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


  1. Hmmmm.... interesting question. I don't think that people would ask where did you shoot the T-rex (which they know is extinct), but perhaps it isn't as common knowledge that that mammoths are extinct creature as well. That might be a teachable moment? Unless the person who asked is having you on, I think it is a fair question to ask where did you get that animal on display because I believe that most people think that they are coming to the museum to see the real thing and have no reason to believe that they are seeing otherwise unless it is obvious. Perhaps the mammoth is not obviously extinct to most people?

    But having said that, I don't think there should be signage right in front of the fella stating that he was fabricated. This information could be included somewhere in a 'behind the scenes' sort of way, in a gallery guide or a flyer that talks about the display or gallery. Dioramas have a long history of being an illusion of the real thing and describing the creation of this creature would build on why museums make such displays for visitor viewing pleasure.

    and for your ps... I woulda thought he was road kill. ; )

  2. I love that someone thought the mammoth had been shot. Obviously not a geology major, eh?

    But to your question. I think visitors would love to know how the mammoth was made. Same goes for other fabricated items. There's a reason why DVDs now come with extra material about how the movie was made/how the stunts were shot/how the set was handled. We love to get that little peek behind the scenes. Even better if an explanatory placard had some photos to go along with the text.

    I don't think many of us labour under the illusion that everything we see in interpretive centres is real. It's a different thing than art galleries, where we expect to meet with only the originals. But museums are centres of learning, not just centres of appreciation. This is a brilliant opportunity to show the public the work that goes on at the Royal BC Museum to bring BC's history to life.

    Would be cool to have a panel showing how an animal is prepared for taxidermy, too. [shudder]


  3. Caroline and Alex, thanks for your wise counsel. I think we are agreed that while one does not want to shatter the illusion, there is a great opportunity to share the magic and mystery of exhibition fabrication. At the same time, we [the Museum] would be ensuring there is no misunderstanding that there are - alas - no longer any mammoths wandering among us.



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