Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More Nature Plus

I spent the May Long weekend with nearly 30,000 museum goers – how about you? The Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) in Ottawa successfully delivered on their motto of “More Nature Plus” during their Grand Reopening events from May 22 - 24. I was in attendance along with Gavin Hanke, one of the Royal BC Museum’s Natural History curators, and 12 member organizations of the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada to provide family friendly activities for “Nature Fest” – one of the many activities taking place at the CMN over the weekend.

Nature Fest was a super opportunity for visitors to learn about museums across Canada and for the museums to share our collections and messages with them. The Royal BC Museum took a display case (pictured to the right) from our upcoming “Aliens Among Us”, part of the Behind the Scenes exhibition and a puzzle to help visitors learn about alien species. It was fun to talk to kids about “aliens” and to watch them light up when they completed the puzzle. In addition to the thousands of visitors who came through, I was delighted to meet colleagues from the Alliance. Their enthusiasm for nature and education was contagious and I look forward to connecting in the future to share resources and ideas.

In addition to Nature Fest, visitors were treated to a parade, live presentations, magical Rainforest Creatures, (pictured left admiring our display case), live music, films, 3D demos and Ghost Tours. The real attraction was the building itself and the new galleries. All of the galleries have now been renovated including the RBC Blue Water Gallery and the Vale Earth Gallery.

Of the Blue Water Gallery’s 200 specimens, 90 per cent are on display for the first time. The gallery includes an impressive juvenile blue whale skeleton flanked by two touch-screen terminals brimming with information. You can watch a time lapsed video of the assembly of the skeleton here. The Blue Water Gallery also features the coolest playroom ever – a scaled down research vessel for children. As a programmer and museum fan, I was impressed and inspired by the number of hands-on activities available in all of the galleries.

The Vale Earth Gallery was also unveiled over the weekend. During my sneak peek tour on Friday, the gallery was humming with installation (pictured on the right). By the time the doors opened at noon on Saturday, the amazing exhibits were ready, complete with an impressive two meter HD globe that visitors can manipulate to learn about the formation of the planet.

I would like to send my thanks and congratulations to all involved in the renovations of the Canadian Museum of Nature and those who organized such a fantastic Grand Reopening. If you would like to see more pictures of the event, visit my own personal Flickr page here and select the Canadian Museum of Nature album.

Have you been to the Canadian Museum of Nature – what do you think about the changes? What should museums planning renovations keep the same and what should they change?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Mother of Invention

Some places are cool because of the mess. When you step into our basement audio visual workshop, you just know you’re not going to be able to understand what goes on down there… but that whatever it is they do… it’s damned clever.

It looks like that place in Star Wars where the obsolete droids were dismantled for their parts. The place is strewn with circuit boards, wires and computers with their innards exposed. It’s here that invention takes place, or rather where invention is tested. View of the audio visual workshop below:

The moment of invention took place over a morning coffee. We needed a microscope for our upcoming Behind the Scenes exhibition… one that would allow visitors, particularly children, to study specimens – and one that would also allow for more than one person to participate. We could not quite find anything on the market that fit the bill. But a coffee-time discussion between four members of our staff led to a beautiful solution. The Masterminds at coffee below – from left to right: Mark Dickson - Manager of Exhibitions, Ken Johnson - Senior Exhibition Designer, Norm Charbonneau - head Image Management and Technical Services and Nigel Sinclair - Exhibit Arts Technician:

Instead of a microscope, this team imagined that a tiny high definition digital camera linked to a flat screen monitor would do the trick. The camera moves back and forth on a rail over an illuminated box holding the specimens. The whole unit is transportable… which makes it useable elsewhere in our galleries when the current show ends. Prototype of the unit on the IMTS lab bench below:

And once the testing is complete, the unit can be reproduced. In Behind the Scenes, we’ll have seven of these… these… now what should we call it? Anyone want to suggest a name? The almost finished …er …thing being prototyped with visitors below:

Two things stand out for me as I observed the development of the magnifier. First of all, the inventive process was just such a modest, collaborative affair. No great fanfare or eureka moment, just a group of colleagues talking over coffee, bringing their collective experience to the table. If I came up with this idea, I’d be dancing in the street! The second thing that struck me was just how much work was needed to take the idea to completion. Initial prototyping of the technology (camera, lighting and monitor) was followed by the evolution of the mechanical parts of the device: parts were machined, tested with users and then reengineered repeatedly until it worked smoothly without failure.

Tim Willis

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tales from the B.C. Archives

Blogging: new thing. Blogging about: old things – well, sort of. I’m an archivist, and in my blog entries I’d like to take you on a virtual tour of B.C.’s past via records in the B.C. Archives. Some are indeed “old,” but others are relatively new. All of them give us a glimpse into the way things were. It’s a bit like time travel, without the trouble of landing on the wrong planet in the wrong era.

At the Archives we’ve got a way-back machine, and its fuel is photos, manuscripts, sound recordings, films, maps, books and government records. There are a lot. We think we have something like 3 million photographs, but we haven’t finished counting (let alone scanning). Books – probably upwards of 80,000. Maps – 68,000 (at least). Boxes of records – more than 75,000. Films – 4,000 plus. You get the picture. It’s a vast resource – and they all record some aspect of the history of B.C. and the Pacific Northwest. They are the raw material of our individual and collective history. They’re also all waiting for someone to have that “Ah Ha!” moment, when a document turns out to be the missing link that proves a point, settles a boundary dispute, or fills in a branch on someone’s family tree. I’m lucky because I often get to tag along with our researchers on these voyages of discovery, and I’m also going to be able to blog about them.

As a reference archivist, I help people find those nuggets of information buried within the vast collection. Sometimes the queries are routine – “I’d like a copy of my great grand-father’s probate file” (usually an easy find if someone died in B.C.)….and sometimes a little more challenging, like “When and where was the first flush toilet installed in B.C.?” (Couldn’t answer that one definitively – but I did find some photographs of early toilets and bathrooms!). (Photo: Model bathroom used in a construction course, Como Lake High School, 1953, B.C. Archives I-22816.)

Most of the time I can give tips on how to make our website cough up sources of information. For example, if Sean, my fellow blogger had wanted more images relating to Captain James Cook I could have found him 38 images in our collection – everything from Cook’s boyhood home in England, to the beach and natives at Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound, ca. 1870.

(That’s where Cook became the first European to set foot on Vancouver’s Island as it was known then) in 1778. (We don’t have any photographs of that historic event, naturally, but we do have copies of works of art that purport to document it.) (Photo: Nootka Sound natives and the crew of Her Majesty’s gunboat “Rocket”, Friendly Cove, ca. 1870, B.C. Archives C-07303.)

For me the most interesting inquiries lead to records that I never imagined existed, or thought that I would find in our Archives. Who knew we have several photographs of toilet paper being manufactured in New Westminster in 1949? (Photo: Toilet tissue manufacturing at Westminster Paper, 1949, B.C. Archives I-28054.)

Sorry, couldn’t resist, but now I’m on a roll with the bathroom examples….. Anyway, if you’ve forgiven me the bad pun, check in periodically for a look at some of our more interesting records and where they can take you. Next up, all in one family – a disinherited and intestate son, the missing brother, an affair between a brother and sister-in-law, and death by Jeep and a Tesco’s lorry.

For those interested in searching for specific records relating to their own research interests, visit our website at http://www.bcarchives.bc.ca/ - or call us at 250-387-1952 (toll-free through Enquiry B.C. 1-800-663-7867).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

100-year-old Antarctic artifact, once again, travels the globe

In my role as communications coordinator, part of my job is to discover (and share!) cool and interesting Royal BC Museum stories. Wait… I get paid for this?

The story I’m going to blog about today first came across my desk a few months back. Tim Willis, director of exhibitions and visitor experience (and also the infamous author of a previous blog post) called one rainy afternoon to tell me about a project going on in the conservation department. (And if you’re not 100 per cent familiar with museum-lingo, this department is charged with caring and preserving more than 7 million artifacts, specimens and documents that make up the Royal BC Museum and BC Archives collections. Now that’s a big job!)

Meares’ pennant
One of our interesting artifacts is a pennant (read: flag) that once belonged to an explorer of the ill-fated 1910 Scott Expedition to the South Pole. Cecil Meares, the designated dog-handler of the trip, retired in Victoria, BC. After his death, Meares’ family donated the flag to the Royal BC Museum. (Photo credit: © Royal BC Museum.)

Each of the men on the expedition had a distinct pennant to fly from their sleds. Usually sewn by the explorers’ mothers and wives, pennants were also hung at the base camp during special occasions and major sledge journeys. Meares’ pennant can be seen in this photograph taken during the expedition (see the man standing on the right? Look at the flag right above his head and count three to the left). Meares himself is sitting at the table, second from left. (Photo credit: © Royal Geographical Society, with IBG).

Making repairs
It so happens that the American Museum of Natural History is about to open an exhibition based on the Scott expedition. Since Race to the End of the Earth is presented in collaboration with the Royal BC Museum, it only made sense to include the Meares’ pennant in the exhibition. But before the 100-year-old flag could make its 4,800 km journey to New York, the Royal BC Museum conservation department had to make a few repairs on this delicate artifact.

To reinforce and protect the fragile George Cross, textile conservator Colleen Wilson (right) first had to sew a backing of red material onto the flag. Next, she meticulously dyed virtually invisible silk gauze to match the colour of the cross. Finally, she hand sewed the silk directly over the cross with a thread finer than spider’s silk. (Photo credit: © Royal BC Museum.)

Race to the End of the Earth will focus on both the Norwegian and British expeditions to the South Pole and on the challenges both crews faced. Highlights of the exhibition include authentic clothing and tools and life-sized models of the base camps. The exhibition travels to the Royal BC Museum in summer 2013 – stay tuned for more information.

Is there is anything you ever wanted to know about the Royal BC Museum (but were too afraid to ask)? If so, leave me a comment and I’ll see what I can do to address it in future posts. I’m looking forward to sharing more museum stories with you!

For additional reading on the Scott Expedition to the South Pole
Be sure to check out author Adrian Raeside’s book: Return to Antarctica: The Amazing Adventure of Sir Charles Wright on Robert Scott’s Journey to the South Pole (2009 by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd).

American Museum of Natural History

Antarctic Heritage Trust

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