The Populous Map Project -- grassroots history and archiving in British Columbia

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Laura Cuthbert is an organizer who has a keen interest in history. She is a central part of Populous Map, a grassroots project that aims to preserve and share marginalized histories from communities large and small across British Columbia, in ways that respect autonomy, privacy, and reciprocity. Scott Neigh interviews her about those histories and about the work of Populous Map.

The history that most of us have the opportunity to learn tends to erase and downplay the voices, the stories, and the struggles of people who are marginalized in various ways. We hear more about bosses than workers, more about white people than Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour, more about cisgender men than cis women or trans and gender-diverse people, more about elites than everyone else.

Inequity and injustice manifests not only at the level of the stories we hear, but also in terms of the sources that are readily accessible upon which we might base stories. This is true in multiple aspects of how museums, archives, and historians relate to sources emerging from the lives of marginalized people -- sometimes they are neglected and ignored, sometimes they are stolen and disrespected.

Laura Cuthbert has always been interested in the past. As a teen, she worked in the museum in the community that she grew up in. Even then, she knew something was off about it all -- that there were objects there that belonged Indigenous nations that no museum should have, and that the stories told in the exhibits left out a great deal. Yet she still loved history and she ended up going into museum sciences and then anthropology.

In 2011, she and a group of friends started the project that would become Populous Map. It originally started out as road trips to ghost towns in British Columbia. They investigated the buildings, the objects left behind, the plants that grew there, and they documented it all. At a certain point, they realized that, in many of these places, they were seeing evidence of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour in these communities, even though the dominant extant local histories of these areas largely exclude such communities.

Over time, the project evolved into its current form. The focus is still on British Columbia, but it shifted, as its website describes it, from asking the basic question, "Who is missing?" to a much more involved set of questions: "How may we make diverse, private, and unknown archives as accessible and researchable as our primarily white settler archives? How do we do this while maintaining autonomy, privacy, and reciprocity in the histories we gather?"

Today, the cycle of their relationship with a community typically begins with a visit one summer just to get to know people. They'll develop a sense of the community, and who in formal and informal ways is holding the community's history, and find out what people in the community might want digitized so it can be both preserved and made more broadly accessible.

The next year, they return to do the digitizing. They come with an old ambulance that carries in the back of it a set of massive scanners, each one six feet by three feet. They digitize documents, artifacts, stories – whatever they can. Most of what they collect, they catalogue, tag, and make accessible and easily searchable online. Some of that is via the interactive map and timeline on their website, but Cuthbert has found that tool to be less useful than she'd hoped, and more often uses Google Drive to distribute material to people who contact them.

Perhaps most importantly, their work does not stop with digitizing and circulating material. They prioritize consent culture in their work, as well as giving back to the communities they work with. It is crucial to Cuthbert to develop early on a sense of how their presence can be made most useful to the community that they are in, and then to do what they can to provide that.

They have a number of trips planned for this summer, and are committed to the ongoing work of building relationships with communities, and then collecting and digitizing material. In the future, Cuthbert also envisions the project working more closely with teachers and school systems to bring the histories that they are preserving to young people.

Image: Wikimedia  -- British Columbia map 1896

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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