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Vancouver: wild at heart

Museum show blurs City vs. "Nature" boundary 

Citizen assembly. Photo: Jillian Povarchook

Just back from London, where an unseasonably glaring summer drove us indoors to the air-conditioned comfort of London’s state-of-the-art, modernesque City Museum. There, we were strolled whole reconstructed streets of fussy Victoriana, got to try on medieval wimples and snoods and caught a whiff of a “fatburg” from the Whitechapel sewers.

But for any glimpse of untrammelled Nature, we had to drill back nearly half a million years, to the pre-history galleries, when hippos, rhinos and aurochs mingled their footprints with proto-humans’ on the banks of the Thames.

What a relief, then, to land home in cool and drizzly Strathcona just in time for the opening of the newest exhibit, Wild Things; the Power of Nature in our Lives in our own Museum of Vancouver (MOV). The display may not be as dauntingly vast, eclectic or slick as the London offerings, but the show irresistibly vaunts our city’s incomparable ecological endowment – an exquisite web of nature all around and among us, as long as we can keep ourselves open to its wonders.

After all, wolves roamed Kitsilano backyards barely a hundred years ago, as the exhibition’s signage points out. Black bears still stalk our city streets – I placed a marker pin on the MOV’s wall-sized interactive map where I spotted one lately waiting at a bus stop along the Dollarton Highway.

But, beyond such “charismatic fauna,” we share our YVR biome with myriad beings too small to see (or even often think about). Kwantien Polytechnic instructor Lee Beavington, who co-curated the MOV exhibit, flashes a blown-up picture of a microscopic tardigrade, an eight-legged “water bear” that can thrive in conditions ranging from outer space to your own innermost gut.

“Do you realize we each play host to a billion of these creatures,” he enthuses. Not to even mention the legions of other infinitesimal life forms we host. “Our bodies contain more non-human than human DNA.” Likewise, he notes, when you walk in a Vancouver rainforest, if you add up all the roots, rhizomes, mycelia, burrowing animals, bugs, worms and germs, “there’s as much biomass under your feet as there is in the towering trees over your head.”  

Beavington offers up these striking insights as he tours us around the exhibit’s “Engagement Room,” a brightly lit space that includes “interactive pods” of filmstrips, soundscapes and wildlife tableaux. Pull-out drawers under the display cases dramatize ecological quandaries and paradoxes. There’s even a backlit scrim where visitors can enact their own environmental dramas using pre-cut shadow puppets.

Architects Daniel Irvine and Chad Manley have set it up, though, so that this lucid “Engagement” space is only approached through a darkly labyrinthine “Encounter Room” full of rippling video projections, lulling tape loops and taxidermic tableaux. Floor-level tunnels invite kids on all fours to crawl from one exhibition area to another. Peepholes – some accessible only by grappling your way up a climbing wall – offer glimpses of local fauna. Throw pillows allow you to savour, recumbent, the thrum of a Rain City deluge across a blue tarp.

One “Encounter” chamber relates a scary run-in between a local raptor and MOV collections director Vivian Gosselin, who co-curated Wild Things. Out for a jog, she found herself repeatedly dive-bombed by a big bird, which apparently took her hat for some form of edible prey. (To avert such risk, as Gosselin later learned, simply decorate your headgear with a tree twig).

Another chamber features a First Nations family’s dinner table. Guest of honour: a full-sized Roosevelt Elk, stuffed and mounted, bursting head-first through the wall as a recording of the family’s daughter recounts how the animal was hunted, butchered, blessed, thanked and consumed with no scrap wasted. (The animal’s thither-end protrudes through the other side of the wall to greet visitors as they enter the exhibit).

“Well, that certainly does get their attention,” says MOV marketing director Sue Griffin with a laugh. “Which is, after all, the point of the exercise, especially for children.”

To keep their attention, Wild Things will lay on a series of special “interactive stations” 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday for the duration of the show through the end of October. Local naturalists will host the stations on topics ranging from bats to bears to rocks to fish to flowers. More info on the Museum’s website.  

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