Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Craft Time

From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer, Royal BC Museum

We hear our “Old Fashioned Christmas” event at Helmcken House has been missed this year, as the house is closed while we make improvements to the fire suppression system and security.

The dining room table at Helmcken House, set for a Christmas feast.

Every year, Helmcken House has been decked with Victorian decorations, and for visitors touring it, there has always been a holiday craft to try. I was thinking that now that you’ve had a chance to play with all your new toys, why not pick up the scissors and try making one of your own?

When people had a hankering for animated fun in the Victorian age, one of their choices was a Thaumatrope or “Wonder Turner”. The Thaumatrope takes two images and blends them together using the principle of persistence of vision. Give it a try by following the simple steps below.

What you need:
A printer*
2 pieces of regular paper
1 piece of card, or other heavy weight paper
A hole punch (or you can use your scissors if you are really careful).

What to do:
Print the house image and the Santa image on a piece of regular paper. *(If you don’t have a printer, try drawing your own – see the suggestions below).
Colour the images (don’t colour the sky) and cut them out
Cut out a blank circle from a piece of card stock or heavy paper
Glue the Santa image on one side and then glue the house image, upside down, on the reverse side
Punch a hole on the left and right side
Tie a string through each hole

To Spin the disc:
Hold one string in each hand, make a few big circles to wind the string
Gently pull on the strings to ensure that the disc continues to wind and unwind
When the card spins around the two pictures look like one image

Design your own:
Try designing your own Thaumatrope. Some ideas include:
A bird in a cage
A man on a horse
A vase with some flowers

If you tried it – let me know how it worked. If you came up with your own neat design, share it here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where did you shoot that mammoth?

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

I remember the day that a rather nasty boy at school told me that Father Christmas (a.k.a. Santa) was not real. He went on to tell me about how babies were made, and if I hadn’t run away I do believe he would have told me that I’d been raised by wolves.

We have one of the finest mammoth replicas in the world. It stands in splendid isolation in an icy tundra landscape. A while ago a visitor to the museum asked ‘where did you shoot that mammoth?’ I hear the story repeated occasionally -usually in a tone that is a combination of incredulity and pride …how could they not know that mammoths are extinct… but then again, our mammoth is so life-like.

Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum

Recently I suggested that the interpretive signage in front of the diorama should indicate that the beast is fabricated. I was surprised by the response. ‘But you’ll spoil the illusion! Our visitors love to imagine they are seeing the real thing.”

I agree that the museum needs to be a place where every day existence fades into the background as one contemplates other times and places. But something niggles. Do we not owe the visitor the truth? We are, after all, a trusted voice of authority. Shouldn’t we be clear when something is not as it seems?

Forest diorama

Then again, where do you stop? Trees in our forest diorama are not real, nor are the buildings in our Old Town street scene. In fact, many museums with immersive settings rely on an element of theatre to convey the story. I should underline that our museum does display thousands of real objects. But the line between real and replica can be indistinct. Our forest diorama brilliantly blends real and replicated plants.

What do you think dear reader? Should we tell our visitors that the mammoth is a fibreglass and fur concoction – carefully researched indeed – but definitely not real?

P.S. Anyway, shouldn’t the question have been ‘why did you shoot that mammoth?”

Tim Willis

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just Mothball It

From the desk of Colleen Wilson,
Conservator at the Royal BC Museum

Getting your woollens and furs out of mothballs? Phew, what a stink! It’s nice to have our warm wraps ready to go, but is there a quick way to get rid of the smell?

Short answer: no. The long answer is a question about the wisdom of protecting our treasures with dangerous chemicals.

Some years ago a rare military uniform was donated to the Museum. Unfortunately it had been stored in mothballs and when the container was opened, staff had to leave the area because the naphthalene fumes were overpowering. Although the curator was anxious to acquire the uniform, it was obvious that it couldn’t be catalogued, stored, or exhibited.

The jacket in the tray of cat litter with a filled bolster.

Following an “old conservators” remedy for reducing the mouldy smell of old books, the uniform was “buried” in absorbent material. Two large plastic storage boxes were half filled with standard (unscented) cat litter; tissue was placed on top of the litter to permit fumes, but not dust, to pass through. The jacket, with cotton bolsters filled with litter inside the sleeves and body, was placed atop the litter in one box, the trousers in the other and the boxes were sealed.

The uniform ready for cataloguing
by Delphine Castles, Collections Manager.

One year later the smell was substantially reduced, but it was not gone. So the cat litter was replaced and the uniforms sealed up again. Eventually the fumes were eliminated and the uniform joined the History Collection. It only took two years.

Despite the difficulty in getting rid of their smell, mothballs are not an effective way to protect against insect damage. To actually kill the moths that damage furs and woollens, a high concentration of naphthalene is required: one pound of mothballs to 10 cubic feet. And, an entire life-cycle must be fumigated, the container sealed for a full month. Tossing a handful of mothballs into a closet or storage chest will only give a false sense of security and expose you to harmful fumes. Fumes that will kill an insect are not going to do you any good: inhaling naphthalene is hard on the liver and kidneys and with overexposure, many people become sensitized. And there is the persistent smell.

Case-making clothes moths caught on a sticky trap.

Many consider cold storage a better option for furs, but the real benefit of cold storage is in the thorough preparation and the sealed facility. Cool temperatures alone will not preserve fur.

Freezing, however, is an effective way to kill insects. Although they can overwinter in cold climates, this is because the gradual lowering of the temperature allows insects to enter a state of “diapause”; keeping an infested artifact warm before plunging it into a -18C freezer will result in death to all stages of insect life. (An unburdened chest freezer should be able to do this; a domestic upright freezer is not cold enough.) Freeze the artifact for 48 hours. If it was sealed in a plastic bag and left there until thoroughly thawed, the artifact will retain its original moisture content. In fact if it is intended for storage, it can remain in the bag until needed – it is free of infestation and isolated from new insects.

Although there are many “old wives” remedies for repelling insects with herbs, wood chips even champagne corks, in reality it was the old wives’ good housekeeping that did the trick: if winter clothes are put away clean in a sealed container, insects cannot get at them. No need for mothballs at all.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal B.C. Museum

While you can’t eat, drink or be merry in the B.C. Archives Reference Room, you CAN indulge in some nostalgia, or do some research for your next cocktail party. The B.C. Archives library contains more than 80,000 published items that have a connection to the history of B.C. – and that includes a selection of cookbooks and guides written in B.C., often for a relatively local audience. A search in our library catalogue using the term “cookery” will lead you to some amusing titles, including my favourite, “Casseroles for Drinkers”. This small book, penned by A.S. Buveur (which is a pen-name and means “drinker” in French) was written by Charlie White of Sidney, B.C., and published in 1975. The long form of the title was “Fifty-plus recipes for casseroles that you can cook longer than you’d planned so you don’t have to interrupt cocktails and your guests’ fascinating conversation, just to serve dinner”.

Other classics from the 70s in our collections include “Man on the Range: or How to Survive in the Kitchen Without Really Crying” by Danny Boyd, or James Barber’s “Fear of Frying.” For those British Columbians with more adventurous tastes (or less access to a supermarket) Swede Gano of Anahim Lake, B.C. offered up “Moose on the Table” featuring recipes such as Basic Boiled Moose Six Ways and Mooseburger Meatballs Porcupine Style. And of course, in the 70s the vegetarian movement was gathering steam, witnessed by titles such as “Soy bean magic: delicious recipes with soy beans, flour & grits” by Gwen Mallard, who ran a vegetarian restaurant and was also a well known environmental activist in B.C.

Should you be planning a 50’s themed party, you might want to have a look at “What’s Cooking?” published by the Vancouver Kiwassa Club in the mid-50s. This was the decade when jellied salads were in their hey-day, and the book includes more than 20 recipes that use various combinations of Jello, marshmallows and salad dressing. The book was sold to raise funds for the Club, which provided a gathering place for girls in Vancouver. This recipe deserves copying verbatim. (There is no photo – you’ll have to use your imagination!)

Jellied Salad for a Buffet

Make red Jello, and when partially set put in a tube pan. Then put in canned orange and grapefruit sections. When completely set, put a partially set lime Jello, with diced celery and shrimp in it, on top of the red Jello. When ready to use, turn out on a large plate, decorated with lettuce or endive. Fill hole with thick salad dressing.

Your 50s party wouldn’t be complete without an assortment of cocktails on offer, and the Archives library once again can be your guide. If your guests need help washing down the Jellied Salad, they could try a “Harvard Cocktail” (brandy and Italian vermouth) or a “French 75” (gin and champagne). These cocktails, and many more, were published in a little black book by a B.C. liquor distributor, along with instructions about how to shake, not stir:

“Where a shaker is used always provide ice. Shake the shaker hard, don’t just rock it, remember you are trying to wake it up, not rock it to sleep”.

If you need to find out more about what we were all eating and drinking (or not) in British Columbia 100 years ago, have a look at “The New Temperance Cookery Book” by Mrs. Fanny Lea Gillette. The preface proudly states that “The book embodies many original and commendable features, among which is the elimination of the use of alcohol. It can be clearly demonstrated that spirituous liquors are not required in cooking.”

Savoury jellies had been perfected by the Victorians and Edwardians, and were given their own chapter in Mrs. Gillette’s cookbook because they promoted household economy, using up “bits of meats and vegetables which in themselves would not be sufficient for a course”.

The recipes and the ingredients in all of these books tell us a surprising amount of information about how British Columbians ran their households, and which comestibles were available and when. Some are not what you would expect - in 1911 the recommended garnishes for the savory jellies included capers, truffles, olives, pimentos and green peppers. Likewise, I hadn’t realized that the average housewife in the early 50s could buy canned “Vegeterian (sic) Vegetable Soup”.

And that is why we collect and keep these vintage titles – they give us an insight into the daily life of the average housewife (or party host!), and are just as important as the scholarly works that also fill our library shelves. A small exhibit featuring some of these cookbooks, plus menus and photographs, is on display in the Archives lobby for the winter of 2010/11.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

'Tis the season

From the desk of Sean Rodman, Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Royal BC Museum

A quick round-up of festive facts about the Royal BC Museum...

Fact: Santa visited Victoria in 1917, and it was caught on film. The BC Archives has the proof, along with all sorts of fascinating images of holidays past. Take a look for yourself, either online or in person. If you check out the database online, try selecting the "Visual Records" box and typing "santa claus" in the search box...

Fact: That strange tower outside the museum holds 62 bells, and is the largest carillon in Canada. Not only that, but you can sing along. We're holding our fourth annual carol-along concert, with live music provided by Provincial Carillonneur Rosemary Laing, members of the Newcombe Singers and you! We'll provide the song sheets, hot chocolate and cookies - you provide a voice. As this is an outdoor event, and the weather has been chilly recently, please dress appropriately. (For a sneak peek inside the carillon, take a look at our latest YouTube video.)

Fact: Old Town, in our Modern History gallery, has turned into a holiday paradise. Come on up and see the fabulous decor. Hope to see you soon!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The "Eyes" Have It

From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer at the Royal BC Museum

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the most popular areas for photographs and conversations in our feature gallery Behind The Scenes: Part 1 Natural History, seems to be the mammal area. Whether it is a photograph, painting or taxidermy mount, people like faces and eyes.

I mention eyes because we have had a lot of feedback from our visitors about our ornithology area of the exhibition. We have over 39,000 birds in the form of study skins in the collection and roughly 200 birds in the display, but the majority of these birds don’t have eyes and they are lying on their backs. Here are just a few of our visitor’s reactions:

- “Please put the birds standing up. My daughter was sad. It was ugly and disgusting.”

- “I feel that the large glass case displaying dozens of birds was inappropriate. They should be properly displayed not lying on their backs in rows, but standing up majestically.”

- “The lying of dead birds is not fun to see, stand them up with eyes open!”

One of the objectives of the Behind the Scenes exhibition was to show people our collections, as they are in the museum. Birds in our collection are stored on their back because they take up less space than taxidermic mounts posed in lifelike positions. Storing the skins on their backs puts the least amount of stress on the specimen and allows for their identifying characteristics to be seen without having to handle them. As a result, some of our specimens have been in the collection for over 100 years.

No one has complained specifically about the “dead spiders” or the “dead sea stars” or the “dead fish” but bird watching is a very popular hobby and people love the colourful and charismatic creatures.

I wonder if the reaction to the birds would be less severe if the study skins had eyes. What do you think?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The downside of opening up

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience
The Royal BC Museum is known for its immersive settings - where visitors can step into a geographic location or historical place – a street, a mine, a forest, a beach and others. It’s as though you were there. Keeping ‘there’ lifelike and vibrant is the responsibility of a dedicated and talented team of exhibition arts technicians.

The wear and tear of 30 million feet [that’s roughly how many have explored these exhibitions since they opened] as well as the inexorable breakdown of materials over time, takes its toll, especially in displays that are designed to invite you in, rather than keep you out.

This winter, the exhibitions team is taking on two rather daunting renewal projects - an enclosed river delta scene that is about to be de-glassed [more about that in a later post] and a forest that has waited for spring to come for 30 years.

A Grizzly Bear forages in the forest
The forest display is the first on the renewal agenda. It is beautifully detailed – a bear forages next to a babbling brook, birds and small animals populate the undergrowth. It looks like the real thing… except… well, it’s a bit desiccated. If you look closely the forest has a patina. It’s not that we don’t clean it. We do. It’s more that the intricacy of a forest floor is so complex that we simply cannot sustain that fresh, ‘just rained upon’ quality. And the leaves of the canopy over time tend to lose their plump greenness.

This winter, our brave team is taking the forest apart. It requires a certain determination to take this on. No mere polish and dusting will do. The whole thing needs to be taken apart – branches felled, stream cleaned out, river rocks polished, animals restored – the works. It has required a great deal of innovation too. The canopy of real alder branches and leaves is now withered and will be replaced by hand-made alders – real branches, wire twigs and plastic leaves.

The creation of the leaves alone is a marvel of ingenuity. Exhibits Art Techs Colin Longpre and Jana Stefan have been into the local forest gathering and studying real tree branches. Back at the museum they have perfected a leaf molding process turning out large trays of leaf molds in thin plastic sheets. It’s the kind of work that demands a unique solution. We’ll possibly never do it again in our working lives. So, Colin and Jana have devised a way to assemble alder branches using real branches for the foundation of a branch then artificial twigs [wire and tape] in just the kind of order and shape that a real alder might sprout. The leaves are then cut from the mold, attached to the twigs and distressed with brown spots and holes. It’s painstaking work.

In the old days, this process would largely be hidden from view, a hoarding erected and eventually the finished marvel revealed. Today, our public is more informed and possibly more inquisitive than their forebears. They have great appetite to find out how things are done. So, when the work starts in early January, we’ll be interpreting the process step by step as it occurs.

Artificial alder boughs await their debut

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Button, Button

From the desk of Colleen Wilson,
Conservator at the Royal BC Museum

Sometimes artifacts are difficult to exhibit because their appearance is incomplete. A typewriter without a ribbon? A telephone without a dial? It’s important that our displays are accurate.

Brown silk bodice.

As part of a coming exhibition, we’re preparing a bodice and skirt from c.1889. It’s simple but dressy, made of “shot” silk; the vertical warps are chestnut brown and the horizontal wefts, dark brown, giving a shimmery, if somewhat sombre, effect. Unfortunately, at some point all the buttons were removed and as there were sixteen of them down the centre front, their appearance is critical.

Emily Carr, wearing a similar bodice, pictured with her brother Dick c.1889.
BC Archives #I-60892

We have cards of buttons from the same period that look appropriate, but we wanted to ensure that the button material would not harm the fabric of the bodice. The earliest plastics were developed in the late 19th Century; the inventors were not always concerned about long term stability.

A card of buttons.

Fortunately Dr. JoAnn Peters is spending her sabbatical from the Chemistry Department of the University of Central Washington with us, researching methods for identifying plastics in the RBCM collections. The buttons appear to be compression moulded from a plastic material; in the late 1800s this could have been cellulose nitrate (celluloid), gutta percha, shellac, or vulcanized rubber.

Dr JoAnn Peters at the microscope.

Dr. Peters took samples by rubbing the edge of one of the buttons on the frosted end of a microscope slide, leaving a very slight residue on the slide and no visible evidence on the button. She tested for cellulose nitrate (diphenylamine test) and sulfhydryl groups (azide test). The results eliminated cellulose nitrate (which breaks down releasing nitric acid) and vulcanized rubber (which can exude sulphur); the negative azide test also ruled out horn, a common (though stable) button material.

The matte appearance of the buttons makes gutta percha more likely than shellac, though neither presents a hazard to the bodice fabric. A natural latex produced from the sap of the tropical tree Palaquium gutta, gutta percha is a very stable material; it hardens as it ages, but does not release any harmful materials. In the nineteenth century, its insulating properties were employed in the earliest undersea telegraph cables. It was also used to make highly ornate moulded furniture, "mourning" jewellery (because of its dark colour and ability to be moulded) and pistol hand grips (hard and durable). Golf balls with a solid gutta-percha core revolutionized the game. And gutta percha is still in use. Because it does not readily react within the human body, if you have had a root canal, it was probably used to fill the empty space inside the tooth.

So the buttons will be attached to the bodice. They will be backed with a strip of cotton twill tape inside the front opening to take the strain of the stitches, and to make it less risky to remove the stitches from the silk, should that be required in the future. The work will be well documented, so that it will be clear to researchers in the future that the addition of the buttons was done by conservators in 2010.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Top Ten Reasons Why the Royal BC Museum ROCKS!

From the desk of Sean Rodman, Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Royal BC Museum

We're going to jump on a trend that was started by the Vancouver Police Museum blog, and continued over at the Museum of Anthropology blog. Both of these institutions think that they rock, and each have listed 10 reasons why.

I'm not arguing. In fact, I'm a huge fan of both and encourage you to visit, either virtually or in person. But I'd like to jump on the bandwagon, and add our own 10 reasons why the Royal BC Museum rocks!

10. We have a mammoth
Not just any mammoth - our mammoth diorama has been a highlight for many visitors over the years. The full story on Woolly can be found in an earlier Royal BC Museum blog post.

9. We try to pull the wool over your eyes (for a good cause)
Artifact or Artifiction is our annual gala fundraiser, and is held in the fall of each year. What makes the evening unique is that guests play a game: 20 curators explain their favourite artifact or specimen. Some of them are lying, and it's up to you to tell the difference. This year, we were joined by almost 400 guests, and raised over $90,000 that will go directly towards a new travelling exhibit on invasive species.

8. We preserve and protect over 7 million artifacts, specimens and documents
We are the keepers of our provincial history. So our collections cover all areas of natural and human history. Our collection ranges from this, to that. Of course, we need a lot of space to keep all this stuff. Our facilities cover an entire city block, taking up about 250,000 square feet. Like an iceberg, most of this space is "beneath the surface" and out of public view. Over 70% of our facility is behind the scenes and used for curatorial /archival /conservation purposes. However, if you come to our current exhibit or take a Backstage Pass tour, you can get a sneak peek at what goes on behind closed doors...

7. We offer free programs
We have lots of free activities happening throughout the year. For example, our lobby is filled with Rememberance Day displays and programming right now, all available for free. We have free Live at Lunch lectures on a range of topics. With your admission, there's a whole range of free tours that you can take, plus daily lectures and workshops in our galleries. And if you're a member, there are even more possibilities. Want to find out what's on?

6. We have the best view in Victoria.
Come up to our second floor gallery and check out the view of the provincial Legislature and inner harbour of Victoria. It's a view you won't get anywhere else. Actually, we keep the very best lookout up in the 13 storey Fannin collections tower - see for yourself using our live webcam.

5. We're a centre of expertise
While most people might only think of our galleries and exhibitions, we're also an important hub for research. Our curators and collections managers work with researchers around the world on a huge variety of projects. Their talents encompass a wide range of topics: from curators who are leading experts on climate change to exhibition arts technicians who can recreate a 19th century kitchen for an exhibit.

4. We reach out to the province
On-line and in-person, we share our knowledge with province. Our website and online resources are getting better all the time (and we're working on our coolest website yet for the "Aliens Among Us" exhibition) In the real world, we hope to send our travelling exhibit on Invasive Species to communities across the province in 2011. But we need your help to do it.

3. We educate and entertain
About 350,000 people come through our doors every year, and come away with new ideas and insights. Annually, more than 25,000 school children learn in our galleries. 450-500 volunteers make it all happen. And there's always something to learn at the museum through our lectures, workshops and tours. Check it out.

2. We've got big plans (and we could use your advice)
The Royal BC Museum has just started the process of rezoning - which doesn't sound exciting in itself, but it paves the way for some big future developments. Right now, we're talking about what our next 100 years might look like - please learn more and let us know what you think.

1. We're your museum
This is your place, your past and present. Come join us, and see for yourself why we rock!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

B.C.'s First Aviation Death?

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal BC Museum

One of my favourite categories of records at the B.C. Archives is the inquest and inquiry files created by B.C.’s coroners. The older ones (1858 – 1971) are now considered archival records, and most may be viewed by the public. They are not for the squeamish or the oversensitive but do reveal fascinating information about the way people lived, and of course, died.

The indexes to these records are generally a sad catalogue of workplace accidents, suicides and deaths due to natural causes, all of which needed the involvement of a coroner because the death was unusual or unexplained in some way. But sometimes, when I’m casting my eye through the indexes, a particular verdict will jump out and demand further investigation. (I’m currently looking through some of the early index entries because the Victoria Genealogical Society is working on a database of the coroner’s records for the Archives).

Last month I noticed that on October 10, 1894 a man named Charles H. Marble had “drowned in the Fraser descending from a balloon by parachute”! Fascinating for so many reasons. What was he doing descending from a balloon? Was this an extraordinary event, or something that people in New Westminster were doing on a regular basis in 1894? It begged investigation, and a blog entry.

The full inquest record, contained in an accession known as GR-0431, Attorney-General Inquests, 1865 to 1937, includes the formal verdict of the coroner’s jury and various witness statements. The inquest was held at the Court House in New Westminster, over two days, immediately after the body was retrieved from the Fraser River. At that time it was standard procedure for the jury to view the body in person, before considering the evidence, so the inquest was held as soon as possible.

It transpired that poor Mr. Marble was an “aeronaut” who had been hired to put on a performance as an “aerialist” for the crowds who were attending the Royal Agricultural and Industrial Society of B.C.’s Exhibition at Queen’s Park. (This was a forerunner of the PNE). An aeronaut was what we would call a balloonist today – and an aerialist is a tightrope and trapeze artist. Although only 26, Marble claimed to be an experienced showman who would somehow manage to perform like a trapeze artist on a bar, while suspended from a balloon, which he would ultimately descend from by parachute!

I have not been able to find any B.C. photographs or films of this type of extraordinary performance, but Marble was obviously akin to some of the earlier daredevils like Charles Blondin, who is best known for walking across a wire tethered to the opposite sides of Niagara Falls in 1859. Blondin died safely in his sleep in 1897, a rich and internationally known figure. A 19th century engraving (right) shows an ascending balloon with a parachute attached.

Our poor Mr. Marble, who may well be B.C.’s first aviation death, drowned after he miscalculated the wind strength across the Fraser and quite literally didn’t make it to the other side. The inquest record reveals that he had been warned not to attempt to cross the river, and had been offered a life preserver, which he refused. The Police Chief, who was watching the performance, stated that he thought Marble “was doing all right” until the last few moments when it became clear that the balloon was descending too rapidly for Marble to make a safe parachute jump. Although he cut away from the bar, he fell into the water with the parachute on top of him. Other evidence tells us that the balloon was made of cotton, created in Seattle, and filled with hot air by a wood stove. The coroner’s jury was informed that the wages of an aeronaut varied from $10 to $25 per day.

The Daily Columbian (also available at the B.C. Archives) duly reported on the incident the next day, describing it as a “Fatal Balloon Ascent”. They recorded that Mr. Marble was a native of Los Angeles, who “had been at the work from boyhood”. His remains were claimed by friends from Edison, Washington – where he is presumably buried.

Exhibition Buildings, Queen's Park, New Westminster, ca 1905 B.C. Archives HP-035392

I don’t expect that this particular life and death will ever attract much attention, but perhaps I will be surprised. Is there a budding author out there who feels inspired by this man’s story? If so, you know where to come for the facts. You’ll find more information about the collections at

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Aliens sighted all across BC!

Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

We've been tracking aliens. Thousands of them. They're arriving in great numbers and we'll need your help in repelling them.

For the past few months, we've been working on a web project that will accompany our travelling exhibition, Aliens Among Us when it tours British Columbia next year. It will have information on alien or exotic species in BC and an interactive map for visitors to post alien sightings.

A preview of the site now under development

The map is the really exciting tool. It will be based on Google Maps and there will be about 45 alien species to track. Tracking a sighting could include posting the location, adding a description or even uploading a photo. You also get a chance to connect to our experts to pose alien-related questions.

So, you are relaxing in your back yard when you hear a deep throated groan. You glance down and there before you is the largest frog you’ve ever seen in your life. Trust me, I speak from experience. You believe it is the much-feared American Bullfrog. Once our new site is launched, you can read about the bullfrog, find out about its impact on our biodiversity and see images to make sure you have the right species. Then, you can post your location on the map, add a description of the beast and post a photo if you were quick enough to snap one.

American Bullfrog languishing in a pond

Once the site launches, we’ll have a good idea where invasions are happening in BC – as they happen.

The site will include common invasive species like the Scotch Broom and Eastern Grey Squirrel and more uncommon creatures like the Woodlouse Spider and vegetation like Didymo (otherwise known as Rock Snot!). We’ve also added brand new alien species – the Western Fence Lizard which has just jumped the border into BC as well as the Weatherloach, new to Fraser Valley rivers.

Working on this project has been fascinating. Did you know that American Bullfrogs are all around Victoria because a failed farm that was breeding them for the restaurant business let them loose? The European Starling came to North American because a New Yorker wanted to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s work! And the infamous Scotch Broom is all around us – all due to a homesick Scot.

So get ready, once this site launches in spring 2011, we’ll be looking at you to help us find some aliens. And just to get you truly worried… there are about 4,000 alien or exotic species now calling BC their home.

Big thank you to David Alexander for his expertise and commitment in managing this project.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer,Royal BC Museum

Imagine all of the amazing things behind the doors of a museum. Did you ever imagine that the Royal BC Museum would have John Lennon’s 1965 “Yellow Submarine” Rolls-Royce?

In 1966 the rear seat was modified to convert to a double bed. Telephone, portable refrigerator, Sony television and custom interior-exterior sound system were installed, with loud hailer in nearside front wing.

How did we get such an item you must be asking? In 1986, Jim Pattison was the chairman for Expo ’86 and arranged for the Rolls-Royce to be loaned for the exhibition from Ripley’s Believe it or Not where it was on display as “the most expensive car in the world”. Later that year, the title for the car was transferred to Jim Pattison Industries and he donated the car to the Royal BC Museum.

The car was designed and painted by Steve Weaver of Chertsey, England in 1967.
Rarely used by the Lennons in the USA, the car was loaned to several other rock groups for special occasions.

For many years the car was exhibited in the British Columbia Transportation Museum at Cloverdale, near Vancouver. When they closed in 1993 the “Yellow Submarine” then came to Victoria. Since that time, the car has been displayed on occasion in our lobby, but it can’t stay there permanently and is currently safe in storage.

The majority of our collections are in storage both onsite and at facilities around the city. The Royal British Columbia Museum collection includes over 10 million objects and specimens and millions of significant government documents and records and archival material. Our exhibitions and galleries are only able to show a small fraction of the collection and the research that goes on here.

It was for that reason that we opened our current feature exhibition, Behind the Scenes: Part 1 Natural History. We wanted an opportunity to show you some of the things that aren’t normally displayed. It’s also why we have been doing our Backstage Pass Tours that take visitors behind the scenes and into our Natural History collection areas. You won’t see the Rolls-Royce but you might just see something else as wild and wonderful! Imagine what you might discover.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Risky Business

From the desk of Colleen Wilson, Conservator
at the Royal BC Museum

In the past, Scots prayed to be delivered from “ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night”.

But what about dropping and soiling and losses of data? We hope to deliver the collections of the Royal BC Museum to future generations free of these threats and more.

Judicious care can make a difference to longevity, but with huge and varied collections and limited budgets, what to do first? Replace cardboard boxes? Install ultraviolet filters? Put furs in cold storage? Put plastics in cold storage? Put all collections in cold storage?

This was a fur hat before the clothes moths found it and reduced it to hide. We have not had a major pest infestaion since Integrated Pest Management began 25 years ago.

In the Olden Days, such decisions were made by hoary alpha males with a lifetime of devotion to their particular discipline. Ornithologists argued for budgets for birds, archaeologists lobbied for dirt, cartographers for maps, but their expertise was in the study and acquisition of collections, not long term storage and maintenance. And there was considerable scope for charisma – a really eloquent historian, mounted on his hobby-horse, could corral money and staff, leaving a shrinking entomologist with little more than a butterfly net. Overall collections care was sometimes erratic.

We live in more rational times. The Museum’s experts now include collections managers and conservators who are at this moment involved in Collections Risk Assessment. Although it sounds like a project only an insurance adjuster could love, numbers can clarify in a way that words may not. When asked about the likelihood of a “probable” event, staff rated it as anywhere from 25% to 95%; “unlikely” could mean 1% to 45%, depending on whom you ask. Arguing for action is always more effective if data can be cited.

This fire at the Carving Studio happened in 1981. This winter Helmcken House will get a sprinkler system.

Using a formula developed at the Canadian Museum of Nature by Dr. Robert Waller, the Magnitudes of Risk are being determined using information from all collections. “Risk of what?” you may ask. Physical forces, fire, water, criminals, pests, contaminants, light, inappropriate temperature, inappropriate relative humidity and disassociation of information all threaten collections. They can be rare and catastrophic, sporadic, of intermediate severity or frequent and mild. We ask what fraction of each collection is susceptible to each risk. When is it likely to happen? How much of the value could be lost? Of course there are many kinds of value, so how can we recognize when value is lost? Some collections have monetary value, (for insurance purposes) but the worth of research specimens can scarcely be calculated in dollars and cents. Most items in our collections can never be replaced, and their cultural significance cannot be quantified. Is a basket less valuable when faded? What if the colour is still visible inside? Not surprisingly probability is easier to determine than value: we infer the future by examining our history and history is our business. How many artifacts have been stolen in the past ten years? How many roof leaks? How many specimens dropped?

A contracting protractor. Some plastics are not going to be with us forever - cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate break down giving off damaging fumes.

Risk Assessment is a means of ranking dangers. Is the risk of damage from an earthquake greater than the accelerating disintegration of cellulose nitrate film? Repeating the exercise demonstrates how effective improvements have been and pinpoints what to do next. This will be our third risk assessment to ensure that we are deploying resources wisely, protecting the province’s heritage from flooding and fading and acid migration, not to mention the things that go bump in the night.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Social Media and Museums

We've just passed the six month mark with the Royal BC Museum blog! Dipping our toes in the sea of social media, we've tried to make the blog into a window on the life of our museum. As part of the blogging team, I know I've had fun reading and writing about everything from Captain Cook to the history of our Mammoth.

On the Facebook side of things, we're closing in on 1000 friends, and have had a lively stream of comments on our wall. And we're building up our collection of YouTube videos - the one about the Teddy Bear is still my favourite.

While we're not the biggest bloggers in town, we're happy with how things have gone. The point of social media, for us, is to engage you in our work and play. We want you to comment on what we've said, tell a friend about what you've learned, or think about how you can be a part of what we do. Social media makes reaching out like this easier than ever before.

What about other museums? Want to learn more about social media and museums?

A good starting point is the fabulous blog by Nina Simon. Her posts on social media and museums are always fascinating. If you want to hear Nina in person, she'll be the keynote speaker at the upcoming British Columbia Museums Association conference. Another interesting conference is the annual Museums and the Web - they also publish all of their papers and presentations online. It can be a little academic, but provides a great snapshot of the "state of the art" in the museum world.

Finally, check out a recent online event that was probably the biggest example of social media engagement by museums around the world. Ask a Curator Day was held on September 1st, 2010. On that day, 340 museums made their curators available to answer any questions asked by the public via Twitter. It was, by all accounts, a huge success. If it happens next year, perhaps we can join in that conversation, too!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

You May Need Us More Than You Realize

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal BC Museum

Future generations will, I am confident, appreciate the work we are doing with the archival collections here at the RBCM. As Winston Churchill famously said “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” Most people can see the value of the records for historians (family or otherwise). But I think it’s also important to recognize that archival records are used for very immediate purposes. As a reference archivist I help researchers who are working on a broad range of topics – everything from preparing environmental assessments to creating historical fiction.

And, even more frequently, B.C. Archives staff are helping people who need archival records for very personal reasons. Lately, I’ve had a run of requests for help in finding records which were absolutely critical to those individuals because they needed them to claim government benefits – or to confirm their own identity.

Winston Churchill in Beacon Hill Park, 1929, F-05216, RBCM-BC Archives photo

Here’s a sampling of their stories – with names withheld to protect the innocent (or not so innocent) as the case may be!

Back in 1990, Mr. X. was convicted of possession of marijuana. Just one plant – but it was enough to leave him with a criminal record. Mr. X was not a Canadian citizen, but a landed immigrant. Shortly after his conviction his home, and with it his proof of immigration status, were destroyed in a fire. Fast forward to 2010 – Mr. X is now eligible for Old Age Security, and needs to provide his immigration documentation. To get that replaced, he has to fill out “form IMM5541”, which requires that he attach a copy of the “pertinent court documents” relating to his past conviction. You can imagine his frustration...he has no court documents because they were all destroyed in the same fire that destroyed his immigration documents! His initial inquiries to the court system were not fruitful and he came to the B.C. Archives sounding pretty desperate.

In the end, it turned out we didn’t have the record – but we were able to determine that Mr. X’s court file still existed in the court system and were able to give him precise instructions on how to obtain it at a court registry. He’ll be able to get his Old Age Security benefits – and we’ve advised him to put his “pertinent court documents” in a safety deposit box for the next time Big Brother comes calling.

Last month, another male client came to us looking for a copy of his divorce order. This happens often – usually because the person needs it to remarry, claim pension benefits, immigrate or emigrate. As many of us know from personal experience, governments all over the world are tightening up and expanding their requirements for proof of identity. The Archives holds most divorce orders granted in B.C. from 1877 to 1990, and we do a steady trade in providing copies of divorce orders. What made this gentleman’s request unique was that he needed the order to prove that he had custody of his children – and would thus qualify for extra benefits under the Child Rearing Provision of the Canada Pension Plan.

A third case was especially touching – after being brought up in extremely difficult circumstances a young child was transferred to the custody of the Children’s Aid Society many years ago. Now, as an adult, this individual is looking for more information about his birth mother. He knows her name, and when she died, but now he wants any record that bears her signature or her name – simply to bring together all the evidence of her life, and of his own existence.

Children's Aid Society Building, Vancouver, ca 1895, G-02215, RBCM-BC Archives photo

Like the others, his request brought a very human dimension to the work we do here.