The Frank Museum: Confronting Difficult Histories

During a recent trip to San Antonio, Texas, I had the opportunity to visit a few of the eighteenth-century Spanish Catholic Missions along the city’s Mission Trail – including the famous Alamo battle site and shrine. The Mission sites were a pleasure to stroll through on a sunny Texas afternoon: exceptionally well-maintained and restored, easy to find, and completely free to visit. They are certainly a must on any tourist’s checklist.


Mission San Antonio de Valero, more commonly known as the Alamo.

These missions were first built as symbols of Spanish culture, religion, and imperial power during the period of European expansion into the Americas. They also represented the devastation of traditional cultures and ways of life for many indigenous groups . As I enjoyed strolling through the tidy lawns and well-preserved churches of each mission, I couldn’t help but think of the fear and suffering these walls must have witnessed in centuries past.

However, this narrative was not reflected in the numerous interpretive panels I encountered at each site. Large, illustrated, approachable signs placed strategically around each site gave introductions to the history and work of each Mission. The text detailed key dates and names in each site’s development, and an overview of the religious and administrative work that happened there. Yet I was disappointed by the lack of information about the negative impact Spanish imperialism had on indigenous communities; the interpretive signs described the “religious lessons” and “accommodations” provided to the local people in benign, positive terms. There was no mention of loss of land, disease, and oppression, nor the erasure of local languages, traditions, and beliefs that were an inherent part of European invasion and colonization of the Americas.


Mission Concepción, San Antonio. Dedicated in 1755.

According to information on the National Park Service’s own website, many indigenous people were compelled to enter the Missions, convert to Christianity, and abandon their traditional ways of life in order to survive the changes wrought by Spanish expansion into their lands. I am by no means a Texas history buff, but such phenomena are relatively common in the histories of empire. Certainly life wasn’t bad for all those who lived in and around the Missions, but I had hoped the interpretive signs would paint a more realistic (and challenging) picture of what those institutions meant for the local populations. I have a high regard the National Park Service overall, so I was especially surprised by this apparent evasion of difficult historical narratives.

There are many examples of museums confronting difficult and disturbing histories head on. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has famously illustrated the power of museums to bring awareness and empathy to extremely painful and complex stories. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool is another excellent example of a museum that explores the connections between historical wrongs and modern inequalities.

I am a European Canadian living in Vancouver on unceded Aboriginal territory. I am conscious that the citizenship and the lifestyle I enjoy are the result of European colonialism and the displacement of indigenous cultures and societies. Yet for many years, I did not draw a personal connection between my country’s colonial past and my own life. My family came to North America from Britain at the end of the Second World War, centuries after the first colonists arrived in this land; a fact I once thought exempted me from any link with the decimation of many indigenous cultures. I now realize that those earlier colonial atrocities paved the way for my own relatives to emigrate easily from Britain to a former imperial holding, without needing to learn a new language or even swear allegiance to a different monarch. European colonization and its lasting impacts on indigenous communities are a part of my personal history and identity, as they are for North Americans of all backgrounds.

To use Aboriginal scholar Dr. Susan Dion’s term, no one is a “perfect stranger” to indigenous history and modern issues. Though difficult, museums and heritage sites have a responsibility to confront these distressing topics and challenge visitors to understand their own connections to them.


Mission San José, the largest of the San Antonio Missions. It was completely restored in the 1930s.



The Best Free B.C. Museums

On International Museum Day 2015, which also coincides with Victoria Day Long Weekend here in Canada, I’ve been thinking about how few people know about IMD (even those in the industry), though it has been celebrated on May 18 around the world for nearly 40 years. How can museums, galleries, and heritage sites spread greater awareness about themselves to the general public?

Two of the biggest challenges faced by museums today are the issues of accessibility and inclusivity. Many people in British Columbia and around the world are unable or unwilling to pay entry fees due to tight budgets or a perception that museums are inherently exclusive and elitist. Many in the museum industry are working hard to address these issues and ensure that people of all backgrounds feel able and welcome to experience their institutions – after all, many of us museum professionals face lay-offs, underemployment, and economic hardships ourselves.

Putting affordable culture in the frame, Nanaimo B.C.

Putting affordable culture in the frame, Nanaimo B.C.

Although Canada does not have a plethora of large free institutions on the scale of The British Museum or The Smithsonian, there are still many opportunities to visit high-quality museums, galleries, and heritage sites without breaking the bank. In honour of International Museum Day, I thought I’d list 8 of the best free or by-donation* museums and heritage sites in British Columbia (in alphabetical order):

Burnaby Village Museum

Burnaby, B.C.

This delightful, immersive site represents a typical 1920s Lower Mainland community, complete with costumed guides, a historic tram car, and a working carousel from 1912.

Contemporary Art Gallery

Vancouver, B.C.

Located in the trendy Yaletown neighbourhood, this small yet thought-provoking gallery presents a variety of compelling exhibitions throughout the year, representing some of the best contemporary art Vancouver has to offer. Their admission-by-donation policy is refreshingly accessible in one of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.

Tim Etchells installation, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver B.C.

Tim Etchells installation, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver B.C.

Hastings Park

Vancouver, B.C.

Hastings Park isn’t a museum or heritage institution per se, but the site has been the location for several important events in Vancouver’s history, such as the first Pacific National Exhibition in 1910 (where it continues to be held to this day), and the key staging area for the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Today, the Park features a large duck pond and fishing area, the Momiji Japanese garden, skateboarding and basketball amenities, and Hastings Racecourse opened in 1889, the city’s oldest continuously-used sports facility.

Historic Stewart Farm

Surrey, B.C.

On the banks of the Nicomekl River, this heritage site allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the history of Surrey from 1890 to 1920. Features include historical re-enactments, heritage crafts, and baking from an authentic wood-burning stove.

Kamloops Museum and Archives

Kamloops, B.C.

This municipal museum explores the unique, multicultural history of Kamloops, from Chinese railway workers to European settlers, to Interior Salish cultures, and more.

Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre

Burnaby, B.C.

Located in an architecturally stunning building complete with Japanese-style gardens, this multipurpose centre includes exhibits, archives, events, and programs dedicated to the history and future of Japanese culture in British Columbia.

Some beautiful cherry blossom trees near the Nikkei Centre, Burnaby B.C.

Some beautiful cherry blossom trees near the Nikkei Centre, Burnaby B.C.

The Revelstoke Railway Museum

Revelstoke, B.C.

Full disclosure – this was the first museum I ever visited in British Columbia, so it holds a special place in my heart. Located in the stunning Columbia Mountains, this museum explores the dramatic history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The institution also commemorates the site of the “Last Spike,” where the CPR was officially completed in 1885, at their seasonal interpretive centre in Craigellachie, B.C.

Roedde House Museum

Vancouver, B.C.

Built in 1893, this lovely but often-overlooked historic house is nestled in the heart of Vancouver’s West End, and even allows visitors to handle certain artefacts (museum conservators, beware!).

Did I miss any great free museums, galleries, or heritage sites in B.C.? Please let me know!

*A note on etiquette: Even if a museum is promoted as “free,” it is always encouraged to leave a donation or make a purchase at the gift shop whenever possible.

N.B. Because I am based in Vancouver, this list is very skewed towards the Lower Mainland and in no way represents all of the wonderful, affordable cultural heritage B.C. has to offer! I have also chosen to omit the institutions with whom I am professionally associated from this list to reduce personal bias.

Women More Likely Than Men To Consider Country Houses And Castles As Important

Interesting study about England’s attitudes toward heritage sites. I wonder how results might differ in other countries.

Heritage Calling

We recently calculated that an amazing 99.3% of people in England live within a mile of a listed building or site – heritage is literally all around us. So, inspired by this fact, we commissioned YouGov to ask people across England what they really think about heritage.

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