Museum of Vancouver’s neon exhibition, and why a little research goes a long way

Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver at the Museum of Vancouver

Museum of Vancouver: Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver has taken out of storage the various neon signs in its collection, and put them all on display, buzzing noises and all. These signs are mere glimpses of the golden age of neon signs in Vancouver, primarily during the 1950s and 1960s. Neon was practically everywhere in the city in the mid-20th century.

The museum’s information blurbs include a scientific background of the noble gases (not just neon) that were used to create the colourful signs, as well as the companies that manufactured them.

Neon sign for S.Bowell & Sons, Funeral Directors, at the Museum of Vancouver's Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibition

S.Bowell & Sons, Funeral Directors

Besides all the glorious neon on display, what also struck me was the displays on the movement to tone down the proliferation of neon. One of the groups that led the charge was the Community Arts Council of Vancouver. This intrigued me because, as a current board member and treasurer to the Council, the name recognition was apparent. But when I dug deeper into the CACV’s role in the days afterward, there are clearly two sides to every story.

Information display at Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibition at Museum of Vancouver, with title "The anti-neon campaign takes shape"

The anti-neon campaign takes shape

I took the above picture of the first panel of the museum’s display on the anti-neon crusade. There was even a reproduction of a letter explaining the Council’s position with a postcard-style form letter that can be mailed to the mayor. Further along in the display, the CACV is said to have continued the fight throughout the 1960s, until a sign by-law in 1974 limited the use of neon displays in Vancouver.

Just looking at these displays, one could come to the conclusion that the CACV was fighting tooth and nail for the end to neon signs. But the CACV has provided its own side of the story, in a 50th-anniversary retrospective published in 1996 (Elizabeth O’Kiely, The Arts and Our Town). There is one chapter in this book dedicated to the Council’s Civic Arts Committee. The committee was concerned with neon proliferation, true, but also billboards, painted advertisements on walls, and other items that have become a blight on Vancouver’s visual landscape. The text goes on to mention that the CACV encouraged the use of neon in commercial areas such as Granville Street or Kingsway.

detail of neon sign for Southgate Cleaners, at Museum of Vancouver's Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibition

Southgate Cleaners (detail)

If it weren’t for my connection with CACV, I would have taken the “purity crusade”, as the MoV has described the anti-neon movement in its promotional material, at face value. As a student of history, I feel that it’s important to view an event from as many perspectives as possible, in order to form a better opinion on the causes, circumstances and outcomes of that event. It turns out that the fight against neon is one of those events, and it formed part of the colourful history of Vancouver.

The Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibition is at the Museum of Vancouver through August 12, 2012.

Additional reading: an interview with Civic Arts Committee member Elizabeth Lane. The interview was conducted as part of CACV’s 65th-anniversary celebrations.


2 Comments on “Museum of Vancouver’s neon exhibition, and why a little research goes a long way”

  1. jmv says:

    I also lament the current state of commercial signage on Kingsway. I hold desktop publishing fully responsible. The film Helvetica provides some relevant criticism, but I also lament the loss of hand lettered typography, unique scripts, and display typefaces in signage.

    If I may be so bold as to flog two stories of my own; take note of the classy hand lettered typography in the Hayes-Anderson ghost sign from the 1920s (I wish I had photographed it in greater detail while I had the chance!)

    Then there’s the neon illuminated Capilano Weather beacon from 1953, which didn’t last long due to a corporate takeover from Molson.

    Whether these two particular landmarks could be considered truly great historic landmarks might be debatable, but I do think they make for great history!

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