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.
Q: Guns and gun culture are sometimes perceived as contentious topics. How did you navigate these areas for a general audience?
EP: We tried to navigate this by focusing on the individual firearms in our collection, exploring their individual histories and their influence in popular culture. But the reality is that firearms will always be contentious because of their nature (weapons made to injure and or kill)—and their history is not always easy. But by sharing these histories—the good and the bad—we hope to provide a platform for positive discussion.
VPD officer Lynn Jamieson who was one of the top 3 shots at the academy in 1956. She is holding a Thompson Submachine gun used by the VPD (likely a 1928 model). You can see the 1928 model in the police museum’s Gun Culture exhibit. Photo Credit: Vancouver Poice Museum & Archives, P06887
Q: What are some of your favourite elements of the exhibit? Any fascinating stories?
EP: My favourite parts of the exhibit are the images we used for the panels. To break from the traditional view of firearms representing masculinity, I focused on using photos from a 1950s photoshoot of female VPD officers using different police firearms. These images represent an important step for women in the VPD. Prior to the late 1940s, female officers were not allowed to carry firearms, unlike their male counterparts. These images represent some of the first VPD women officers being trained with police firearms. For me, these photos represent a huge turning point in perceptions of women in society and a positive step forward for equality in the workforce (particularly in policing). These images also challenge our own cultural views regarding masculinity and firearms and I hope they invoke discussion and reflection amongst our visitors.
Q: What has the feedback been like for the exhibit, thus far?
EP: Everyone seems excited to see all the different firearms, many of which had not been displayed before. I hear a lot of people coming out of the firearms gallery talking about their own ‘gun culture’ and how it compares to ours in Canada which makes me really excited. It seems to be engaging a lot of positive discussions.
Q: Why should people come and check out the exhibit?
EP: Because it is a fun and unique look at a firearms collection. Also, we have a fairly large firearms collection and will be changing out the display in order to share each firearm’s individual story.