Making space to save the past

A museum is an iceberg. The builders of a new Langley facility are hoping to make space to help bring home priceless artifacts.

A museum is an iceberg. When visitors walk through the museum doors, they only see the exhibits carefully curated by staff. They don’t see the vast repository of artifacts that make up the foundation of the institution.

For the Langley Centennial Museum, located across the road from the historic fort in Fort Langley, that has been the case since it was established in 1958. And almost as soon as the museum started, it outgrew the storage spaces put aside for its collections. Right now, artifacts are stored in three different locations: antique vehicles are in barns, a number of artifacts are in an old school portable, and the remainder are in the basement of the current museum. The collection grew until the museum staff decided they couldn’t properly take care of any more artifacts, and wouldn’t accept any more. And so for 30 years, the museum has been waiting for a new building to properly store its collections again. Finally, shovels are in the ground to make it happen.

Salishan Place by the River is currently under construction at the corner of Mavis Avenue and King Street in Fort Langley, and it will be more than just a place to store artifacts. The building, which will be a museum and community centre, is a collaboration between the Township of Langley and local First Nations, including the Kwantlen, Katzie, Matsqui, and Semiahmoo First Nations. Expected to cost around $20 million, the three-storey building will feature a number of innovative outdoor spaces, including an Indigenous forest garden and amphitheatre. The bottom floor will feature some of the existing exhibits from the Centennial Museum and the top floor will be home to a 168-seat theatre and outdoor deck. But the middle floor is where the magic will happen.

Salishan Place’s second floor will feature a large gallery, where Indigenous groups can present their own exhibits and gallery shows. It will also have two flex spaces to host cultural programs, such as basket weaving or drum making, as well as a printmaking studio. And most importantly, about half of the floor will be taken up by storage and archival space—more than double the museum’s current space.

This is important, as only a small portion of the museum’s artifacts are ever out in the gallery at one time. The remainder are stored safely, to be brought out in rotating exhibits, displayed for special occasions, or preserved as a physical archive. Tulumello said the hope is to have moveable storage racks to increase the storage space even further, but there isn’t grant money for that yet.

But it won’t just be Langley artifacts that are stored at Salishan Place. There will be a room specifically for Fraser Valley Indigenous communities to house their artifacts as well, with separate shelving units for each of the four partner First Nations.

“We have always been planning for an Indigenous repository,” Peter Tulumello, director of arts, culture, and community initiatives for the township, explained. “But when we began discussions with the First Nations, we were surprised with the scope and volume of materials that they had collecting.” Some of these artifacts had come through archeological digs, others had been repatriated to the First Nations.

Tulumello said many First Nations don’t have facilities on their lands to store the objects, meaning that culturally important artifacts are being stored as far away as UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. That is an issue as many museums are beginning to look through their own collections and return Indigenous artifacts to their home communities. Langley curatorial staff will begin that process once they move into the new space sometime in 2022.

“As part of the exercise of moving into a new facility, our curatorial staff are taking a look at our collections policy and working on amendments to it… and one of the aspects of [that] is the repatriation of materials back to First Nations,” Tulumello said. For example, the Langley museum has one of the province’s largest collections of Coast Salish basket work, and they will be contacting First Nation groups to see if they want those baskets returned or to have them remain in the Langley collection.

As Salishan Place and others continue to return Indigenous artifacts to Indigenous groups, the need for more storage space for First Nations in the Fraser Valley will continue to grow. Tulumello said Salishan Place’s role will be to continue to advocate for more archival storage in the lower Fraser Valley, specifically for First Nation groups. “We’re very excited the township has included this smaller repository,” he said, “but… looking to the future they will be advocating and we will be working with them to see that they get additional storage someplace else.”

The Current had reached out to the Kwantlen First Nation to hear about their artifact storage plans, as some of their collection is currently stored at the nation’s cultural centre, but did not hear back.

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