Inside ‘Gun Culture’: An Interview with Museum Curator Elizabeth Peterson

Updated: Jul 8, 2020


What is 'gun culture'? The Vancouver Police Museum's newest exhibit examines the term closely, uncovering changing attitudes towards firearms over the decades.

Female VPD police officers in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Prior to the late 1940s, female officers were not allowed to carry firearms, unlike their male counterparts. Photo Credit: Vancouver Police Museum & Archives, N00247.


“While doing research for this renovation, I started thinking about why people own guns. This led me down a rabbit hole of popular culture and firearms history. In this research, I learned about the concept of ‘gun culture’ which focuses on societies’ attitudes, beliefs and relationships concerning firearms.”–Elizabeth Peterson, Vancouver Police Museum Curator

This year, The Vancouver Police Museum renovated its firearms gallery and opened a new exhibit named ‘Gun Culture’. The exhibit examines the term ‘gun culture’ closely, uncovering the cultural influences from the past and present that have affected how guns are portrayed in society at different moments in time.


We caught up with our Museum Curator Elizabeth Peterson to learn more about the exhibit and what visitors can expect from it in our latest blog. Check out our interview below:


Q: How did the Gun Culture exhibit come to fruition?

EP: In memory of Bob Steel, who passed away in 2017 and was an active VPMA board member, we decided to renovate the firearms gallery and include some of the firearms he was passionate about.


While doing research for this renovation, I started thinking about why people own guns. This led me down a rabbit hole of popular culture and firearms history. In this research, I learned about the concept of ‘gun culture’ which focuses on societies’ attitudes, beliefs and relationships concerning firearms.


Here in Canada, for example, our ‘gun culture’ focuses around sport shooting and collecting, while in the USA the gun culture has come to focus on defence and protection. But, this idea that ‘guns are for self-defence’ is actually relatively new in the USA and didn’t really become a thing until the 1970s! Prior to this, people owned guns primarily for hunting and sport shooting. Compared to other industrial nations, this notion of owning guns for self-protection is only really found in the USA.


Guns as objects encompass powerful messaging about a culture’s values, beliefs and fears—and are an interesting way of looking at our culture. So, when we were renovating the firearms gallery, I thought it would be interesting to create an exhibit narrative that focused more on what Canadian ‘gun culture’ was and is, rather than simply displaying the guns.

In the exhibit, each firearm is connected not only to its maker history but also to a significant moment in history when it was used. In addition, we discuss the gun’s influence on popular culture (i.e.: what movies it was featured in, its influence in fashion/self-image etc.).


Thompson 1921 SMG: Originally named the “Annihilator,” the Tommy Gun is an American made submachine gun. The original model was designed to help move troops forward in the trenches during WWI and changed how soldiers fought. You can see a 1928 model of this firearm in our Gun Culture exhibit. Photo Credit: Hmaag, Wikipedia.


Q: What narratives and themes did you want to explore in the exhibit?

EP: I really wanted to explore why we, as a society and as individuals, think guns are cool or not cool through looking at not only individual firearms history, but pop culture influences like movies and video games. I also wanted to explore why Canadians own guns and then encourage visitors to think about how this might be different from other countries and why.