Neon and history: Museum of Vancouver’s permanent light show

Neon and history: Museum of Vancouver’s Permanent Light Show
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The 50s and 60s were gaudy times in Vancouver, not only because of the people, but also the neon lights that cluttered most of its main streets. The incessant buzzing sound in the Museum of Vancouver’s Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit is an impassioned window into what Vancouver might have looked like before it was this boring.

The exhibit, which is run by the museum’s curator Joan Seidl and was created by Revolve Design, has been open since 2011. It is a riveting look at a period when people did not have to worry about electric bills shutting their business down, and lobbying did not have much pull in town hall.

The MOV website claims that there were around 19,000 signs in Vancouver through the uncanny decades of fluorescent debauchery.

“The exhibition raises interesting questions about how we collectively construct the way our city is portrayed,” says Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver curator, Joan Seidl, Director of Exhibitions and Collections at MOV. “There was a real push in the 60s and 70s to redefine Vancouver as a green, natural space. While we may love neon today, there was a real outcry against neon signs, which represented a more industrial, urban city.”

Yet there is more to neon, at least back then, than meets the eye — or better said, burns it. It was undoubtedly a sign of economic growth, at least among small business owners, whose efforts in trying to catch people’s attentions with the most luminous designs usually paid off, until the streets simply got too busy, and even too shiny.

Vancouver, experienced a surge of industrial expansion, especially in the 60s, which translated into relatively better wages and generally a better standard of living. Still, for many this did not mean that they wanted neon signs taking over their city. The contrast must have been exceptional, between the nature that surrounds Vancouver, and the signs that buzzed in the streets.

The surprise that is not so evident however is that a great deal of Vancouverites have failed to see the exhibit, let alone visit the Museum of Vancouver which holds so much treasure-in historical format. It seems that when I ask someone my age if they have seen or heard about it, it is astonishing to find out that they did not. Not only that, but they did not know that at one point in its history Vancouver was lighted up with pink and red, and not just grey concrete, and blue glass.

By Milad Doroudian

Images by Suzanne Rushton.