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!