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Lighting the Way: Cutting-Edge Tech Leads New Elspeth McConnell Masterworks Gallery

In numbers alone, MOA’s new Elspeth McConnell Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks is groundbreaking: more than 110 historical Indigenous objects will be displayed in a $3.5-million space, which features more than 30 Indigenous voices in video, audio and text, and one custom microchip designed to read Point Grey weather patterns.

The inaugural exhibition In a Different Light: Reflecting on Northwest Coast Art opens June 22, featuring a suite of innovative designs and cutting-edge technology. The title reflects not only the philosophical approach of curators Karen Duffek, Jordan Wilson and Bill McLennan, but also the literal impact of light in MOA’s Exhibition Designer Skooker Broome’s careful planning.

The 210-square-metre gallery is the most compact of MOA’s indoor spaces, but it holds a diversity of media. Five film projections, six speakers and two audio-transmitting chairs will complement the array of masterworks on display. James Hart, Marianne Nicolson, Debra Sparrow and the late Beau Dick are just some of the many who have lent their expertise to the exhibition.

A plurality of voices characterizes the show; the gallery is envisioned more as an organic environment that shifts with each visit, rather than a staid chamber of prescriptive histories.

Light played an important role in both the conceptual and pragmatic development of the architectural space, which was designed by Stantec architect Noel Best. Broome shifted away from the room’s original function as the Michael M. Ames Theatre while building upon Arthur Erickson’s vision.

The softbox lighting mimics the changing quality of the daylight outside the gallery.

“Most Northwest Coast shows have a theatrical approach to them, using spots and floods to show off the intimacy of the works, the textures, and the surfaces,” he said. “We needed something that was going to be more respectful and resilient to the space and the place that objects occupy — which is, of course, not necessarily always in ritual, but also in people’s homes.”

The decision was made to create a more natural setting. The gallery features a north-facing window, in addition to softbox lighting that is connected to a custom chip specially developed by Eos Lightmedia. The chip reads the colour temperature and light intensity of the sky throughout the day, which then transmits the data to the gallery light box.

The effect is one of subtly channeling the outside world inside. The technology was initially proposed for children’s hospitals with the aim of creating more comfortable environments for newborns adjusting to a circadian rhythm. The gallery is the first time it has been put to practical application.

Whenever possible, the museum collaborated with local Vancouver companies. Another prominent feature in the gallery are two Idea Chairs: red-leather seats designed by Niels Bendtsen from Bensen that have been modified with audio components developed by Hfour.

The chairs will transmit stories from Clyde Tallio (a Nuxalk knowledge keeper, ceremonialist and speaker), Molly Billows (a Homalco Nation spoken-word poet), Rena Point Bolton (a Stó:lō matriarch and artist) and Sharon Fortney (a Coast Salish curator) — all while maintaining the ability to spin 360-degrees.

The audio playback system activates when a visitor sits in the chair, which has been fitted with a customized slip ring that provides power to the built-in speakers. “No switches, no control panels, no visible speakers, and no headphones interrupt the experience,” said Stuart Ward of Hfour. “It is an ideal way to engage with people in an unencumbered way. What the museum-goer gets is part of a cohesive experience that was masterfully planned.”

The balance between visible and invisible is negotiated in every corner. The gallery creates a sense of intimacy without overlooking the presence of the objects, their creators and the communities to which they belong. Six cases create a loose oval in the center of the space, accompanied by speakers mounted prominently.

“The speakers were originally conceived by Skooker to be hidden in the ceiling, but together we decided we wanted the voice to have a physical presence in the space, not be so disembodied,” said Duffek, adding that the experience of sound installations by artists Janet Cardiff (The Forty Part Motet) and John Wynne (Anspayaxw) was an inspiration. “There are some pretty great and strongly worded statements that visitors will hear in that space, ranging from commentaries on the artworks to reflections on museums, colonial collecting and territorial rights.”

MOA Communications Assistant Kiel Torres sits in one of the Idea Chairs.

If that sounds heady, the exhibition isn’t meant to be consumed in a single trip. The audio and video components are curated as encounters, each of them longer than the average museum visit length. This means that every time a person enters the gallery, different components will be at play to provide a fresh experience.

“It’s almost as if you were a visitor in an institution and a tour guide comes through,” said Broome. “You’re not part of the tour, but you’re sort of sneaking in and listening to what’s happening … It’s there if you want, you’re not pushing a button, you’re not interacting.”

There is, however, one interactive element that should not be missed: ’nik suugid ’wiileeksm waap, four monumental cedar boards from a Tsimshian house-front screen dated to the early 1800s. The 4-metre-tall planks have been weathered by salt and wind, and look largely bare when viewed under conventional light. But as visitors trigger a sensor, the areas of wood preserved by the original painted design pop into relief with the aid of a few high-tech, narrowly focused LED lights.

As Broome said: “The lighting in here will be transformative over time and over space as you experience it.”

Photos: MOA / Rob Maguire. Video: Georgia Straight / Amanda Siebert.