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Curating Difficult Collections

Written by Museum Curator Sasha Hnatiuk

What does a Curator do? Hi I’m Sasha, I’m the curator at Vancouver Police Museum & Archives. So, what exactly does that mean? In short, my position as curator falls into two main categories: exhibition development and collections management. In reality, I'd say approximately 85% of my job is keeping pigeons out of the building (see below image). Basically, I organize historical artifacts and decide how to put those artifacts on display for visitors to view. That’s all fine and good for collections that fall under so-called ‘normal’ categories, but fortunately or unfortunately, our collection is anything but normal. I am responsible for a collection that deals with quite difficult subject matter, and by difficult, I mean that our museum relays histories that can prove upsetting and uncomfortable for many audiences. Many would refer to our subject matter as dark history, in the sense that much of it deals with death. Yes, the museum does cater to those interested in True Crime, but not exclusively. So how does a curator go about creating content that is both niche and broad? Have a wee think and get back to me…

Repeat offender "Jake Peralta" the pigeon, AKA the Bathroom Bandit (left). Signage created as a necessary part of VPMA curatorial duties (right).

Babes in the Wood

How does a curator go about creating exhibits, especially those about True Crime?

Let me tell you a little bit about Vancouver’s oldest cold case, known as Babes in the Wood. In 1953, the remains of two children were found in Stanley Park. Originally, authorities thought that the remains belonged to a boy and a girl, but in 1998, DNA analysis determined that the remains in fact belonged to two boys: half brothers from the same mother. In February 2022, forensic genetic genealogy finally discovered the identities of the two boys. This case is one of six stories told in the True Crime gallery located in the former morgue. The purpose of this gallery is threefold: to appeal to our audience of True Crime fans, to educate the viewer on the forensic science methods used to solve crimes, and finally, to speak to the heritage of the building.

News of the boys’ identities spread quickly and soon I was inundated with research requests about the case. Due to the sensitivity of the case, our archivist and I decided to prohibit the release of any crime scene photos, as well as any other photographic material related to the case. At the same time, many visitors were coming to the museum specifically to see the exhibit, in which real crime scene evidence is displayed. To be clear, no real human remains are on display in the Babes in the Wood exhibit. I determined that photos of the exhibit would likewise be prohibited; this policy remains in place and is clearly marked within the exhibit space. These decisions were made on an ethical basis, and also allowed me the time to wrap my head around the ethical difficulties involved with exhibiting this case. Through visitor comments received by myself and other members of staff, I noticed a common misconception that the new developments in the case meant that it had been solved. This is incorrect: the mystery of the boys’ identities was solved, but the who and why of the case remains inconclusive.

Let's Get Ethical

The following will sound very obvious to state, but it is extremely important to me that the information presented is up to date, correct, and adheres to the highest professional and ethical standards. But, how do you adhere to high ethical standards when you’re showcasing a violent murder? This remains my top concern. As a curator, particularly a new one like myself, confronting the difficult history of the Babes in the Wood case proved a daunting task. I will say that had the original exhibit not already been in place (originally created in 2016), I would most likely not have attempted to create an exhibit about this case, especially within the short, 6-month period in which the exhibit update was completed. For reference, exhibits are generally developed over a period of 1-2 years.

Simply put, opening up a discussion concerning topics that fall under the category of difficult or violent history is an extremely challenging and scary task. However, avoiding topics that prove ethically difficult runs the risk of crossing over into censorship. This avoidance would have kept me in my professional comfort zone, which isn’t always a positive. I’m sure many would agree that the thing that allows you to grow the most, be it professionally, personally, etc., is usually the hardest or scariest to do (okay, I’ll cool it with the therapy). In this case, I had to figure out how to update a True Crime exhibit that caters to the museum’s True Crime fans while also relaying the information of the case without overly-sensationalizing a violent murder. I say over-sensationalizing because having a True Crime exhibit in the first place does inherently sensationalize crime to a certain extent. ​​

When does an exhibit cross the line from informational to exploitive? How does a curator know when and where to draw the line? What ethical rules and regulations must be followed and how do museum professionals gauge what is and isn’t inappropriate for the public? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. Many policies and ethical guidelines for museums and curators note that the decision to display or not display sensitive material is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Various ethical regulations say that the exhibit should have a clear purpose (i.e., educational) and the artifacts should be displayed respectfully, although what constitutes a respectful display is not explicitly defined. In the end, I determined the exhibit update would fulfill three purposes: to provide the identities of the children, to relay information about the process of forensic genetic genealogy that identified the boys, and to re-affirm that the murder remains unsolved.

Updating this True Crime exhibit has forced me to confront the social, political, and ethical factors that are intertwined with our contentious collection. While this project has brought to light many difficult conversations, I am glad to have met it so early on in my professional career and frankly, have had no choice but to deal with it. Ethical standards within the museum profession are evolving, so naturally, methods of exhibiting are following suit. Museum professionals like myself are learning as we go, looking to past methods of collecting and displaying to learn how and why those methods need to change. What I have learned through this experience is that it’s okay not to know, to ask for help, to understand that not all questions can be answered, and that transparency between a museum and its audience is imperative. With the content and collections of the museum being what they are, I am sure I will be faced with many more ethical obstacles in the near future. While initially intimidating, I am glad to gain this experience first-hand, to deeply consider what our exhibits portray, and to consider our role in the public’s fascination with True Crime.


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