The Museum of Vancouver is about to unleash a series of 22 neon signs out of long-term storage for their aptly-titled exhibit, Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver.
In 1977, a lighting activist named Ralf Kelman approached the Museum with a large collection of signs for sale. Fast forward to 1992, where these non-functional signs were found in a disoriented heap in MOV’s storage area.
According to museum curator Joan Seidl, MOV has since continued to collect neon from across the Lower Mainland.
Yesterday morning, I was invited to preview the exhibition, one that will feature both these signs and a handful from the long-term collection. It is hoped that the public will gain an appreciation for the lost art form, nearly banned from Vancouver in 1968, when Vancouver Sun headlines read “Let’s Wake Up from Our Neon Nightmare“.
Critics of neon (and there were many) argued that “you can have civilization or you can have neon”.
According to information signage in the exhibit, the Community Arts Council of Vancouver deemed it vital to Vancouver’s reputation as a beautiful city that sign controls be implemented before any more “visual squalor” be added to our most attractive streets.
The council compared Vancouver to cities in Europe that had long since implemented protective measures against advertising signage. The attack was started by the council in 1958, however their initiative to completely eradicate signs proved unsuccessful.
Eight years later, the CAC tried again. By that time, signage had been restricted to residential areas (except for house for sale signs).
In 1974, Vancouver finally adopted its first sign control by-law, keeping the old neon up but heavily restricting new neon.
The signs are not perfect, but this provides a unique, not often seen aspect of neon signage. The Museum’s goal is to not to restore the signs completely but to conserve them for future visitors, aiming for the signs to appear as weathered as they did on the day that they arrived at MOV.
I even found a tennis ball lodged between some of the neon tubing!
Newer neon tubes glow more brightly than the older ones, so it’s possible to see the age difference between them throughout the exhibit.
Speaking of neon, I didn’t know until now that the Smilin’ Buddha sign was donated to the museum by the band 54-40 a couple of years ago. 54-40 used the iconic neon sign as cover art for their 1994 album, “Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret“.
This decidedly urban side of Vancouver’s past will also be explored through the photography of Walter Griba, on public display for the first time. The exhibition runs until Sunday, August 12, 2012.
Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver Opening Party
Date: Wednesday, October 12, 7 pm
Venue: Museum of Vancouver, 1100 Chestnut Street, Vancouver