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

1 comment:

  1. Wow, those leaves look great! I'm excited to see what the forest will look like after it's revamped.


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