Rare array of vintage artificial limbs joins Museum of Vancouver collectors' show

At All Together Now, local prosthetist David Moe shares the pieces he's collected since his teens

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      For those unfamiliar, the lifelike artificial legs and arms that hang on the Museum of Vancouver’s wall might seem like medical oddities from a less advanced era.

      But for collector David Moe, a certified prosthetist, they are integral, inspiring pieces for his career, his teaching, and his workspace.

      “I love them all,” he says with enthusiasm, standing in the museum’s giant new exhibit All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their World, in a corner of an expansive, cabinet-of-curiosities-styled room that houses everything from scores of local Chinese-restaurant menus to rows of 19th-century corsets and a glass case full of hundreds of action figures. “It’s very strange because they have been all around me for so long and they have sat in predominant spaces at work—they sit on the top of a shelf. So when I walk back in there right now there are these kinds of empty holes.

      “But I’m happy to have them on display and to let people think about what they see and have the opportunity to have them think about prosthetics. Because nobody ever thinks about them until they need one.”

      Moe began collecting almost from his start, at the age of 14, when he worked sweeping floors and pouring plaster at Northern Alberta Prosthetic & Orthotic Services, his family’s business in Edmonton. One of his first big finds was a leg that sits in the exhibit today—a meticulously carved wooden limb covered in smooth skin-tone leather, dating back to the 1930s. At the time, he recognized the craftsmanship and tucked it away where it wouldn’t disappear; today he still marvels at the anatomical design, with a hinged knee that bends with the use of straps.

      Elsewhere in the collection are another wooden design from the same era, created by a violin maker in the days before certified prosthetists; a metal lower limb from the 1950s; a hand-carved hand that still bears the dark imprints of the leather glove pulled over it in disguise; and a few leather-strapped, hooked hand prosthetics. And all of them followed him to Vancouver in 2005 when he moved here and set up Barber Prosthetics Clinic.

      “The science of these legs is solid and I still use it today. The math is the math. But we’ve moved so far. I really love where we’ve come from,” says Moe, gesturing to the vintage pieces he uses regularly to teach students at BCIT. He says he can appreciate the human touch and deep care that went into each one, then adds: “All of these were used by people, so the energy of these people is in these. I feel that responsibility of these people in here.”

      To show how far his specialty has come, though, Moe has juxtaposed the historic limbs with modern-day advances—decorative limb coverings with fashionable latticework, or a kids’ shin piece that’s been emblazoned with a comic-book image of Superman. Now, instead of trying to just mimic natural limbs, some people are opting for statement pieces that actually draw attention to their prosthetic. “This empowers them in this powerless situation where someone has amputated your leg,” he notes.

      As with other exhibits in All Together Now, there are audiovisuals that accompany his collection—in this case showing people using the advanced limbs of today, from a female triathlete carrying her baby to another client playing competitive volleyball.

      “When someone does the Grouse Grind or, hell, just walks their child down the street, that’s when they come alive. We’re rebuilding lives, not pieces,” Moe says.

      Show curator Viviane Gosselin points out that Moe’s treasures, like a few others in the 9,000-square-foot show, are working collections used for teaching—something you might not necessarily apply to the pinball machines or Expo 67 memorabilia elsewhere in the massive display. But in the case of the 20 people featured in All Together Now, there’s a definite human connection. “The essence of the individual collector comes through,” Gosselin says. “We want to show who’s behind that creation.”

      This is a perfect context in which to discover Moe’s beloved collection, which might normally only seen only by students, experts, and clients, she says. “We’re taught not to look at people wearing prosthetics, but it could be you or me that could need one next year,” Gosselin explains.

      Like so many of the other collections here—from rock posters and pocket watches to artificial eyes and fly-fishing lures—they defy price tags.

      “I couldn’t put a value on them,” Moe says of his artifacts. “I don’t think I would ever sell them. My hope is to pass them to someone who will share them and talk about them forever.”

      All Together Now runs at the Museum of Vancouver from Thursday (June 23) to January 8, 2017.