Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Craft Time

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

We hear our “Old Fashioned Christmas” event at Helmcken House has been missed this year, as the house is closed while we make improvements to the fire suppression system and security.

The dining room table at Helmcken House, set for a Christmas feast.

Every year, Helmcken House has been decked with Victorian decorations, and for visitors touring it, there has always been a holiday craft to try. I was thinking that now that you’ve had a chance to play with all your new toys, why not pick up the scissors and try making one of your own?

When people had a hankering for animated fun in the Victorian age, one of their choices was a Thaumatrope or “Wonder Turner”. The Thaumatrope takes two images and blends them together using the principle of persistence of vision. Give it a try by following the simple steps below.

What you need:
A printer*
2 pieces of regular paper
1 piece of card, or other heavy weight paper
A hole punch (or you can use your scissors if you are really careful).

What to do:
Print the house image and the Santa image on a piece of regular paper. *(If you don’t have a printer, try drawing your own – see the suggestions below).
Colour the images (don’t colour the sky) and cut them out
Cut out a blank circle from a piece of card stock or heavy paper
Glue the Santa image on one side and then glue the house image, upside down, on the reverse side
Punch a hole on the left and right side
Tie a string through each hole

To Spin the disc:
Hold one string in each hand, make a few big circles to wind the string
Gently pull on the strings to ensure that the disc continues to wind and unwind
When the card spins around the two pictures look like one image

Design your own:
Try designing your own Thaumatrope. Some ideas include:
A bird in a cage
A man on a horse
A vase with some flowers

If you tried it – let me know how it worked. If you came up with your own neat design, share it here.

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just Mothball It

From the desk of Colleen Wilson,
Conservator at the Royal BC Museum

Getting your woollens and furs out of mothballs? Phew, what a stink! It’s nice to have our warm wraps ready to go, but is there a quick way to get rid of the smell?

Short answer: no. The long answer is a question about the wisdom of protecting our treasures with dangerous chemicals.

Some years ago a rare military uniform was donated to the Museum. Unfortunately it had been stored in mothballs and when the container was opened, staff had to leave the area because the naphthalene fumes were overpowering. Although the curator was anxious to acquire the uniform, it was obvious that it couldn’t be catalogued, stored, or exhibited.

The jacket in the tray of cat litter with a filled bolster.

Following an “old conservators” remedy for reducing the mouldy smell of old books, the uniform was “buried” in absorbent material. Two large plastic storage boxes were half filled with standard (unscented) cat litter; tissue was placed on top of the litter to permit fumes, but not dust, to pass through. The jacket, with cotton bolsters filled with litter inside the sleeves and body, was placed atop the litter in one box, the trousers in the other and the boxes were sealed.

The uniform ready for cataloguing
by Delphine Castles, Collections Manager.

One year later the smell was substantially reduced, but it was not gone. So the cat litter was replaced and the uniforms sealed up again. Eventually the fumes were eliminated and the uniform joined the History Collection. It only took two years.

Despite the difficulty in getting rid of their smell, mothballs are not an effective way to protect against insect damage. To actually kill the moths that damage furs and woollens, a high concentration of naphthalene is required: one pound of mothballs to 10 cubic feet. And, an entire life-cycle must be fumigated, the container sealed for a full month. Tossing a handful of mothballs into a closet or storage chest will only give a false sense of security and expose you to harmful fumes. Fumes that will kill an insect are not going to do you any good: inhaling naphthalene is hard on the liver and kidneys and with overexposure, many people become sensitized. And there is the persistent smell.

Case-making clothes moths caught on a sticky trap.

Many consider cold storage a better option for furs, but the real benefit of cold storage is in the thorough preparation and the sealed facility. Cool temperatures alone will not preserve fur.

Freezing, however, is an effective way to kill insects. Although they can overwinter in cold climates, this is because the gradual lowering of the temperature allows insects to enter a state of “diapause”; keeping an infested artifact warm before plunging it into a -18C freezer will result in death to all stages of insect life. (An unburdened chest freezer should be able to do this; a domestic upright freezer is not cold enough.) Freeze the artifact for 48 hours. If it was sealed in a plastic bag and left there until thoroughly thawed, the artifact will retain its original moisture content. In fact if it is intended for storage, it can remain in the bag until needed – it is free of infestation and isolated from new insects.

Although there are many “old wives” remedies for repelling insects with herbs, wood chips even champagne corks, in reality it was the old wives’ good housekeeping that did the trick: if winter clothes are put away clean in a sealed container, insects cannot get at them. No need for mothballs at all.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

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

While you can’t eat, drink or be merry in the B.C. Archives Reference Room, you CAN indulge in some nostalgia, or do some research for your next cocktail party. The B.C. Archives library contains more than 80,000 published items that have a connection to the history of B.C. – and that includes a selection of cookbooks and guides written in B.C., often for a relatively local audience. A search in our library catalogue using the term “cookery” will lead you to some amusing titles, including my favourite, “Casseroles for Drinkers”. This small book, penned by A.S. Buveur (which is a pen-name and means “drinker” in French) was written by Charlie White of Sidney, B.C., and published in 1975. The long form of the title was “Fifty-plus recipes for casseroles that you can cook longer than you’d planned so you don’t have to interrupt cocktails and your guests’ fascinating conversation, just to serve dinner”.

Other classics from the 70s in our collections include “Man on the Range: or How to Survive in the Kitchen Without Really Crying” by Danny Boyd, or James Barber’s “Fear of Frying.” For those British Columbians with more adventurous tastes (or less access to a supermarket) Swede Gano of Anahim Lake, B.C. offered up “Moose on the Table” featuring recipes such as Basic Boiled Moose Six Ways and Mooseburger Meatballs Porcupine Style. And of course, in the 70s the vegetarian movement was gathering steam, witnessed by titles such as “Soy bean magic: delicious recipes with soy beans, flour & grits” by Gwen Mallard, who ran a vegetarian restaurant and was also a well known environmental activist in B.C.

Should you be planning a 50’s themed party, you might want to have a look at “What’s Cooking?” published by the Vancouver Kiwassa Club in the mid-50s. This was the decade when jellied salads were in their hey-day, and the book includes more than 20 recipes that use various combinations of Jello, marshmallows and salad dressing. The book was sold to raise funds for the Club, which provided a gathering place for girls in Vancouver. This recipe deserves copying verbatim. (There is no photo – you’ll have to use your imagination!)

Jellied Salad for a Buffet

Make red Jello, and when partially set put in a tube pan. Then put in canned orange and grapefruit sections. When completely set, put a partially set lime Jello, with diced celery and shrimp in it, on top of the red Jello. When ready to use, turn out on a large plate, decorated with lettuce or endive. Fill hole with thick salad dressing.

Your 50s party wouldn’t be complete without an assortment of cocktails on offer, and the Archives library once again can be your guide. If your guests need help washing down the Jellied Salad, they could try a “Harvard Cocktail” (brandy and Italian vermouth) or a “French 75” (gin and champagne). These cocktails, and many more, were published in a little black book by a B.C. liquor distributor, along with instructions about how to shake, not stir:

“Where a shaker is used always provide ice. Shake the shaker hard, don’t just rock it, remember you are trying to wake it up, not rock it to sleep”.

If you need to find out more about what we were all eating and drinking (or not) in British Columbia 100 years ago, have a look at “The New Temperance Cookery Book” by Mrs. Fanny Lea Gillette. The preface proudly states that “The book embodies many original and commendable features, among which is the elimination of the use of alcohol. It can be clearly demonstrated that spirituous liquors are not required in cooking.”

Savoury jellies had been perfected by the Victorians and Edwardians, and were given their own chapter in Mrs. Gillette’s cookbook because they promoted household economy, using up “bits of meats and vegetables which in themselves would not be sufficient for a course”.

The recipes and the ingredients in all of these books tell us a surprising amount of information about how British Columbians ran their households, and which comestibles were available and when. Some are not what you would expect - in 1911 the recommended garnishes for the savory jellies included capers, truffles, olives, pimentos and green peppers. Likewise, I hadn’t realized that the average housewife in the early 50s could buy canned “Vegeterian (sic) Vegetable Soup”.

And that is why we collect and keep these vintage titles – they give us an insight into the daily life of the average housewife (or party host!), and are just as important as the scholarly works that also fill our library shelves. A small exhibit featuring some of these cookbooks, plus menus and photographs, is on display in the Archives lobby for the winter of 2010/11.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

'Tis the season

From the desk of Sean Rodman, Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Royal BC Museum

A quick round-up of festive facts about the Royal BC Museum...

Fact: Santa visited Victoria in 1917, and it was caught on film. The BC Archives has the proof, along with all sorts of fascinating images of holidays past. Take a look for yourself, either online or in person. If you check out the database online, try selecting the "Visual Records" box and typing "santa claus" in the search box...

Fact: That strange tower outside the museum holds 62 bells, and is the largest carillon in Canada. Not only that, but you can sing along. We're holding our fourth annual carol-along concert, with live music provided by Provincial Carillonneur Rosemary Laing, members of the Newcombe Singers and you! We'll provide the song sheets, hot chocolate and cookies - you provide a voice. As this is an outdoor event, and the weather has been chilly recently, please dress appropriately. (For a sneak peek inside the carillon, take a look at our latest YouTube video.)

Fact: Old Town, in our Modern History gallery, has turned into a holiday paradise. Come on up and see the fabulous decor. Hope to see you soon!