but only if it was catalogued. There’s no way he could catalogue all of this, nor would he want to. He says he already spends 10 hours a day just building stuff and he’s already not in great health. Why catalogue when you can build and organize? Really, I think one of the only answers is to either find someone who will take it over, or to do something like Elsewhere where it becomes an art project. But Greensboro and Whitewood are very different places – I’m not sure that clouds of mosquitoes are attractive to the people who would have to be on site all the time. Anyway, I told George that I would spread the word, so this is me spreading it and saying that there does need to be some kind of legacy for these types of places. And that legacy will never fit into a traditional museum format. Any ideas?

After Geo’s, the drive to Winnipeg was long, uneventful, and long. So long. We were pretty exhausted in Winnipeg, and just sort of hibernated (although we did take a trip to see the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I’m going back in September for the opening!).

From there we made our way north to Thunder Bay, where we hung out with my PhD friends Kristy and Andrea, consumed large amounts of Finnish pancakes (SO GOOD), and took Lucy to see a waterfall. I managed not to get a single mosquito bite in Saskatchewan, at Kakabeka Falls I got so many on the backs of my legs that I think I actually was poisoned. I kept getting weird leg cramps where all the bites were. Yikes. The falls were astounding though.



By this point, the call of home was getting louder. We were both really tired and the drives seemed to get longer and longer. Fortunately the drive from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie is really beautiful. We stayed in the Sault for a night and then made our way to North Bay.



There we continued the northern Ontario tour of my friends from grad school, staying with Susan, another former Queen’s PhD. On the way out of town, we spotted the Dionne Quintuplets museum, and we decided that we might as well go. It was tiny, and fun, but also seriously questioned what had happened with the quintuplets. Quintland? Insanity.







North Bay led to our last stop in Montreal. While Tim brewed beer with his friend Duncan (bringing us almost full circle as they brewed a first batch when we went through Montreal in November), I was downtown at a workshop. It was a nice way to end the trip with my friends Tina and Laura, some good conversations about our book, and a nice concert at the Jazz Fest to top it all off.


And then, we went home. We didn’t do a very good job with the end of trip selfie, but here we are, me, Tim, Lucy and Larry the Yaris. 39,305.8km later. What an amazing trip.


The Long Drive Home, Part 1

On June 6, the looooong drive home began. We plan on arriving home in London on June 30, so 24 days to cross the country in a fairly leisurely manner. Or so we thought. But even taking our time, the truth is that it is A LOT of ground to cover. Big spaces, amazing landscapes, a lot of wildlife (big and small), and a few museums.

Screen Shot 2014-06-22 at 5.43.50 PM

We started in Vancouver, visiting my family and meeting Emily, our new niece, who was born June 4.



We spent a lot of time playing pirates with our nephew. Also, crane building, plane flying and general mayhem.



Knocking down a tinker toy building with a tinker toy crane is worth 3 points!


Looks like a picture of the back yard, but it’s actually of the elastic band float plane that we brought, and then flew approximately 2 million times off the back deck. It was pretty awesome actually, and only resulted in adults precariously climbing ladders and perching in trees twice (trying to retrieve it).


Connor introducing us to the sleeping, tiny sweet Emily, at BC Women’s Hospital.


We had to leave Vancouver on June 11. We left early in the morning in the clouds, and landed in Osoyoos in the evening in the blue sky and sunshine. Like Bend, it’s a high desert – totally gorgeous, and the road comes down from the mountains into the town.


And then it climbs back up on the other side, right up Anarchist Mountain. That’s its real name – the mountain was named after the “unorthodox” politics of a white settler named Richard Sidley, who was actually the postman in a nearby town (named Sidley, also after him).


The pictures look like we were in Osoyoos in the daytime, but there were actually quite late in the evening, and then we left the next morning. We stopped just outside Osoyoos at Spotted Lake, which was SO AMAZING. I had seen pictures of it, but I thought it was fake or sort of more like crater holes. It’s actually a real lake, extremely high in minerals. In the summer the water evaporates and leaves the minerals behind, and then the pools are different colours depending on which minerals are present. In any case, it’s long been a healing site for the Okanagan First Nation, and they were able to buy it from a private owner in 2001 when he was going to build a spa on the site. There’s a little path that goes down to the lake, and we explored a bit.




On the way out of Osoyoos, we kept passing signs that said “No National Park,” usually in huge red letters. There were also a few Yes signs, mostly in vineyards. Turns out there has long been a push to preserve the area, but preserving it as a national park would mean no hunting. Hmmmm…. I’ve got to say, I hope it happens. I think we were both quite awed by the beauty, and it really isn’t like anything else in Canada and maybe elsewhere.

Also, at least near Osoyoos, the arid area isn’t very big. We were quickly back into trees, sending poor Larry the Yaris up and down mountains.

The landscape changes constantly in BC, and soon after Osoyoos we were back in the mountains, but this time in the Old West at Greenwood. I’d seen a picture of the museum online, and it looked sort of like a cabinet of curiosity, so we decided to stop.




It was sort of like a cabinet.


And there was a lot of interesting history – like Greenwood was the site of a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. Also, it is the smallest (by population) city in Canada, and apparently has the best tasting water in the world, though we did not get to try any.


But honestly, the best thing about this museum was the totally bizarre set of mannequins they had amassed. They were so weird and hilarious! I’m sure they’d just been donated from various stores, but what kind of store would have these?







We landed that night in Nelson, which is completely surrounded by mountains. It’s sort of a little oasis – really all I knew about it before we arrived was that a lot of draft dodgers went there during the Vietnam War. Now it seems like that, but also like a cozy mystery come to life. You know, where everyone meets at the coffee shop and exchanges their news of the day. And someone dies and it looks like a bear did it, but it turns out that there’s a long-standing feud stretching back to favouritism in elementary school. And some plucky heroine saves the day and solves the mystery with the help of her pet badger. That kind of place.




After a foggy and nightmarish drive over the Kootenay Mountain, we stopped overnight in Kimberley, and then headed north up the Crow’s Nest Pass. We climbed those hoodoos – it’s a little terrifying to be that high up on something that seems to only be sand!




And then we made our way into Kootenay National Park, where the scenery changes from amazing to totally spectacular.



But it wasn’t long before we started to see the pine beetle damage. It is devastating, and massive. You can see in the picture below the trees on the right which are infested, and on the left, still safe.


Entire mountains are bald, and we drove through kilometer after kilometer that looked honestly like it had been napalmed.







It was really shocking, and we were most of the way through Kootenay Park and into Banff National Park before the devastation lessened slightly (although Banff is obviously affected as well).


Even with the pine beetle damage, the drive is totally amazing.



Bears! We saw five (didn’t really get a good picture). And then we saw a couple of cyclists working their way up the hill towards them….



Back in Banff – we pretty much went straight to the Banff Centre for the Arts to go to the juice bar. A little jungle juice….


Then a quick visit to the Banff Park Museum. We left Lucy outside and she curled up behind a bench. I looked out the window at one point and she had her front paws up on the back of the bench, giving kisses to tourists.



And back to our murdery cabin in the woods. It was really hard to find a place in Banff where we could have Lucy and not totally break the bank. So here we are … we made sure to watch Cabin in the Woods.



Lucy liked it though. Or at least liked that it was so small that she basically had to stay on the bed. The whole bed. Obviously Lucy is big on comfort and not on running away.


A walk through Canmore, and then back on the road.

Prairie storm gathering.


But holding off for our visit to Torrington. Below is a picture of the town of Torrington, Alberta. That is pretty much the whole town.



Except that there is also this: The World Famous Gopher Hole Museum


Which looks like this:


And each one of those boxes has a carefully staged taxidermied gopher (or gophers) arranged in a variety of scenes.






Beautician (it says “I’m a beautician not a magician”)


Swimming date.


And this – the protest panel. GAGS: Gophers Against Getting Stuffed. It’s actually a scene dedicated to a controversy that put the museum on the map. PETA targeted them, because the gophers had been running free in Torrington before they were killed, stuffed and put in a variety of humorous scenes. The letters poured in, and you can read them all in the museum. They’re pretty evenly divided … but I liked this one “Please, let the rats [run] alive and free.” Anyway, the Gopher Hole Museum is super bizarre. It has also brought in 9000 tourists to a place where there is really no other reason to stop.


Torrington was a stop en route to Drumheller. I went through a minor obsession with dinosaurs phase when I was oh… about 10. And I decided then that I was going to Drumheller. And now seemed like a good time to go. We stayed in a pretty amazing place – the converted top floor of one of the older buildings in town.


And we quickly realized that we were deep in Alberta, where even the pasta is meat:


And the grocery stores have dinosaurs on the front.


Turns out Drumheller is pretty great though. It’s half kitschy dinosaurs, half real dinosaurs.


Kitschy (the world’s biggest dinosaur!!)






The view from the top



Drumheller has some great graffiti


And a diner with a model train going around the ceiling


And these signs outside the museum:


And it also has the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which we both agreed was pretty fun. And we both learned a lot.




The landscape outside is all like this – layers of sediment (including coal in a number of places).


Lucy *loved* it. Drumheller might have been her second favourite place (after Kentucky).



A big part of the reason was because there was a major ground squirrel infestation. She thought they were cute, by which I mean they peeped at her and she madly chased them.



Horsethief canyon, so spectacular.





Little Church (it is an actual church).







Tim in the distance.


And our last stop at the Last Chance Saloon (which also had an amazing kitschy collection). It was in the former boom town of Wayne – now a ghost town, current population 33.





Next stop: Regina.

Vancouver Island (redux)

Our last stop in the States was in Port Townsend, Washington, a cute little Victorian town on the water. Also with excellent coffee, treats, flowers, and deer wandering around eating the flowers. We had a picnic on the beach and stretched our legs walking around town.


The view from the top of the hill is pretty special.


Here is Lucy, completely oblivious to the deer that nervously watched her every move.


Nope, still oblivious.


Not oblivious at all.


Last view of the States in Port Angeles. It really was the last view for a while. Our passports were stolen/lost almost as soon as we crossed the border in Victoria. Seems like we’ll be taking the Canadian route home.


We spent the night in Victoria, emptied the car looking for our passports, decided that they were really gone. We reported the loss, decided to embrace the road north of Lake Superior, and headed on our way. We were on Vancouver Island to make the trip to Tofino and Alert Bay that we hadn’t been able to make in February because of weather. Honestly, after making both of the drives, I’m so glad we decided not to go in winter. The drive to Tofino is hair-raising in good weather – I can’t image what it’s like in the winter.

So we set out in the sunshing and had lunch with a goat.


A goat on the roof!! This is in Coombs. It’s kind of a tourist trap, but THERE ARE GOATS ON THE ROOF! So awesome.


We also stopped on route at Cathedral Grove. I came here in 1992 – it’s still as beautiful as it was then, but the Grove itself is gone. The giant trees that stood in a circle were all uprooted in a major storm a few years ago. It’s pretty sad as there aren’t all that many old growth groves left on this part of the island (in fact, are there any?).




And really weirdly, the park is named after the MacMillan of the MacMillan Bloedel forestry company, oh you know, the same company that cut down the other old growth forests and if I remember correctly, was the main target of the Clayoquot Sound protests. It’s a bit hard to swallow.


Arrival. Hanging out on the edge of the continent in Ucluelet.



Tofino has changed a lot since I was last there, but not necessarily in a bad way. There’s amazing food now (although to be honest, I had the first really amazing meal of my life in Tofino when I was 15, in a super divey hotel, cooked by a cordon bleu chef who had run away from his high profile job in some big city. I still remember every bite of it – crab ravioli and arugula salad. I’d never heard of arugula and had never eaten crab).


Tim says I have to explain that Lucy is looking out from under a picnic table as otherwise this picture makes no sense.


Wandering around Tofino.


Danger Bay moment.



After lunch we took a hike through the woods to Schooner Cove.


It was cloudy, but the sky was clearing and the tides were out.


Starfish and anemones everywhere!




Then we walked, and walked, a long way along Long Beach.








Looking a little sleepy.


Totally knocked out. We actually walked so far that Lucy practically fell asleep on her feet and needed not one, but two naps on the beach.



The second in one of the driftwood structures that dot the beach.


From Tofino we headed east back across the island, and then headed north to Alert Bay. It was a long, long drive. We were heading up there to go to the U’Mista Cultural Society, a museum that opened in 1980 and that I first read about in 1998. Reading about the U’Mista really changed the course of my career – it sparked my interest in museums, in repatriation, in Indigenous history in Canada, and in Aboriginal representation in museums and galleries. It felt like an enormous privilege to go to Alert Bay, and it was definitely a highlight of the trip for me.

The short version is this. In 1921, Chief Dan Cranmer held a potlatch in Alert Bay. At the time the Canadian government had made potlatches illegal as a way of trying to destroy Indigenous culture. Ian Halliday, the white Indian Agent, found out about the potlatch. Participants (including many chiefs from surrounding areas) were arrested and brought to Vancouver. All of the regalia that Cranmer had been going to give away at the potlatch was confiscated, and arrestees were given a choice: sell the regalia (at ridiculously low prices) or go to prison. Most people decided to sell (although some sent back the cheques, saying the prices were insulting and they would rather take no money at all). The regalia was distributed to many museums and private collections (including the collection of Surrealist artist Andre Breton). The Kwakwaka’wakw people fought for decades to have the regalia returned, and in 1979 were partially successful. Many objects were returned, but with a (possibly controversial) stipulation that they had to be housed in a museum. The U’Mista and the Nuymbalees Centre (in Cape Mudge) were established. There is a lot more to this story (such as, prisoners were taken to the Vancouver Court House, now the Vancouver Art Gallery), and I’ve studied the collection closely enough that I was incredibly moved to see it in situ. It was also very clear that there is a lot about this story and collection that will always be out of reach for me.

It also turned out that Alert Bay was itself a pretty amazing place. We spent two days there, met a lot of people, had many conversations, were able to see the school children performing at the Big House, and altogether had an incredible time.


View of Alert Bay from the ferry, with the U’Mista and St Michael’s Residential School



Alert Bay harbour.


Walking along the waterfront – I think that was the former cannery?



Ravens everywhere.


And heron.


N’amgis cemetery







Tallest totem pole


Big house


School children performing.


Front of the U’Mista on the left, crumbling residential school in the background. The boards on the front of the U’Mista are there because there was a fire there last year, possibly due to arson.


Front doors. No pics allowed of the interior, but there’s a virtual tour here. One of the important things about the U’Mista was that they decided not to use typical museum displays, putting objects behind glass. Instead, the masks can’t be touched, but they are much more visibly accessible. Also, the room smells strongly of cedar (partly because of recent repairs). I knew about the different display techniques, but I was surprised by how different it felt from typical displays. It was a completely different feeling from being at the ROM and seeing masks all crowded together in cases.


The residential school, which is right next to the U’Mista (another thing that surprised me) is crumbling to the ground. It’s the biggest building in town and it does have a looming presence even though it has since been used for many other things, including band council offices, carving school, healing center, cultural offices etc. It’s impossible to erase the fact that it’s there, and the graffiti conveys the scars of its presence.





So many people in Alert Bay told us how proud they were of their culture. I definitely felt like though I’ve been teaching about the U’Mista for ten years now, I really had no idea what it was actually like – its setting, the contents, the history, the sheer distance from Vancouver and Victoria to Alert Bay, the presence of the residential school, the nearness of the Big House and present-day culture.


Alert Bay and Cormorant Island are also beautiful, and we spent a lot of time walking and climbing. There’s a swamp at the apex of the island!



There are eagles everywhere.


But fortunately not a whole lot of other beasties!! Phew!



This was the view from our little cabin.


And this was the view on the road back to Nanaimo and the ferry. Wildflowers everywhere.



Portland, Part 2


Portland is near a lot of other really great things, and we took a number of day trips to see what was what. We didn’t go to the Pendleton factory (too far away), but we did go to the outlet store, which is basically in a suburb of the city. I teach a unit on Pendleton when I teach the textiles course, and I got my students to read this article last year. I’m pretty fascinated with the history of Pendleton. From the article: “It’s surprising that Native Americans would so wholeheartedly adopt a white, factory-made product that copied, and distorted, Native designs—especially during a period of major conflict with white America. But that’s exactly what happened in the case of Pendleton blankets.” But now Pendleton is branching out, and I also wanted to see how they were handling a (controversial) move, described in the article, to a new audience through collaborations with hip fashion companies like Opening Ceremony. At the outlet store the history of the company really is front and center – the Pendleton clothing line isn’t even available there, they have descriptions of the blankets, books to read and several displays on the wall about the history of the blankets, how they’re made and where the designs come from. This is in total contrast to all of the stores in Portland itself where Pendleton products are sold. There the history is completely and totally erased, and the blankets are used as part of a white Portland aesthetic. There’s only about 20km separating the city from the outlet, but there are definitely two different stories of Pendleton at play. It was so interesting to see this article come to life.



I also went to San Francisco to give a talk on wobbly structures (like knitted and textile houses and tents), oil and precarity. It’s part of my new project on petro-textiles and it was exciting to present it at SFAI. Also, SFAI is totally gorgeous, with a Diego Rivera mural in the gallery, an amazing view out over the city, and some fun student art work to pose with.





On a quiet day we decided to drive the historic Columbia highway, which is an art deco marvel, along the Columbia River to gaze at waterfalls. It is so amazing! So beautiful! And waterfalls, everywhere!



This is Multnomah Falls. Normally you can hike to the top, but a freak rock fall had damaged the bridge and it was impassable when we were there.




Tunnels and neon green rocks.


On one particularly shack wacky day, we decided to get out of the city by driving just a little bit north to Sauvie Island. It’s only about 20 minutes out of town. I was expecting bucolic farm fields, blue skies, leisurely walks. Instead it was weekend warriors fishing in head-to-toe camouflage, often sitting in camouflage tents; do not pass signs because there were big line-ups of people shooting ducks, nude beaches, and pick up trucks, everywhere. It was actually totally bizarre and unexpected, but not unenjoyable.



Camouflage tents from afar. They’re kind of hard to see (har har).


Bizarre abandoned structure in the woods.


Random guy with a salmon (everyone was celebrating so I took his picture).



On a slightly less bizarre side trip, we went to Astoria, which is at the mouth of the Columbia River. It’s also the place where the Goonies, best film of the 80s, was filmed. Line up those rocks through a hole in a dubloon and you’ll find pirate treasure (we didn’t find any unfortunately).


Lucy searching for treasure.


Running on the beach in the rain.





Astoria was full of 30-somethings visiting Goonies sites, which was hilarious. So I didn’t feel too embarrassed running up and down these stairs five times pretending to be Jake Fratelli escaping from prison. Or at least, I wasn’t embarrassed until we were both like, I think there are too many stairs here. Is this the right building? Nope. I just ran up and down the stairs of City Hall five times just for the entertainment of the people inside. We did find the right building. It was oh… right next door. By then I was laughing too hard to really capture the seriousness of the situation.


Turns out the County Jail is now a film museum, mostly dedicated to The Goonies.


And finally, we drove to Bend, OR for Tim’s birthday to see an outdoor performance of  Tune-Yards and the National. The scenery en route was pretty spectacular….


Although surprisingly, we decided not to stop in Boring.


We did stop at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. More WPA greatness! Everywhere we’ve been in the States, we’ve seen the results of Roosevelt’s WPA. They’re almost always amazing. How lucky, I guess, that first of all the WPA happened, and second of all that it was such a great era for American design. I think we can all be glad that the WPA didn’t start in 1982 – a land full of orange mirrored glass and glass bricks in all the national parks!





snow piled outside the windows, in late May!



each level in the stairwells had a different animal. Hilariously, the beaver was rubbed smooth – you couldn’t even tell what it was. The owl, on the other hand, was just fine.

The show was amazing, and Bend was pretty great as well. We stayed with a giant labradoodle named Tater Tot, and sat outside in the desert sunshine. Bend is on the other side of the Cascade mountain range and it’s a desert plateau. Totally weird when you’re driving and one side of the mountains are covered in fir trees and the other side in sage brush. I also ate an ocean roll, which is a word-defying otherworldly experience. If you’re ever in Bend, go to the Sparrow Bakery. So worth it.





When we weren’t touring around Oregon, we managed to fit in a few visits to weird and wonderful museums. Portland used to have an amazing collection of collections, but a couple of them (including the 24 hour Church of Elvis and the Velvetarium) have unfortunately closed or moved. There’s still the Stark Vacuum Museum though, in the back of a huge fancy vacuum store. It’s actually a fairly in-depth collection, and they have a vacuum that proves once and for all that Dyson wasn’t so special with their swivelling wheel. Those things were around in the 1950s!!



Portland also boasts the Kidd’s Toy Museum, which really isn’t at all for kids as it’s full to the brim with racist toys from the 1940s on. It was a weird place, and not a whole lot of fun. Here is a sad lion from the collection.


Opposite end of the spectrum, the Peculiarium, where nothing and everything is real and fake. I totally love this kind of patched together place. They have a bunch of exhibits based on half truths and tall tales. Geraldo really did buy Al Capone’s safe, and he really did find it mostly empty. So who’s to say that the real safe didn’t end up in a store/”museum” in Portland. Anyway, it was a lot more enjoyable than the Kidd Museum, that’s for sure. And anything to do with death-match staring contests. Hilarious. And awesome.






Finally, in the middle of a huge rain storm, we went to the Faux Museum. It’s kind of a miniature Museum of Jurassic Technology, a wonder cabinet mostly made from cardboard, but supposedly housing the world’s last woolly ant (giant size). After we’d convinced the owner that we really were there to see the museum and not just escape the rain, we were allowed in the see the collection of collections (which is MY FAVOURITE THING to see in a museum).


Flowers and buttons made from dryer lint and microfibers.


Collection of nail clippings (one person’s).


Measuring instruments belonging to the collector’s dead relatives.


Twigs stripped clean by beavers.


Objects rescued from pianos during tunings.


Paintbrushes belonging to friends and neighbours.

I loved this little museum – it had everything I adore about small museums, including visible scotch tape and odd objects.

I thought I’d end with my favourite thing about Portland, which was really the flowers in people’s front yards. Portland is so verdant everything just seems always in bloom. Some of these are pictures from the International Rose Test Garden, and some of them are just front yards on the dog walk.
















Portland was a pretty special place.


And we were sad to go.