City Archives & Art Projects

Stop 8: New Westminster Archives

I spent two afternoons at the New Westminster Archives. The Archives are located in a room within the New Westminster Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving the city’s past. I was able to go through several annual reports, some rule books for employees, photographs of the property, a cemetery map, and several folders of related newspaper clippings.

In terms of timing, New Westminster fits into BC’s institutional history between Victoria (post) and Coquitlam (post). The Provincial Lunatic Asylum was opened in New Westminster in 1878 (later named “Woodlands”). The property went under a number of building projects and renovations over the years, most notably perhaps was the opening of a school in 1945 for children with developmental disabilities which has been the subject recently of a class-action lawsuit against the province by students who were abused.

One of the things I found most interesting about the area was the project undertaken by a local artist in New Westminster, Michael de Courcy. Around 2001, de Courcy began researching the history of the Woodlands property. His interests led him to interview former staff and residents of the facility and to several artistic projects: a series of photographs of former residents, a photograph project of the interiors of the buildings, plus several other installations.

What originally drew my attention to de Courcy’s work was an article about an installation he did called “Dead and Buried“. The project combined a number of sources and was the result of historical research regarding the Woodlands site. It appears that in the 1970s the city repurposed the flat gravestone markers from the cemetery and used them as tiles in new building projects! After learning of this, de Courcy researched the cemetery and mapped the location of those who were buried on the grounds.

A memorial garden [pictured right] has since been installed in the city that features the names of those buried in the cemetery and some of the recovered gravestones arranged by decade. There is also a striking sculpture, titled “Window Too High”, which represents the original windows of the institution that were place too high for its residents to see out of [pictured bottom left].

The Woodlands site itself suffered a large fire in 2008 – only a portion of the building remains today [pictured top left]. The property is currently being developed for condominiums.

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