Beauty, the tubing for Clarke's

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.

Agnew Diamonds, first time seen in working condition. Circa 1930.

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.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

According to museum curator Joan Seidl, MOV has since continued to collect neon from across the Lower Mainland.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

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“.

Owl Drug, detail at MOV

Critics of neon (and there were many) argued that “you can have civilization or you can have neon”.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

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.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

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.

The Arcadian, formerly located on Main, near 7th

Eight years later, the CAC tried again. By that time, signage had been restricted to residential areas (except for house for sale signs).

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

In 1974, Vancouver finally adopted its first sign control by-law, keeping the old neon up but heavily restricting new neon.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

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.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit 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.

long-term neon exhibit's Smilin' Buddha

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“.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibit at MOV

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

long-term neon exhibit's Jesus sign

For more information about the exhibition or to purchase a MOV membership, visit the website. More photos from the media preview can be viewed here.


  • Comment by paul dobson — February 17, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    I would just like to bring to light that the Vogue Theatre, Vancouvers largest still standing neon sign has recently been redone better than its original glory. please let me know if you would like some professional photos of the reconstructed sign. And if you would like to know the details of what all took place in the reconditioning of this historic neon landmark, please do not hesitate to give me a call directly at 778-689-9370

    Take care and have a great day!

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