I have to admit a horrible truth – I used to be one of those people who would say “I’m just not an art person.” My first love is history; I have a keen interest in architecture; I would’ve been an engineer in another life. Just like how some people “don’t get math”, I didn’t “get” art.
A few years ago I wrote a graduate paper on difficult history, architecture and interpretation at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. When I visited the museum, I was blown away by the building and everything it contained, but nothing struck me more than the presence of a large art gallery – I didn’t know the museum had one. This was the first time I really considered why a history museum would feature and put resources into a top-notch, environmentally-controlled art gallery rather than into education, collections or exhibitions.
Since this trip, I’m happy to say that I’ve gained a deep appreciation for art. I’ve had the pleasure of running an exhibition program at a local not-for-profit art centre and music school and saw first-hand the benefit of exposing students, parents, staff and visitors to art.
One of the exciting parts of my job at Britannia is coordinating temporary exhibits, including those that are built around art. Being able to combine my love for history and admiration of art is an opportunity that was started here at the Museum by Executive Director, Kirstin Clausen. With an art history and arts education background, Kirstin is a strong advocate of presenting art in history museums. Kirstin asserts that there is no reason why a mine museum cannot display art. Art is an important facilitator for museums to bring meaning and engage the public in their subject. Just as a scientist learns valuable information from evaluating the results of experiments, visitors can examine a piece of artwork and ask themselves what they are learning in the context of the Museum.
Art created in different time periods about a similar subject matter can help us understand changing perspectives over time. Kirstin notes that even the people who lived in Britannia in the early 20th century were not isolated from art – prospectors created sketches, and residents of both the Beach and the Townsite were active in music and theatre.
Mining is a contradictory subject – we use and need the products of mining in our everyday lives, but it comes at a cost. Kirstin points out that art has the power to help us explore these contradictions and unpack the environmental and social questions surrounding mining. Art can make the subject of mining more accessible and relevant to visitors who don’t think they have a connection; it can help us emotionally process history and evoke a “feeling” that engages more than just the mind.
Here at the museum we often focus on presenting exhibits and programs that are made from mined products such as copper. Exhibitions like next April’s show featuring students from Emily Carr University of Art + Design and events like Copper and Fire in July present artists in a variety of media demonstrating how they turn material from the Earth into art.
The next time you’re at the Museum, take some time to look at the sculpture at the entrance of Mill 3, discover a different piece of artwork on site, or create your own piece of artwork by taking creative shots of artefacts or sketching the buildings. You might discover that you learn something more, see the Museum in a different way, or understand mining through an alternate perspective. We’re not here to teach you art theory and there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to your interpretation of art – just give it a chance to say something to you about Britannia and mining.