MA International Heritage Management and Consultancy: Field Course to Canada

By Rachel Gordon

This year was the inaugural year of the University of Exeter’s brand-new MA course, International Heritage Management and Consultancy, and I am proud to say that I am (very nearly) one of the first students to graduate!

The course has been jam-packed full of lectures by guest speakers and industry professionals, field trips to various locations in Cornwall and to Stonehenge, and incredible networking workshops and conferences. The icing on the cake, however, has to be awarded to our absolutely amazing 13-day field trip to Vancouver Island and Vancouver City in British Columbia, Canada.

Day 1: Travelling to Vancouver

Our journey began at Heathrow Airport where our cohort gathered to board the Air Canada flight to Vancouver, Canada. Fourteen of us, including professors of English Dr Jim Kelly and Dr Chloe Preedy, Professor of Heritage, Public History and course co-ordinator Dr Bryony Onciul and professional Film Maker Danny Cooke, sat down in the airport lounge to discuss our expectations and anticipations. Our group was special; we had all come from different disciplines, had a range of different interests and experience and we had bonded amazingly in the 8 months leading up to the trip. We talked about how excited we were to be able to view all of the unique and diverse wildlife Canada had to offer and to be able to explore the various different layers of heritage narrative. Four of us had been to Canada before and were able to share some anecdotes with the rest of the group. We also discussed our lack of desire to have to use our bear-safety training and first aid qualifications that we had obtained as part of the lead up to the trip; Bryony assured us that it was unlikely we would encounter any unwanted wildlife, but we would have the opportunity to view Grizzly and Black bears in their natural habitat, from a safe and secure distance. Jim joked that he hoped we could get some use out of our extensive first aid kits, as they’d been such a hassle to check in. (Disclaimer: all we needed to use were a few plasters for some walking-boot induced blisters!) Before we knew it, our gate had been called and we began the first leg of our journey.

The nine-hour flight seemed to pass by quickly, and we arrived in Canada in the early afternoon. With a few hours’ sleep under our belts, we piled into taxis and made our way to the Pacific Spirit Youth Hostel, which was located on the University of British Columbia’s campus. The campus itself was absolutely huge, it felt like a small city and dwarfed Penryn Campus by comparison. We spent the afternoon exploring the local area and reconvened for some food in the campus pub. By the early evening, the majority of the group began to feel the effects of the jet lag and so we headed back to the hostel for an early night, and to prepare for the next day.

Day 2: MOA, Vancouver

And so our first full day in Canada began. The weather was wonderful, sunny and warm- so we took advantage of our having risen early (due to jet lag) and grabbed a quick breakfast in the sun on the UBC campus. We then travelled on foot to MOA, the Museum of Anthropology, also located on campus. We focused on themes of reconciliation, conservation and the presentation of difficult heritage. Anthony Shelton, the Director of the museum, greeted us at the entrance. He explained to us that the museum was architecturally designed to be embedded in the landscape and not to dominate it; the visitor must walk down into the land in order to enter. We acknowledged that we were stood on unceded Musqueam First Nations territory; we would continue to recognise the land upon which we stood at each stage of our trip. Anthony then proceeded to give us a brief tour of the museum, sharing with us his thoughts on why they had decided to display certain objects in specific ways. Much of the museum’s collection is housed on the basis of ‘dual ownership’, meaning that the museum looked after certain objects, but they still belonged to members of the First Nations communities. He showed us the museums ‘multiversity’, a collection space that housed various different items in glass cabinets that could be viewed from all angles. Then, we moved onto the museum’s newest exhibition: “shadows, strings and other things” which included over 250 puppets from around the world. After our short lunch break on the museum’s sunny roof terrace, we were lucky enough to be given a behind-the-scenes tour by the head curator. She explained to us the issues they were experiencing with lack of storage space and their necessity to expand. We would finish our trip at MOA in order to complete the circle, which is a First Nations idea and way of doing things.

Day 3: Capilano

The second day of our trip involved a lot more travelling as we moved from mainland Canada to Vancouver Island. On the way to the ferry terminal, we stopped at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park which claims to be “B.C’s earliest human connection to nature”. This popular tourist attraction allowed us to explore a broad scope of themes, including First Nations relationships with the natural environment, and the ecological and historical significance of British Columbia’s natural landscape. We acknowledged that we were standing on the traditional territory of the Squamish people (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw), another piece of unceded land.

The narrative of the site was focused on the various European settler groups that had lived in the area and contributed to the building of the suspension bridge.

The bridge itself boasted a beautiful view over the river (which is apparently the most fished river in the whole of B.C, according to our guide), and most of us braved the wobbly journey over to the other side. There, we received a tour of the native trees that grow across B.C, and learnt about their traditional uses. We also got to see the famous Banana Slug, a variety of slug that numbs the mouth of anything that eats it- this was very exciting for us, but they are apparently quite common across North America.

After our tour came to an end, we had the opportunity to explore the park independently, and we reassembled after a visit to Capilano’s extensive gift shop. We then drove to the ferry and waited in line. The crossing was roughly 2 hours, and we sat on the sun deck and enjoyed the stunning views that the evening offered.

Day 4: Port Alberni

The next day we rose early and got ready to start the day. Life felt immediately more relaxed on Vancouver Island than it did in the city, which we had anticipated. We made our way to the Port Alberni Railway Station: this heritage site is more functional in the summer months when a real steam train operates, taking visitors from the station to the Historic MacLean Sawmill. Our guide was fantastic- he was truly passionate about the industrial heritage of the area and had worked in the logging industry in the past. Logging is a widespread industry across B.C, where whole trees are cut down and transported across the country for use as a raw material. The industry continues today, so it was great to be able to compare the living process with its historical past. He gave us a brief presentation, providing us with anecdotes and photos of the sawmill’s history. Afterwards, we drove a short distance to the mill which was a truly fascinating place. Machinery, cars, lorries and wooden structures peppered the landscape. Many of the items had been left to decay and were covered in rust, moss and other growths, and these provided interesting photo opportunities. Our visit also tied in perfectly with one of our modules we had completed that semester: “Heritage and Environmental Change”. What seemed to bring the McLean Mill site to life was not the place itself, but the memories of the site that our guide was able to share with us. On our way to the next hotel, we discussed our obsession with the idea of decay that was sparked by our visit to the site and concluded that it reminded us of our own temporality, and the uncertainty that comes with living in an ever-changing world.

Day 5: Telegraph Cove

The following day became certainly my favourite day of the trip, and possibly one of the most memorable days of my life so far. The focus of the day was on the natural landscape of B.C and the wildlife that lives there. We started the day while it was still dark but it was well worth it to see the sunrise over beautiful Telegraph Cove. We had been staying in small groups in quaint little wooden cabins with our own kitchens and living areas which felt very authentic to this remote part of Canada. After a quick coffee and pastry breakfast we climbed into our boats (the group split into two and each had a driver and a biologist on board), and we began our journey in search of Grizzly and Black bears. About 10 minutes into the journey, a large pod of porpoises began to interact with our boat and were swimming alongside us, jumping through the crystal-clear water. Our guides told us that this was a rare sight for this particular type of porpoise, and we were extremely lucky. It was pure magic. Continuing our journey up to Glendale cove, we were able to see a Humpback whale and some dolphins. This was all incredibly exciting as the main aim of the day was to see bears! We reached our destination and transferred into two more smaller, lightweight boats. We were all expecting to have to scan the horizon for the Grizzlies, but there they were in plain sight as soon as we arrived. Our guide informed us that they can smell when the tide goes out and the mussels and other molluscs are exposed on the shoreline, they then wander out of the woods to eat. They were completely oblivious to being observed by us excitable bunch! After our lunch we travelled around the Glendale area to view some other point of interest. We had seen so much wildlife that our guide took us to some other heritage sights, which included some incredible petroglyphs and an abandoned First Nations village.

Day 6: Alert Bay

Perhaps our most emotionally challenging day was our trip to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, where we visited the U’mista Cultural Heritage Centre. The centre was built just a few yards away from the site of the now demolished Residential school, St Michael’s (or St. Mike’s, as it is known locally.) We dealt with themes of loss, suffering, and learnt about a really difficult part of First Nations’ history. We were greeted by Juanita, who is a member of Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation. She explained to us what ‘Potlatch’ is to First Nations communities and showed us the Potlatch collection housed at the museum. Most of the collection had recently been repatriated to U’mista from other western museums and private collectors across the world who had been sold items following the Potlatch ban in 1885. One of the conditions of their repatriation is that the First Nations community to which the collection belonged had to build a museum to “western standards”: in which to house it. It saddened me that one of the items that Juanita was currently trying to repatriate is still housed in my local museum in South London, and I reflected on the idea that I had seen it many times but in a very different and inappropriate context.

Day 7: Campbell River

The next day allowed us to experience another magical few moments that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. We travelled southwards down the island and stopped at Campbell River, a bustling town that was very different to the rural locations we had been staying in the days prior. The main activity of the day was… whale watching! Something we were all highly anticipating given the success of our previous wildlife tour. We were all given dry suits: heavy duty sailing attire that seemed a little excessive as the day was reaching the mid to late 20’s Celsius. We climbed into our boats, again the group split into two vessels and we started our journey. We were lucky enough to see three Orcas, accompanied by a new baby calf! We had to keep our distance in accordance with Canadian law which states that you must not pester the wildlife for too long. We had to scour the water for quite some time before we spotted them, which made their appearance even more thrilling! As we left the Orcas, we also saw porpoises and dolphins, as well as golden and bald eagles. The landscape was very remote as we drew away from Campbell River and it was an excellent opportunity to be able to view it in this light.

When we returned, we clambered back into our vehicles and headed for our next destination.

Day 8: Comox

One of my favourite days on the Field Course, and certainly one of the most uplifting was our visit to the K’omoks First Nation in Comox. The land we stood on was a reservation, and not unceded like some of our previous destinations. We were invited into their Big House, a structure built in the 1950’s by the grandfather of one of our hosts. This was a real privilege as non-community members have to be invited inside. The space inside was really special, it had a dirt floor and a fire was lit in the centre. Beams of light came in through a small crack in the roof and the smoke looked as if it was dancing. The room was framed by 4 totem poles, only three of which were carved because the artist sadly passed away before he could complete it. The K’omoks First Nation decided to honour him by leaving it blank. Our hosts performed 4 dances for us as we sat around the edge of the Big House overlooking the fire. The first was a ladies dance which welcomed us to the space, one was the dance of the ‘wild man of the woods’, and one was a dance that could only be performed by the son or grandson of a Chief. The fourth and final dance was a participatory dance that we all were able to take part in. Each dance was accompanied by singing, and the lyrics to each song told the story of the dance. There were also two drummers, one played a small drum made of stretched animal hide and the other played the “drum log” which was a large carved tree trunk that lay horizontally on the floor. We were able to see where bits of wood had been chipped and worn away after decades of being played. This experience was a wonderful way of seeing traditional Potlatch masks and regalia in a totally different context to the way we saw them at the U’mista Cultural Heritage Centre.

When the performances were complete, we ate a lunch together that our hosts had cooked for us, and we were able to ask questions and have a chat. It was a unique experience that we all treasured.

Days 9-12: Presentations and networking

At the end of the trip, we had the intense yet valuable experience of organising our own conference in which we each had to deliver a 15-minute presentation. The focus of the day was to share our thoughts and favourite moments of the trip with each other. Our presentations were marked by Bryony, Chloe, and Jim, the three lecturers who accompanied us. The planning process itself was a learning experience, Bryony had organised a room for us to use at MOA but outside of that, the responsibility was ours. We decided to divide ourselves by theme and create 3 separate panels. The themes were: nature and culture, indigenous identity, and loss within different Canadian communities. The presentations were really impressive. Everyone spoke on different topics entirely and it was a great experience hearing what everyone had learned and gained from the 12 days prior.

In the evening, we dressed up in our finery and made our way to the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver. This was our final event of the trip and a great way to round off a fabulous twelve days. The aim of the evening was to network with heritage professionals, Exeter alumni and academics, and the guest list was extensive and impressive. Sir Steve Smith, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Exeter, attended along with his wife and he and Bryony delivered speeches that made us all so proud to be part of the inaugural cohort of International Heritage Management and Consultancy.

Day 13: Going home

We returned home the next day ready to write our dissertations and complete the course, with a whole new knowledge base and skillset under our belts. The Canada Field Course was, from start to finish, entirely interesting, challenging, thought provoking, and enjoyable and I am sure any prospective student who experiences it in the future will feel the same.

Rachel Gordon is currently studying MA International Heritage Management and Consultancy at the University of Exeter.