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Building Resilience Around MOA’s Irreplaceable Collection

[Updated October 5, 2023]

Looking out through the panoramic windows of the Great Hall in the Museum of Anthropology, you can gaze across a bluff that was used for thousands of years as a lookout by the Musqueam people, on whose traditional, ancestral and unceded land the museum sits.

What you can’t see are the fault lines that lie beneath the land, and all along the coast of British Columbia.

Indigenous oral histories include tales of the megathrust earthquake that struck off BC’s west coast in 1700. Scientists don’t know when the next such quake will occur. They only know that it will.

“We’ve learned a lot about earthquakes since 1700, and we’ve learned a lot about structural engineering since the Great Hall was built back in the 1970s,” said Jennifer Sanguinetti, UBC’s managing director of infrastructure development. “We have to be vigilant in regularly evaluating the buildings on campus against this new knowledge. This is part of our seismic planning process that helps us prioritize upgrades and manage the risk posed by earthquakes.”

The most recent round of UBC building evaluations, undertaken as part of a campus-wide seismic resilience plan, identified the Great Hall as one of the spaces at greatest seismic risk. Based on simulations for major earthquake scenarios, the beloved Great Hall was quickly elevated on the university’s priority list for seismic upgrading.

In 2019, preparations slowly began to rebuild MOA’s iconic Great Hall, upgrading the resiliency of the space and protecting its irreplaceable collection in the event of a major earthquake.

Photo by Hover Collective

The museum, considered one of renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson’s masterpieces, has captivated tourists and nurtured research and teaching since it opened in 1976. With a design inspired by the cedar post-and-beam construction of traditional west coast Indigenous villages, the Great Hall houses an extraordinary collection of massive carvings from northwest coast First Nations that have deepened visitors’ understanding of this land, its people, and their history.

“For more than 40 years, the Museum of Anthropology has been one of Canada’s best-known buildings internationally, and its Great Hall one of Vancouver’s most iconic spaces,” says MOA Director Sue Rowley. “This seismic work is critical to preserving the integrity of this architectural gem. It also provides long-term safety for the cultural objects displayed within this space, ensuring the rich Indigenous knowledge and cultures represented in these objects are preserved for many generations to come.”

It’s a huge undertaking, and one that calls for a sensitive approach given the heritage value of both the building and its site. The university met with the Arthur Erickson Foundation, which advocates for proper stewardship of Erickson’s legacy, and received feedback on its plan to extend the Great Hall’s future without compromising its architectural integrity. Representatives from the Musqueam Indian Band also participate in planning meetings and provide a critical cultural perspective for the project team to take into account. Indigenous communities and families whose cultural objects have been relocated elsewhere in the museum during construction are providing input into protocols around moving the objects and re-installing them after the Great Hall is rebuilt.

Great Hall seismic upgrades November 2022
Photo by Brannen Bell.

The university essentially had two options to seismically upgrade the massive space: reinforce the Great Hall’s existing structure, or rebuild it completely. To reinforce the existing structure to today’s building standards would require significant modifications to its columns, plus the addition of new columns and brackets that were never part of Erickson’s vision. Alternatively, a complete rebuild of the Great Hall could retain the appearance of Erickson’s original design, preserving the clean lines and distinctive silhouette for which it is known.

Photo by Brannen Bell.

For a space with the architectural heritage significance of the Great Hall, the university decided to rebuild.

The seismic upgrades will be achieved using state-of-the-art base isolation technology. In this type of construction, the Great Hall will be placed over rubber or sliding bearings (known as base isolators) in between the foundation (footings) and the superstructure (columns and beams). As the ground shakes, the isolators will allow the building to move, taking up most of the energy and protecting the building’s structure.

Three people in hardhats and orange construction gear stand around a totem pole as a blue crane lifts it off the ground.
Photo by Alina Illyasova.

In addition to the seismic upgrades to the Great Hall, the Museum will have new skylights and glazing, lighting, and an improved fire-detection system.

In preparation for this massive undertaking, the poles were lowered and moved from the Great Hall to rest in the adjacent O’Brian Gallery starting in 2019. In December 2021, a temporary wall structure went up between the Great Hall and the rest of the Museum, closing the Great Hall to the public.

In January 2023, the entire Museum was temporarily closed to accelerate the completion of this monumental undertaking. Initial timelines that were announced anticipated that MOA would reopen in late 2023; however, as with construction projects of this magnitude, extenuating circumstances have pushed back the much-anticipated reopening to June 2024.