Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What I did on my summer vacation....

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

Like thousands of British Columbians, I’m just back from some time in the woods – so I thought it would be fun for this blog installment to look at the way that people camped in the past.

The B.C. Archives has hundreds of photographs of families and campgrounds, and I’ve chosen a few that may bring back some memories for those of you who spent your summer vacations gathered round a campfire, roasting weenies and marshmallows, and telling ghost stories.

Judging by these photos some parts of the recreational camping experience haven’t changed all that much over the last 150 years. It’s a chance to relax with family, practice some survival skills (like making coffee over a campfire!) and sleep under canvas. If you’re a hunter or fisherman there’s the added bonus of providing food for your family!

Here’s a quick look at some of my favourite archival images:

The Francis Claudet and Arthur T. Bushby families camping at Burrard Inlet, ca. 1868 E-03990

Francis Claudet was the son of an early French daguerreotypist, and was one of the first people to take photographs in B.C. He is at the centre of the photo, with Mr. and Mrs. Bushby on the right. Other photos from the same outing show that they took along some of their children, and a servant. These photos were carefully posed by Claudet and incorporate symbols that demonstrate their intrepid spirit – the axe, frying pan and kettle, the picnic on a blanket, and the tent. This was a long way from the average Victorian parlour!

The title on this one is “Gus Adams's camping outfit at Kaslo [D-07193]”, and it probably dates from around 1900. Looks like they had a good hunting trip! This was camping with a purpose.

This group seems to be the living embodiment of the phrase “happy campers”... they’ve got a guitar, a fiddle, a paddle and a rifle. What more do you need? We don’t know much about them, although the photograph is from the Nelson area and probably dates from around 1895. [B.C. Archives photo C-07816]

Car camping made it easier to bring along more stuff. I think there’s a rolling pin on the table in this photo of an unnamed family camping near Victoria around 1915 [B.C. Archives photo G-06889]. The emulsion on this photo has shrunk a bit making all of the people rather elongated. If you happen to know who they are, do let us know!

Even Emily Carr took to the woods occasionally, using a caravan as a mobile studio. Being Emily, she nicknamed it “The Elephant”. [B.C. Archives photo D-03842]

I expect that this will take a few people back to their childhoods. I can practically smell the camp smoke when I look at this one. This family was camping at Goldstream Park just outside Victoria, in 1950. [B.C. Archives photo I-26744]

Remember the 70’s when everything was orange? We’re not sure where or when this photo was taken, but I’d say this is pretty typical of that day-glo era. [B.C. Archives photo G-0001]

Insert your own camping photo here and carry on camping!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Drawing Conclusions

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

What is that expression – “a stitch in time saves nine”? With that in mind, we tested kid’s interactives for Behind the Scenes back in May. During that time I had put out a different specimen in a case everyday and invited kids to draw or write about it. As I suspected, a fair number of kids participated in the activity and proudly posted their pictures.

When we installed the activity in the AmusEum – the children’s gallery in the Behind the Scenes exhibition – instead of inviting kids to draw an actual specimen, we installed a light board and a stack of laminated images for them to trace. Enthusiasm for this activity went through the roof! More magnets had to be made for the kids to post their pictures and I was off to the printer to get more templates copied.

Is it the lure of the light board that attracts them? Is it the act of tracing vs. drawing? Or is it the opportunity to hang their picture in the museum gallery? It is also interesting to look at the images they are copying and to see what is popular. Kids can choose from fish, fossils, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, mammals, insects and flowers. The most popular so far? Scroll down to see…

…you might be surprised.

Invertebrates! Shells to be exact. I know, weird huh? A close second is mammals – the bear in particular, and in third place reptiles – especially turtles and snakes.

I am very pleased with the activity, not just because of the high volume but because kids are slowing down and looking more closely. And because they have the option of tracing or drawing, everybody can do it!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inside the Cocoon

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

For the past year, we’ve been exploring how to present behind-the-scenes curatorial work to visitors – but there is one museum in the world that has committed to doing this in a big way – the Natural History Museum in London.

And so, on a recent expedition to visit relatives in the land of my birth, I finally visited a museum project that I’ve been promoting [I’m sure I’ve become quite a bore] – the new Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum.

I had been impressed by the first phase of the Darwin Centre – a kind of public atrium in their fluid collection storage and research building. But the next phase takes this concept to a new level.

I love what the Natural History Museum does. I think they exemplify how to ‘live your brand.’ Essentially, everything they do reinforces the message that they are a museum engaged in science and scientific issues that are important to the world today. A recent BBC reality television documentary series about the museum is aptly named ‘the Museum of Life’ [see links below].

The ‘Cocoon’ in its glass box.

And the Darwin Centre itself is the brand ‘writ large.’ Imagine a giant cocoon inside a glass box. ‘The Cocoon’ contains the museum’s botany and entomology collections – 30 million specimens! It has a thin outer layer. Visitors enter the structure at the top and travel gradually downward inside this outer layer – looking into the collections which are sealed in the core [the collections storage ‘specs’ are impressive: 3.5 kilometers of shelving and cabinets all contained at a constant 18C and 45%RH].

Inside the ‘Cocoon’.

The path downward is an interpretation journey – not of specific collections – but about the curatorial process. What are collections? How are they organized and stored? How are they used, what do scientists study and how do they go about it – and why should we care?

It’s not for everyone… it is quiet and thoughtful – a marked contrast to the mayhem in the dinosaur gallery close by. But I found the experience profoundly moving. For years, I’ve felt that the efforts we [museums in general] have made to explain what collections and curators do to be rather sad affairs. The window into the lab with empty worktables and microscopes say to me ‘this work is boring and everyone is out.’

At the Darwin Centre, the Natural History Museum is quite clearly very serious about revealing what they do and inviting visitors to share their scientific curiosity. The ‘Cocoon’ journey is beautifully paced. As you spiral down, bright pools of light tell you that another element of the story is about to be told. My favourite was the invitation to plan a trip into the field. A curator guides you as you interact with images projected onto a table – like your choice of clothes for the trip. You choose your destination [why did I choose Scotland rather than the Bahamas?], make travel arrangements, and pack your clothes and equipment. At the end of all your planning, the curator appears and admonishes you gently about what you missed.

I’m about to select my clothes for an expedition to Scotland.

The interpretive media are impressive. The Darwin Centre uses a lot of video. Four prominent staff scientists are featured and become your familiar hosts as you make the journey. There are views outside the ‘Cocoon’ into working research labs. They are impressive in the clinical technological way… but not particularly interesting. It’s the people and their work that captures one’s attention.

Views into static collection areas are animated by video projections.

One can argue about what works and what does not in the Darwin Centre, but what really impresses me most is the Natural History Museum’s determination to expose what they do behind the scenes and show its relevance to the world around them.

Tim Willis