“Wait. How many boxes did you say? 32?” Yes, eight education kits of four boxes each.
Ever eager to do some woodworking, I said yes to building the boxes before I knew anything about the project, or how many needed to be built. My colleague and production lead Megan Anderson filled in the details; the subject was Historical Wrongs Outreach boxes. These would be containers with gravitas, a purpose. Amongst teaching materials and historical documents the contents included reproduction wall plasters from immigration cells on which detained Chinese had carved poetic lamentations nearly 100 years ago.
Rather than retrofit existing boxes or reuse a style from other outreach exhibits, we decided to reflect the contents with real wood, aged to create a well-travelled appearance. In consultation with other exhibit team members, Megan chose a simple box style that would nest together as a unit of four boxes. When opened layer by layer the boxes would reveal historical wrongs and the subsequent apology letters for injustices served.
As these boxes needed to appear worn and would be faux-finished, I let go of the need to have perfect wood and joinery. I purchased simple spruce boards for the sides and found old wooden shelves in storage to repurpose for the lids. Different box heights tailored to the contents cut down on the overall weight of the set—no sense in building a kit that would be too heavy to lift!
While I went about building the boxes, Megan recreated the wall plasters and other reproduction documents. She visited our collections storage to study the original plasters—large, fragile pieces of wall with Chinese writing and other graffiti etched into the surface. While she couldn’t touch them, she could imagine the texture of the characters and what the dryness of the plaster would feel like. She used many photographs to create two master copies from which she made casting moulds. The masters were scaled-down versions cut out of drywall which seemed a close match to the original plaster. The text was copied onto the surface using a printed image backed with carbon paper and then carved the characters, chips and lines onto the face. She then made silicon casting moulds of both masters for reproduction.
To cast the eight sets of replicas Megan used a plastic plaster which retained a fragile appearance but was strong enough to travel and endure handling. A water soluble photo decal of the original was applied over the carved surface of each so that the image of the writing lined up with the carved impressions, creating a sense of depth.
On the exterior of the boxes, old lacquer was mimicked by layering shellac, acrylic mediums and paint. The interiors were lined with gold tissue paper. Thin, worn and faded, the lining still glowed, a subtle representation of the spirit of those whose stories are told by the contents.
Branding a project with the Royal British Columbia Museum logo is an important finishing touch on all of our work but our usual logo didn’t match the finish or style of the boxes. In order to complete the look, local fabric artist Trish Tacoma of Smoking Lily applied a silk-screened version of our logo in English and Chinese to each lid.
Thirty-two boxes—eight sets of four—with unique finishes and contents are now out in British Columbia schools and communities, serving their purpose.
When discussing this article with my project partner Megan, she adroitly observed that in exhibits we work as a team—some people may feature more strongly in a project but nearly everyone on the team adds a detail or suggestion along the way. Be it brainstorming about design or providing part of the production, we work with an exceptionally talented and generous group of people. While not mentioned by name, many contributed to the building of the Historical Wrongs Outreach boxes.