Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bear - an Exercise in Meaning Making

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

Fellow blogger, Tim Willis, recently posted about the renewal of our forest diorama in the natural history exhibition. Along with many visitors, I am looking forward to the striking grizzly bear mount returning to his place by the stream. It got me thinking about the bear's story and how people connect to him. Is it with fear, fascination or indifference?

About two years ago, my partner and I were camping at William A. Switzer Provincial Park in the Alberta foothills. As soon as we arrived we noticed all the bear warning signs and heeded them accordingly. We kept our campsite clean, made noise while hiking and watched for scat and other bear signs.

Later that week we took our canoe out on Gregg Lake. We were paddling along the shore approaching a narrowing, quietly enjoying the sights and sounds of the lake when I heard a loud "Whoomph!" I turned to my left and saw a cinnamon coloured grizzly bear staring at us from the rushes. He must have been foraging when we startled him. In the time it took me to call out "Bear!" he charged towards the shore - bringing him within 5 meters of our canoe. I thought to myself "He will run away" when he stood on his hind legs. I raised my paddle and started hollering out while my partner deftly turned the canoe towards the middle of the lake. Then the bear got into the water and started swimming towards us!! We started paddling like crazy and I looked over my shoulder to see the bear swim across the narrow and get out on the shore on the other side of the lake. He then tracked us along the shore watching until we were well into the centre of the lake. We lost sight of him after about 10 minutes, but we didn't forget. That night I barely slept (pun intended) and in the morning we packed up and left a day early.

I learned a few things - bears are huge, they are fast and they SWIM!! Most importantly I learned that you have to bear aware even when you are canoeing - especially if you are close to the shore.

We won't ever know our bear's full story, but I'm hoping he can certainly inspire some of you to tell yours. I'd love to hear about your bear encounter.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

That sounds interesting

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

I love to hear an exhibition. I suspect this may not be true for everyone, but I really like experiences that have a soundtrack.

For me, visiting an exhibition is not dissimilar to watching a movie. Both require me to become immersed in a story or setting – often one that is far from my day to day existence. Both tell a story, and both can benefit powerfully from the skilful application of music.

It was quite a shock to me to realize how powerful sound in exhibitions can be. Eons ago, I worked on an exhibition of ‘animatronic’ prehistoric beasts. I fear that we may have permanently scarred a generation of young children. If you were between 3 and 5 years old there was a 50/50 chance you’d even make it inside the exhibition – parents were seen rushing from the show with wailing toddlers, hands were locked over ears. It was the sound of ice age wind that had just as much impact as the animals themselves. I hereby apologize to those Edmontonians who are now 24 to 27 years old and cannot understand why the sound of icy wind makes them quite so uneasy.

Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum

Encountering a prehistoric beast at the Royal BC Museum today can also be rather intimidating for very young visitors. Our mammoth is magnificent to behold, but it is the low elephantine rumbling to which very young visitors respond. Have a listen:

But sound is one thing… a soundtrack is another. Hollywood directors know well the way in which music can heighten emotional reaction to what is being presented – would the Social Network be as compelling without Trent Reznor’s score? So why is this so seldom practiced in exhibitions? I’m not suggesting the Doors’ The End in the Climate Change gallery, but rather the use of subtle, atmospheric music to reinforce the message and to help the visitor to a receptive frame of mind.

Visitors relaxing in Brian Eno's exhibition, 77 Million Paintings

77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno at the Glenbow in Calgary this month is perhaps the epitome of sound and visual combining equally in the visitor experience:

When we present our next big touring exhibition this December, it will have a lovely musical and sound effect ‘wash.’ It will be fun to ask visitors whether this enhanced their visit… or indeed whether they noticed it at all. Stay tuned.

And… as a musical postscript, David Mattison [a former staffer at the Royal BC Museum] was inspired by our recent exhibition, Aliens Among Us to compose a piece of music in its honour:

Tim Willis

Monday, March 7, 2011

Snow Day

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

It snowed last week; it was quite beautiful and quite a novelty in Victoria. But abrupt changes of temperature and wild swings of humidity are bad news for artifacts; could winter weather mean problems for our collections?

One year, in a freak snow and wind storm, snow blew inside one of the ventilation pipes in the exhibit building. Occasionally the wet load on the Tower has leaked a little through the ceiling. In December there was a spate of minor issues – a fault in the sprinkler system, a plumbing leak, a damaged drain.

Conservation personnel are always available to respond to emergencies involving artifacts, and they are among the first to be called in response. To make sure the necessary supplies are at hand, Emergency Carts are parked in various locations through the Tower, Archives and Exhibits buildings. Towels, fans, spill pillows, mops, Tyvek suits, duct tape and more are poised to be deployed if a leak, drip, back-up or flood threatens the collections.

Mostly, however, we try to prevent the situations that could become disasters for artifacts. In discussions with Facilities, Conservators advocate for more precise and responsive environmental controls (keeping the humidity down by turning up the heat does not make for happy collections) and a sensible fire suppression system.

In most cases, however, the potential problems are the result of our aged building. It is in the nature of plumbing to leak sometimes, but we can’t really work in a building without water. If the building is not a perfectly protective shell, then the containers in which the artifacts are stored must do the job. If the artifact is unusual in its size or requirements, then its specific needs must be addressed (a pair of out-sized Chinese embroideries reside in a cozy container made from sewer pipe).

Where there is a possibility of plumbing or roof leaks reaching artifacts, collections are stored in water-proof boxes or protected by polyethylene sheeting. A minor toilet overflow could have disastrous results for artifacts on the floor, so all artifacts are stored on blocks or shelves.

Protection from water also mitigates the damage that might be caused by other potential calamities. Artifacts stored in water-proof containers are less likely to be damaged in the course of fire suppression. Customized supports within the containers will provide protection during an earthquake; in the meantime they moderate the effect of collections moves. And most importantly, the problems in December gave us the opportunity to practice. Our response was prompt and effective and it kept the issue on the minor end of the scale.