Vancouver's neon sees a second chance in MOV's new exhibit
// JJ Brewis

Save-On Meats, the Hastings St. butcher shop, shines brightly in the early October night. This neon sign of a pink pig holding a coin is just one of a few last remaining pieces of what used to be a long string of businesses lighting up Vancouver's streets. Neon, now considered more of a novelty than anything, is actually a lot more controversial than some might think.

This month, the Museum of Vancouver kicks off its exhibit Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver. The title may seem confusing or bold to some visitors, but as Amanda McQuaig, a member of the museum's creative team, explains, it's "meant to bring to mind the conflict in the 60s and 70s about whether the neon signs in Vancouver were a sign of a vibrant urban space or a tawdry display of advertising that was marring the natural beauty of Vancouver." The struggle between the signs being seen as a burden or a blessing is chronicled well in the new exhibit, which pairs up original neon signs in conjunction with some newer media materials.

The majority of the collection on display came to the museum in 1977, collected from a sign manufacturer's junkyard. Signs once aglow sat dormant in the museum's storage until their first showcase in 1999. Now in an expanded and updated exhibit, these original signs and some new additions are given the full treatment. The Museum's creative team weaves the neon relics into an enticing narrative, with visual aids telling the struggle of Vancouver as a bustling city filled with two very distinct sides in regard to the growing neon landscape of the city. Many thought the signs tarnished Vancouver's natural beauty, but the opposition saw the neon display as a glamorous taste of big city life.

A battle ensued, eventually limiting the core's allotment of neon, squashing future additions, and leaving very few pieces today. The Museum does a great job chronicling the heavy debate, asking the viewer to step back in time and think about which mindset they'd fall into.

Alongside the original signs that once filled Vancouver's downtown corridor are a series of images by late local photographer Walter Griba. "He photographed picket signs, store signs, neon signs," McQuaig explains. "He’d go out on his lunch break and lean out of buildings or climb poles to take photos of signs." Rather than the typical nostalgic, glamorized shots of Vancouver’s neon, Griba's work shows a more exact version of the streets– bustling, overflowing, and cluttered. "When you’re telling a story that in part involves many opinions about the signs being ugly, you want photographs that will go well with that," McQuaig says. Neon is the first time Griba has had these photos shown in a live setting.

The signs themselves, buzzing loudly in an otherwise silent setting, are truly the star of the show here. The small gallery hosts 22 neon signs in addition to the permanent galleries' existing eight. The intimate setting gives viewers a chance to take an up-close and personal look at signs that once hung several dozen feet overhead. The show is both sentimental for those who lived through the neon heyday, and educational for the younger crowd. Neon also offers information beyond Vancouver’s heritage: part of the exhibit explores technical and scientific aspects of the topic, including the breakdown of the neon molecule.

Even with the signs placed among demure walls, it's apparent how such a topic could have taken a city by storm and torn it in half with debate. "It’s the first time this story has been told in retrospect," McQuaig explains. "It is a great opportunity to look back on Vancouver starting at a time when it didn’t really care about being a world city, and then moving into a time when it began to be self-conscious – looking at ways to be more beautiful, more considerate of the landscape."

Despite Vancouver's eventual decision to turn away from its neon roots, it is delightful that so much of the history has been preserved, and that the MOV has managed to effectively tell this compelling journey to a new batch of Vancouver residents who may have been unaware of their city's past. A neon renaissance may one day befall us, but for now, landmarks such as the Save- On-Meats pig or the Orpheum Theatre’s signage generate a buzz of their own. "With less neon signs on the streets,” says McQuaig, “it's easier for us to be nostalgic about a time when there were those lights."

// JJ Brewis, Art Director
// Photo by Shannon Elliott

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com