Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Talk

From the desk of Melaina Haas, Communications Coordinator at the Royal BC Museum.

In 1891, his first year as curator of the newly founded Provincial Museum, John Fannin published a Check List of British Columbia Birds. Since then, our museum has produced thousands of books, papers, pamphlets and other documents about its collections, research and activities. This week, I sat down to chat with Royal BC Museum publisher Gerry Truscott…

Melaina Haas: Tell it to me straight – what’s the history of the Royal BC Museum publishing department?

Gerry Truscott: It really started in 1942 with Clifford Carl, a former curator. He published the first handbook which was Fifty Edible Plants of British Columbia by G.A. Hardy. That was the first time the museum published for the general public.

The first Royal BC Museum book published
for the general public (25 cents? A steal!)

MH: And what does a museum publisher actually do?

GT: I guess you could divide it into three main categories. One would be working on books that we’re going to publish – right now I’m working on a book called Return to Northern BC, which is one of Frank Swannell’s photo journals. The second thing I do is what I call “routine work,” all those regular administrative things. And the third major thing I do is editing material for other departments – mostly exhibitions. For instance, I either rewrote or edited all the text for Behind the Scenes.

MH: How did you end up at the Royal BC Museum?

GT: I used to work for a small publishing company called Press Porcepic – I edited my first book in 1984. I did three work terms in a row there because they were desperate for students. Then I applied for the job at the museum – and got it. That was 1989… 21 years later and here I am!

MH: What kind of books do you publish? Are they all written by museum staff?

GT: We publish in three main areas: history; First Nations art and culture; and natural history. Oh and I guess there’s a fourth category: museum stuff. That is, exhibits-related books. When it comes to books, it’s about 50/50 [written by] museum staff and outsiders. I count research associates as staff.

MH: Are you a writer?

GT: Yes. I’ve written about six or seven short stories, a bunch of non-fiction articles and then the Free Spirit: Stories of You, Me and BC book.

Gerry with his Free Spirit book

MH: If you were a font, which one would you be?

GT: Definitely not Arial. If I was a font… I’d be Palatino.

MH: Ah, my favourite!

GT: Just because it’s elegant and functional.

MH: Like you?

GT: Yeah… And it’s a little bigger than it should be.

MH: What’s one word of advice you’d give to an aspiring publisher?

GT: Just really know what you’re getting into.

MH: Please channel your inner Emily Carr and express (in sketch-form) a “day in the life of a Royal BC Museum publisher.”

GT: A day in the life of a publisher?

MH: Yes. And you have less than one minute.

Sketch by Gerry: Why I Work With Words

MH: Do you have an afterword?

GT: I really enjoy my job. I get to be a bit of an expert on certain things for a little while… makes for good party conversations. It’s helped me out a lot in my own writing – and in my own personal life to some degree. It’s kept me active, mentally active.

MH: Thanks for talking to me today, Gerry.

For more information about the Royal BC Museum publishing department, visit us online.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bridging the Gap

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

Over 10 years ago, I started my first job at a museum as a “costumed interpreter” at a historic site. When I told my grandma about the job she replied, “I didn’t know you spoke another language.” In fact, I hadn’t heard the word “interpreter” referring to those knowledgeable and friendly folk I had encountered in museums before either. Interpreters, docents and gallery animators bridge the gap between a museums collection and its visitors. They make exhibition content relevant and accessible and, hopefully, make the visitor’s experience more memorable.

Two weeks ago, 20 new volunteers completed their training to become Behind the Scenes gallery interpreters at the Royal BC Museum. They are joining over 110 dedicated people who give their time (over 11,000 hours in 2009) to share BC’s story with our visitors. While I was preparing for the training I realized that there are some great opportunities that happen thanks to our volunteers:
  • someone to show you how to pan for gold and encourage you to put your hands into the cold water;
  • someone to point out the highlights of the museum and the artifacts that often get missed – like Captain Cook’s murder weapon;
  • someone to take school-children into the gallery and help them learn about Simon Fraser, mammals, climate change, natural resources and life a century ago.

Royal BC Museum School Program Volunteers

Recently, the museum received an email from a visitor, Garth Von Buchholz, who had visited the museum’s feature exhibition, Treasures: The World’s Cultures from the British Museum. Because we had wonderful and experienced volunteers, the British Museum sent us some artifacts from their handling collection including a 4,000-year-old terracotta British/Romano oil lamp, like the one found here. Exclamations of “wow” were common. Mr Von Buchholz was so inspired by his experience that he wrote, and has since published, the following poem:

Terracotta Oil Lamp

Terracotta oil lamp, nearly two millennia balanced in the palm of my hand: An archaic flashlight for some Mesopotamian householder. Hands over centuries transferring it from one owner to the next,
And to think that in its newest state, a sleepy flame from its spout
Cast a glow upon a bed, a table, a wife’s face, a scroll or a book,
Illuminating the momentary life that burns faster than oil.

Have you been inspired by an interpreter or docent? Share your story on the blog.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Completion Anxiety

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience at the Royal BC Museum.

Bring on the microscopic violins and tiny hankies. We are approaching the opening of a new exhibition (Behind the Scenes) and I’m finding it hard being an Exhibition Director. I mean, what can I do to help… other than utter words of encouragement? ‘Well, you could pick up a paint brush,’ I hear you say.

What I’m trying to say is that the final weeks before opening an exhibition are – for me – a mix of pleasure and pain. I have been known to wax lyrical about the glorious symphony that is the last movement before opening - when all the parts come together. But what I feel is tense.

I’ve been part of more than 80 exhibition projects and it never… ever… gets easier. There is always a moment as you tour someone through the exhibition under construction when you just know they are thinking ‘they’ll never get it open in time.’

It’s true that there is a real joy in seeing so many talented people – designer, model makers, fabricators, carpenters, technicians, painters, curators – working toward one objective. But progress is not linear. Progress is in waves and sometimes the tide recedes rather than moves forward. It seems to go something like this:

Stage 1: A Blank Canvas
The hall is empty except for a few forlorn display cases and some apparently discarded light fixtures. All is promise.
Feeling: anticipation – it’s going to be fun to see this come together. (Image below: The blank canvas.)

Stage 2: Construction Site
The exhibition hall is in chaos. Paper, carts, tools, pieces of display furniture. No form… just pieces.
Feeling: trepidation – OK, let’s be honest – fear.

Stage 3: Emergence
Out of the confusion emerges a glimpse of the original design vision. Some large graphics are installed. There is art amidst the chaos.
Feeling: confidence – a response to the waves of relief. Man, this is going to look great. Aren’t we brilliant?

Stage 4: Stasis
What’s going on… days have passed… or are they weeks? Everyone’s working – but nothing’s changing.
Feeling: worry.

Stage 5: Reverse Gear
Cases are dismantled to make changes, display lighting is turned off.
Feeling: return to fear. We’re never going to make it!

Stage 6: Hallelujah!
Display lighting is turned on; some cases are sealed; interpretive labels are even appearing.
Feeling: Salvation. We are going to make it… I knew we would. Aren’t we brilliant? (Image below: an exhibition emerges.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Jeep, the Tesco's lorry and why the Busby family always looks both ways.

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

Every document in the B.C. Archives has a back-story. One of my recent favourites centres on a file created by the Official Administrator’s office in Nanaimo for a man called Benjamin Busby, who died in the tiny community of Errington, BC in 1951. It’s what is sometimes known in archives lingo as a “fat file” because it is quite literally fat – nearly 200 pages of paper! Benjamin put the official administrative process into high gear by dying without a will (thus being declared “intestate”), having no immediate heirs - and owning a considerable estate (although he lived in a “shack” on a rural property). The file grew fatter and fatter as the documents necessary to properly divvy up the estate to various English relations accumulated.

His file lay sleepily in the Nanaimo courthouse (along with hundreds of similar files) until it was rounded up and transferred to the BC Archives in the 1980s. Fast forward 30 years to March 2010 when Dr. Ann Thurley wrote to the archives looking for the will of Benjamin Busby. She had a vague recollection that her father (Benjamin’s nephew) had received a bequest at some point in the 1950’s, and she was pulling together a family history.

After I copied and mailed the full file to her I got this excited email:

“It has arrived!..… As yet I’ve only had a cursory look but was very moved to find a copy of the original letter from the Army informing my Grandmother of my Grandfather [Walter’s] death….in France in WW1. He tragically died on November 10th, 1918, the day before Armistice Day, one of the victims of the Great Flu Pandemic. The original [letter] has obviously disappeared in the mists of time.” [GR-3002, Busby file, letter to Norma Busby]

Ann continues: “And what a superb collection of certificates and wills, all so methodically sent as proof of death and existence; and a coroner’s death certificate of my Father’s youngest brother who was killed in 1944 as a result of being hit head on by American GI’s in a Jeep only a few miles from his home, leaving two tiny sons.” [GR-3002, Busby file, death certificate for Norman Jesse Busby]

Ann was also curious about why Benjamin, her great-uncle, had emigrated to Canada. Perhaps the answer lies in the complicated set of family relationships he left behind in the small Cotswold village of Hook Norton.

Benjamin and Walter had another brother – Ralph. Also a soldier, he returned injured and was nursed by his widowed sister-in-law, Norma May. They fell in love, were not allowed to marry – but had a child together who was adopted outside of the family. The affair and the baby were kept secret. Sadly, Ann didn’t learn about this part of her family story in time to meet either the boy, who died in 1982, or his widow, who was killed by a Tesco’s lorry just one week before Ann tracked her down. [Photo: Norma May, her husband Walter and their children. Photo courtesy Ann Thurley]

Thanks to the records kept here at the BC Archives, Benjamin now takes a bigger role in the fascinating Busby family history!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My top five favourite Royal BC Museum activities

From the desk of Melaina Haas, Communications Coordinator at the Royal BC Museum.

5 – Having lunch in the Native Plant Garden
The Native Plant Garden is one of Victoria’s best-kept secrets – or, was… I guess I just spilled the beans. With more than 400 species of plants native to British Columbia, this spot – paired with a tuna fish sandwich – is positively paradise on a sunny day. And while you’re here, stroll up the stairs and check out the dinosaur footprints. (Look closely at the ground behind the green snack kiosk and you’ll spot a cast of original impressions left by a meat-eating carnosaur and a plant-loving hadrosaur in BC’s Peace River Canyon. Rawr!

4 – Researching family history in the BC Archives
Snuggled up to the Native Plant Garden is another one of my favourite spots, the BC Archives. As a kid, I loved reading “old stuff.” My mom had a copy of the newspaper that announced the marriage of my grandparents some 65 years ago and I must’ve read that thing at least a hundred times (the ads were my favourite). Even though my family doesn’t have roots in BC, I still find the photos and documents in the archives fascinating. If you’re lucky enough to have a history in this province, definitely pop by and see what you can find – you might be surprised! If you want more information about planning a visit, go to the BC Archives website.

3 – Chilling with Charlie in Old Town’s movie theatre
Where in Victoria can you spend an afternoon in an early 20th-century movie theatre with Charlie Chaplin? On the third floor of the museum in Old Town, of course! The details in the Majestic Theatre are astounding. Check out the golden designs on the walls and ceiling and, if you sit near the back of the room, listen for the “tick-tick-tick” of the movie projector!

2 – Testing my sea legs on the Discovery ship
Come aboard Captain George Vancouver’s ship. Built in 1789, the (real) HMS Discovery was a 340-ton, three-masted square-rigged ship with 10 four-pound cannons and 10 swivel guns. The replica portion you can enter contains the captain’s cabin and sleeping area. The combination of sound effects (creaking of the ship) and smell effects (salt and tar) does something funny to me… when I disembark the boat, I always feel like I’m about to topple over. I guess I’m no salty dog.

1 – Singing in the Natural History Gallery’s echo-chamber
My top (after-hours) Royal BC Museum activity is singing opera in the Natural History Gallery’s echo-chamber. The domed roof of the forest diorama carries (and even amplifies) the quietest murmur from one side of the room to the other. Madame Butterfly, at your service!

Do you have a favourite Royal BC Museum activity? If so, I’d love to hear from you.