Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Woolly: unplugged.

From the desk of Melaina Haas, Communications Coordinator at the Royal BC Museum.

Our beloved Royal BC Museum mammoth is kind of a big deal. Nicknamed “Woolly” by those who work here, this guy has been featured in numerous cartoon strips, books, research papers, online magazines and international newspapers.

Woolly: a fine-looking fellow.

Elephants have had a looong history on this planet – at various times over 55 million years, more than 500 different kinds have walked on this Earth. And aside from the tropical African Elephant and the Asian (or Indian) Elephant, all have since disappeared. The remains of four mammoths (extinct elephants that were somewhat adapted to colder climates) have been found in British Columbia: the Woolly Mammoth, the Columbia Mammoth, the Imperial Mammoth and the Mastodon. The Woolly Mammoth, more closely related to the Asian Elephant than the African elephant, first entered North America some 65,000 years ago.

A visitor favourite and permanent fixture of the Natural History gallery for decades, the first incarnation of our Woolly was a dream in the form of a small model.

Woolly was just a dream at this point...

For the first 30 years of his life, Woolly lived behind a wall of glass.

Don't tap the glass!

In May 2004, the mammoth-sized diorama had a major overhaul. The glass barrier was removed and fans were installed, simulating the chilly ice age winds.

Woolly: undercover.

A wall made of real ice and fibreglass casts of glaciated rocks were added, completing the ice age experience.

The ice wall takes shape

The revamp was a hit. And in December 2008, Woolly found his voice. A soundtrack of wind, elephant trumpets and ptarmigan chirps was installed. Take a listen for yourself.

Although the Woolly Mammoth went extinct some 10,000 years ago, our dear Woolly continues to delight thousands of visitors every year.
For more about mammoths, read this article by Royal BC Museum curator of archaeology.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Sure Sign of Summer

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

One thing I have always enjoyed about this time of year at the museum is when the summer students start working. They bring with them such new enthusiasm, energy and ideas that I find myself rejuvenated. Meet Kelli, Fritha and Emily, the newest temporary members of the Learning and Visitor Experience department at the Royal BC Museum.

Kelli, Fritha, Emily

When I asked them about a typical day at the museum, they replied “We don’t have typical days here!” Their jobs as the Camp Inside Out coordinators give them a lot of variety. They’ve spent many long, grueling hours searching for games and activities (and testing them) to make the camps the best they can be. They have been learning all sorts of neat facts about BC’s history and natural history and have had close encounters with Giant Squid and a live snake!

It's not a game - it is research!

The coordinators are now fully dedicated to the summer camps, but before that their extra hands were getting the Behind the Scenes exhibition open. They helped build the AmusEum (they literally assembled the furniture and the tents!) and continue to check in on it – occasionally getting distracted with the books, costumes and games. Some of their quirkier tasks have included: hiding a stuffed mouse in the mammal collection for visitors to find, collecting plants for making slides, and holding a bag of crickets while the frogs get fed. The fascinating people, objects and different opportunities at the museum, will hopefully make this a summer job they will learn from and remember fondly.

Emily reveals where she hid the mouse. Shhh, don't tell anyone.

Earlier this year I went to a museum conference and met a woman who was a summer student at a museum where I worked in 2007. I was thrilled to hear that she enjoyed her experience so much that she is now enrolled in a museum studies master’s program. What was your favourite summer job? Tell us about it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Small miracles – all beginning with M

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience at the Royal BC Museum.

You’ll be relieved to hear that I have recovered from my attack of Completion Anxiety. Our Behind the Scenes exhibition has opened to very positive reviews.

So I’d like to take a moment to celebrate three magnificent marvels of manufacture [and who said alliteration was a dying art?]. These minor miracles are the work of our Exhibition Arts team.

The Magnifier
I wrote about this in an earlier post. A brilliant idea – ingeniously conceived and then painstakingly engineered by Nigel Sinclair.

The Magnifying Glass

It began as a whim… wouldn’t it be cool if visitors could walk through a giant magnifying glass? Impossible, they said. Not to Colin Longpre who works comfortably at any scale.

The Mosquito
All mosquito specimens in our collection have pins through them, making them unusable for the mini-diorama section in Aliens Among Us. And so, Kate Kerr simply created a mosquito using the hairs of a paint brush and tiny strips from a plastic bag.

There are other creative miracles in Behind the Scenes, but that’s enough “Ms” for today.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Who Knew?

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

I'm filing this entry under the heading of "Who Knew"? I often find myself thinking this while examining some of our archival records, and I had the same reaction when I opened an email from Angie Thomas. Angie works for the Museum of the Mountain Man, (MMM) in Pinedale, Wyoming - an institution which is dedicated to presenting the history of the Mountain Man and the Western fur trade.

I wasn't quite sure what a Mountain Man was, but thanks to Angie, one of the museum's associated historians Jim Hardee, and Wikipedia I now understand a little more about their significance in the early fur trade history of the Rockies. If you call someone a "Mountain Man" because they are grizzled, weather-beaten and perhaps a little rank, you are not too far off the mark.

The Mountain Men were traders, trappers and explorers, many of whom worked independently of the big fur trade companies such as the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company. They lived a rugged life in and around the Rocky Mountains, trading with the local First Nations, and the fur companies, primarily between 1810 and 1840. For a romantic view of the life of one of the later Mountain Men, you could watch the film Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford. (While Jeremiah is a fictional character, some of the events of the film are based on the life of a real-life Mountain man - John "Liver-Eating" Johnston.)

Back to fur trade history. Once a year American traders, trappers and First Nations gathered at a giant trade fair, known as a "Rendezvous,” at a pre-arranged spot, often in the territory of the Snake Indians near Green River in Wyoming. The painting below is a record of the 1837 Rendezvous by Alfred Jacob Miller.

"But," you ask, "What is the connection to B.C. history?" The answer lies in the ambitions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which wanted to extend its interests even further south and east in the vast Oregon Country. (Keep in mind that the border between Canada and the U.S. in the West wasn't settled until 1846. In the 1830s, the area west of the continental divide was jointly occupied by British and American traders).

The MMM came calling because they were about to publish an article by Scott Walker about an American Mountain Man named Warren Ferris, and his role as an agent of the HBC. One of the key documents relating to Ferris is held here at the B.C. Archives and they needed a digital copy.

Archibald McDonald, ca. 1850, A-01502

In 1834, HBC Chief Trader Archibald McDonald wrote in his letterbook that Ferris, and his partner Nicholas Montour (an HBC employee) were authorized to take “an assortment of trading goods, and a certain number of asses, to transport the said property at their own risk and charge to Henry's Forks, Great Salt Lake, Green River or any other part of the Snake Country....when [they] ...deem it in their interest to go in search of Beaver, either from Freemen [independent trappers] or Indians."

Chief Trader Archibald McDonald’s letterbook (A/B/20/72M)

Ferris was chosen because he was considered a skilled trader, was an American by birth, and had formerly worked for the American Fur Company. The aims of the HBC were relatively simple: make as much profit on trade goods as possible, undercut the American fur trade companies, and strip the area of fur before the joint occupancy of the territory ended and their economic empire shrank. There’s no proof that Ferris made it to the 1834 Rendezvous, but he did work his way further south during the winter, trading as he went.

More "Who Knew?" moments came when I looked at the table of trade goods that were supplied to Ferris and Montour by the HBC. The original document is in Winnipeg at the HBC Archives, but Walker carefully transcribed it as an appendix to his article, with notes. The goods are a fascinating combination of practical supplies, small luxuries, and items designed specifically for trade with the First Nations population. The two traders headed south with almost a ton of goods, from beads and blankets to 210 pounds of tobacco and 45 gallons of whiskey. For their own bookkeeping, the list itemizes two quires of paper, a memo book, one (!) pencil and one penknife.

Ferris’s tour of duty as an HBC agent ended the next summer when he had to return home to New York State to sort out urgent family matters. He never returned to the Rocky Mountains. The HBC continued attempts to “infiltrate” the American Rendezvous system, but were forced to pull back their trading operations after the international boundary line was set at the 49th parallel in 1846.

It was a pleasure to be able to help the Museum of the Mountain Man with their research, and if I’m ever near Pinedale, Wyoming I’ll be stopping in to find out more. For those who can't get to Wyoming, here's a good source of information: