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Trashing the past

Who we are and where we came from is a story articulated by the Whistler Museum but shaped by the community



As tempted as I might be to destroy the evidence of my uncool youth – music cassettes of bands I’m embarrassed at having purchased, a woeful collection of poems serenading first love (retch), pictures of bad hair and worse outfits – I keep them. Locked out of sight, but nevertheless, they remain, in the personal archives, as evidence of how far I’ve come. I may not be the hippest chick in Reykjavik, the current global epicentre of cool, but at least I’m not 14 anymore.

I seek out some counselling from local experts in preserving history on just what to do with this incriminating historical evidence. Jim Galvao, the programming co-ordinator at Whistler Museum and a visual artist in his own right, advises against burying the past in order to move on.

"I don't mean to sound like Dr. Phil," says Galvao, "but knowing and understanding your past is crucial in understanding your present and in gaining direction for your future. Your sense of identity is based on your history: places visited, people met, things owned, and so on."

Museum President, Stephen Henderson echoes this. Henderson has been serving on the museum board since 1995, and as president since 1999.

"I got involved with the board of the museum because of my passion for history. I’ve always been interested in history. Since I was a kid, I would go to museums. I think in order to avoid mistakes in the future, you have to know the past, and where you’ve come from. So I think history is important for everyone to have some knowledge about."

If we get bogged down cringing at the past, we do disservice to our progress. We lose track of the fact that life is about becoming ; it’s a long, messy and frequently embarrassing evolution; the getting of wisdom. Or cool. Or whatever your chosen path is.

"The same could be said for communities, towns, cities, countries, and the human population as a whole," says Galvao.

Human history can be humbling and awe-inspiring. This may explain why one in three Canadians over the age of 15 visit heritage institutions each year. That museums are in the top 10 places visited by foreign visitors to Canada. That more people attend one of Canada’s 2,300 heritage institutions each year than attend all professional sporting events combined.

What could have been? Who are we? What does it mean to be human? A cast of Lucy’s footprint. A cuneiform tablet of the earliest writing. A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A small carving of a goddess. Half a set of Viking-style Chess pieces on the Newfoundland coast. How rich and evocative these objects are.

That these objects embody stories that transcend cultural barriers and paradigms makes them an important part of our collective heritage. The cradle of civilization birthed us all, regardless of contemporary religious differences. The development of fire, the wheel, language, the abacus, agriculture, speaks to us all. This may explain why many of us relegate the existence and work of museums to the general greater good. A thing we take for granted. Depend on. But don’t give much thought to beyond that. Unfortunately, museums globally are in a far more precarious situation than we realize.

One of the biggest stories of 2003 was the sacking of Iraq’s National Museum, the House of Manuscripts, and National Library, not to mention widespread looting of many Iraqi historical sites. Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, is considered the birthplace of the written word, the first cities, the crucible of civilization. The loss of Iraqi artifacts was widely heralded as a devastating blow to all humanity, and triggered endless jaunts of fingerpointing and pontificating about why those sites hadn’t been protected properly by U.S. and British troops, when the Iraqi Ministry of Oil had been so well-guarded from the war’s start.

That widespread looting would occur in Iraq was a no-brainer. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, a lucrative trade in Iraqi antiquities emerged, in which 10 regional museums were attacked and ransacked over the course of three years, and some 3,000 objects stolen, few of which were recovered.

Combined with the fact that places of conflict have always been vulnerable to looting, from ancient times to contemporary war zones, the pillage of Baghdad was written in the stars. Pillage and plunder were an early privilege of the victor, from Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes sacking Asia, to the Knights Templar, those Christian crusaders against Islam from 1100 to 1300, to the Nazi theft of Jewish art during World War II.

Even with the introduction of various United Nations Security Council resolutions and treaties concerning trade in cultural artifacts, national museums from war zones have been systematically plundered. Afghanistan, over the decade following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Kabul in 1988, lost 70 per cent of its museum collection. National museums in Somalia and Cambodia, as well as archeological sites in those countries, were ransacked during periods of instability.

Francesco Bandarin, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, recently said that the greatest threat to cultural heritage sites was being in a war zone. "(They) are completely under threat and in many cases also being destroyed. So I would say if you can pinpoint the four or five critical war zones in the world – Congo, Iraq, Holy Land in Palestinian territories, Israel, Afghanistan, maybe some local areas of conflict in the Indian subcontinent – they’re dangerous for world heritage."

Cultural looting in Iraq was easily foreseeable, this time around. In an August 2003 article for Archaeology magazine, Neil Brodie raised a more pertinent question. "Why has no concerted international action been taken to block the trade and sale of material looted from archaeological sites and cultural institutions during wartime?"

"A progressive society does not bury the past," says Whistler Museum Curator, Kerry Clark. "We look at the past because we can learn from it."

Around the world, the past is being dug up. Excavated, in fact, in the dark of night, by looters with shovels and pickaxes, and secreted to illicit antiquities dealers. Being dealt in the illegal international market usually means an artifact is lost forever from the public record. A stolen artifact keeps its origins to itself – the need to hide it from the law means the public may never know of it, its location or the circumstances of its unearthing. It also means that the artifact’s lineage may be lied about, with forged papers and records of excavation, sales and provenance, in order to facilitate its acquisition.

The looting that fuels the black market in antiquities is not only prevalent in sites of international conflict, but has been documented in the past five years in the "civilized" world. Widespread art heists from French chateaux prompted Interpol to release a CDROM showcasing some 14,000 stolen works of art in 1999. The rip-off of Etruscan treasures from the Lazio region of Italy led to the conviction of an Italian amateur archeologist and lecturer who had amassed 30,000 pieces in his contraband collection in 2002. Last year, charges were pressed against looters of artifacts excavated from Melbourne, Australia. Alberta’s dinosaur badlands suffer an ongoing loss of fossils and bones.

Arguably, these treasures are part of the public domain, part of our collective heritage; like water, like the genetic coding of living things. One of the most volatile wars being fought in the 21st century, though, is over ownership of this kind of intellectual and cultural property. Art, antiquities and archives are being turned into private playthings; being acquired for private collections.

Sotheby’s auction house has posted record sales in the past several years, despite the nosedive the economy has taken and major lawsuits, including a price-fixing charge that convicted them of conspiring with rival, Christies.

This robust market shows not so much a disdain for historic treasures, but an insatiable lust for them. As the world’s rich and poor become increasingly polarized, the market for such treasures is a flashback to the 15th century when "cabinets of curiosities" were common in homes of the elite, an opportunity to show off one’s worldliness, one’s savvy understanding of modern science, one’s wealth and status.

This thriving market for "collectibles" raises an interesting dialogue about the "value" of these artifacts.

In 2002, Sotheby’s auctioned a single coin for the record sum of US$7,590,000. A single page of a Mozart manuscript was purchased for millions. A baseball. A gown worn by Princess Diana. A religious relic from Tibet. A Guatemalan weaving. It seems the more sacred an item is to someone, and the rarer it is, the more a purchaser is willing to pay.

A host of interested bidders at the auction house can put a monetary value on a thing, but for most heritage watchers, these items have a value that is incalculable.

Whistler Museum Curator, Kerry Clark, explains: "Value? How do you define it? Especially referring to artifacts, value can come from emotional, historical, cultural value, or because it tells a certain story. Value is intrinsic, but it’s also negotiable. Defining value is something a community does. The museum needs to be a reflection of the community in which it resides, to determine the significance of artifacts. The community has to decide that. To tell us, ‘look, a collection of ceramics here is not a vital part of our culture.’ But a race gate that Rob Boyd skied through on his World Cup winning run? That’s history that means something."

The Whistler story is a fascinating one, and would have been junked in the dustbin of forgotten history if it weren’t for the foresight of museum founder, Florence Petersen.

"We lived on the West Side Road," recalls Mrs. Petersen. "Myrtle Philip was my neighbour for 30 years. Dick Fairhurst was another neighbour and friend. These old-timers began to feel when skiing got a grip on Whistler in the late ’60s that they would be forgotten, because it was as if nothing had been here before skiing arrived. So I said to them, when I retire, I’ll get an archives going."

A small group of dedicated volunteers set into motion the compilation of an historic record for the little mountain community. They interviewed people, collected reminiscences and oral histories, newspaper clippings and photographs. When word came that someone was moving away, museum volunteers would call them up, urge them not to throw anything away until representatives from the museum had come through, poked around and salvaged anything that told the Whistler story.

The founding of the museum arose out of a key turning point in Whistler history, the development of Whistler Mountain for skiing, although it was almost 20 years later that volunteers had the time to devote to the labour-intensive process of starting an archives and museum.

Some 20 years further down the track, looking towards a new facility and the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Whistler Museum finds itself at another turning point. The community has grown to 10,000, and is bursting at the seams, threatening to bust through the current bed-unit cap, even as the exodus of former locals burgeons. Museum officials are concerned that this rapid change and development means the loss of Whistler’s historic record.

President Stephen Henderson explains: "I don’t think most people realize that preserving history is about documenting the present. In Whistler, I think it’s clear we’ve lost some of the documentation about the story of Whistler. There are several things we’ve been told exist on the mountain, but when we try and search for them, no one has any idea where they are. There are definitely things of archival value that are gone."

Gone means gone forever. The historic record grows more anemic as these documents, photos, papers, and artifacts are trashed. As the Canadian Museums Association said in its 2002 brief to Ottawa, "Heritage could be looked upon as a non-renewable resource. Once lost through damage or decay, artifacts cannot be reclaimed."

In this little mountain village, a place characterized most clearly by transience, by the constant movement of people, residents, visitors, an incessant turnover of staff who might otherwise keep a documentary timeline within their files, and ongoing change and renovation, the Whistler Museum is working hard to hold on to the ephemera of the past, in order to tell Whistler’s evolving story.

Curator Kerry Clark believes there is an emotive power in the past.

"We take solace in the past. I think people bury painful elements of the past, but the proliferation of museums and cultural centres over the last 100 years suggests that the past holds real power for people. If you look at indigenous cultures, oral histories play a huge role. They’re the glue that holds those cultures together. I would say the Whistler community as a whole values the past – the old pictures, skis or snowshoes or race gates that people store and display in their homes is testament to this. But I think there’s a disconnect between the community and the museum.

"The ideal situation for the museum is one where there is interaction and communication between the museum and the community. It’s partly up to us at the museum to articulate Whistler’s story, but it’s also for the Whistler community to take on. The community needs to decide what’s important to them. The story we want to tell – we’re working on it, but it would be more meaningful and valuable if we received guidance and feedback from the community."

In a way, this partnership begins with the community holding onto items of value to Whistler’s story. Stephen Henderson says: "All sorts of items, from photos, articles, any documentation on decisions made that effect Whistler, are part of that story. We want to urge people not to trash the past. Not to clear out their backrooms, or their cardboard boxes full of minutes, files and papers. Our biggest challenge here at the museum is that we don’t have the space to actually receive these items now. We need a new facility, so we can house and properly take care of these items. In the meantime, we need everybody’s help in the community to capture this information, these stories, and hold onto them for safekeeping, before they’re lost ."

Over a decade ago, John Edgar Wideman wrote an article in Discover magazine about revisiting the community museum in his childhood town. "Culture" he wrote, "is not a mindless accumulation of some laundry list of objects or people or styles somebody else has intimidated us into accepting. Culture is a way of locating yourself in the world, a world that doesn't make much sense without a conscious, active, continuous process of orientation, learning, accommodation."

As a society, if we disregard history, we allow ourselves to become culturally savage. We lose perspective. Lose sense of our place in the world. We lose the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us . And there’s no better place for us to start shoring up this human pyramid than in our own backyard.

"Just as recycling our waste is second nature to people," explains Henderson, "we need people to think about keeping artifacts and documentation and writing down their memories and stories as a matter of habit. We need Whistler to help us recycle the present into history."