For 127 years the parcel of land commonly referred to as Woodlands, in New Westminster B.C., was the site of a successively renamed mental health facility. Originating as The Lunatic Asylum in 1876. By 2002 The Woodlands School for the mentally handicapped, was in its final phase of shutting down, while its remaining residents were being integrated into the community. It was then, as an artist and a nearby resident, that I was compelled to begin a project chronicling the changes at Woodlands.
Since I began my Woodlands project in 2003, the former school/asylum site has been transformed – its inventory of large international-style buildings replaced with a dense configuration of upscale condominiums and townhouses. There is little left to remind us that this site has been the setting of a provincial institution for over a century.
But one thing that has remained is the asylum's 2.2-acre cemetery. Opened in 1920, the secluded burial ground remains as the singular trace to the site's institutional past. This, too, is New Westminster's heritage, one which is linked with the pain and suffering of marginalized citizens and the forgotten remains of the thousands who lived and died there.
From its closure as an active burial site in 1958, through the subsequent removal of the cemetery's over 3000 grave markers in 1977 to its reincarnation as a memorial garden in 2006, the cemetery at Woodlands has gone through a number of changes resulting in a radical shift in function. Public record and oral history have created rich and complex stories about what happened to the cemetery over time. As an artist, my interest in the former cemetery has been driven by what I perceived as a great injustice served upon those who were buried there as their last vestiges of notoriety, their grave markers were unceremoniously removed and disposed of. This exhibition/archive Dead and Buried: The Cemetery at Woodlands has given me the opportunity firstly to examine, interpret and record the former cemetery's complex history and then, through remapping and global positioning technology, return the cemetery at Woodlands to its original function.
Michael de Courcy
New Westminster, 2011