Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Good Conversation

A Good Conversation

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

I can still remember the feeling of disbelief as I left the theatre. I’d just watched a two hour movie featuring two middle aged men having a conversation over dinner. One location, no action, nothing happened. Just two chaps talking. And yet, it was so completely absorbing and memorable. Do you know the movie I’m talking about? See link at end of post.

The debate about the written word in exhibitions is an old ‘chestnut.’ How many words are too much? Is the reading level too high? Do people read anymore anyway? And yet … I’ve been surprised more times than I’d care to admit by how often I’ve found visitors reading with real commitment.

We just tried something new… an exhibition - with a lot of text – and bi-lingual too! Words everywhere! The writing is not tiered, nor is it written to a particular grade level. And the surprise is that visitors are reading it avidly. They start at the start and work their way along, more or less as we’d planned.

A view of The Other Emily Exhibition
What’s different in this new exhibition, ‘The Other Emily’ is that the text is a conversation between two people – a curator and an artist – whom you ‘meet’ at the start of the show. The tone is informal, almost chatty. And it’s personal – two living people talking about artist, Emily Carr from radically different perspectives.

My guess is that visitors are responding the way most of us do when we get the chance to eavesdrop on an interesting conversation.

Tim Willis


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tools of the Trade

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

One of the glamorous aspects of preserving our heritage is the use of expensive and esoteric scientific equipment. In novels and movies conservators are often seen in white lab coats beside mass spectrometers, operating scanning electron microscopes in settings reminiscent of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Samuel L Jackson and Don McKellar in The Red Violin
examining the artifact in well-equipped laboratory.

In reality conservation is a blend of science and practicality – the tools of the trade range from those too specialized for our budget (when necessary we contact the University of Victoria, Victoria General Hospital or Pacific Forestry Centre) to the mundanely familiar.

Removing soil from a document can be a delicate operation; sometimes a humble eraser is the best tool for the job. Crumbs of eraser can be employed very gently, but commercially available “eraser bags” may contain contaminants, so the prudent paper conservator produces her own.

Betty Walsh producing document cleaning crumbs
with a state-of-the-art grater.
Not surprisingly textile conservators use pins and needles. The pins are also used by entomologists to skewer insect specimens; the needles by eye surgeons. Thread, especially “hair silk” frequently has to be dyed in the lab to blend with the (stained, faded) artifact.

Needles and thread – sometimes it’s like trying to sew with an eyelash.

At the other end of the scale, how do conservators protect totem poles? Currently the poles in the Anthropology galleries are being assessed and cleaned. The tools? A fine sable paint brush (used as a sweep), HEPA vacuum (with nozzle screened to prevent the loss of loose material) and a mobile scissor lift (conservators will go to any height!).

George Field examining protective zinc cap on a pole in Thunderbird Park.

XRF (X-ray fluorescence) analysis identifies the presence of potentially harmful elements. In the past both arsenic and mercury were used in the preparation of natural history specimens; they were so effective at repelling insects that many artifacts were similarly treated. These furs, feathers and skins have remained unchewed, but the metals pose a health threat for handlers.

Lisa Bengston with hand-held XRF analyzer.

Documentation is an important part of the Conservation Ethic. In order to assess the impact of treatment or environment, it is necessary to describe and record artifacts in detail. Although a wide range of analytical tools are employed, the most frequently used are the tape measure, camera and pencil. Has a crack enlarged? Was that chip missing before? Has that adhesive yellowed? Did the coating prevent tarnish? Although the computer is an indispensible tool, a quick paper-and-pencil drawing can sometimes record information more succinctly.

Kasey Lee condition reporting artifacts for Helmcken House.

Of course we do employ the Recording Thermohydrograph, UV Radiation Meter, Suction Table and Distillation Unit that we dreamed of as aspiring conservators. But we also use the chest freezer, vacuum cleaner and glue gun – whatever tool will do the job. (The still is used for producing distilled water only!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Worth a thousand words

From the desk of Sean Rodman, Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Royal BC Museum Is this a family photo with a group of aliens? Perhaps a field of cartoon ghosts?

Sometimes pictures from the past aren't very self-explanatory. This photo actually comes from Osoyoos, and was taken in 1943. It's a field of Zucca melons, which can grow to be over 100 pounds in weight! (More about the brief craze for Zucca melon growing can be found here and here.)

This is an example of one of the challenges that museums and archives often face: a photograph may be an accurate reflection of a moment in history. But determining what exactly was going on in that moment can be difficult.

One modern way of overcoming this is through the use of "crowdsourcing", as can be seen on the Flickr Commons site. The Commons shows you the hidden treasures in a range of public photography archives, and uses your input and knowledge to help make these collections even richer.

In the Commons, you aren't meant to be a passive viewer. You can view, tag, and annotate photographs, adding your own knowledge to the broader collection. Here's an example: a picture taken by one of the Royal BC Museum's early staff, William Newcombe, which has been submitted to the Commons by the Smithsonian.

Photographs are worth a thousand words...but sometimes those words are a conversation. Hope you join in!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

GEMs, RingKlips, Owl Clips and more....

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

So what makes an archivist’s heart go pitter patter? It’s not always what you might expect. Sure, there’s a thrill to be had when you come across an unusual record, or manage to hunt down a particularly elusive snippet of information for someone – but sometimes archivists find their rewards in unusual places. My secret pleasure is finding a new example of an antique paper fastener (otherwise known as a paper clip) for the little collection that sits on my desk.

The pins and other attachment devices pictured above have been removed from our paper records because they could rust or tear the documents if left in place. They have served their purpose, and they’ve now been replaced with a stainless steel modern version. The model we now use is a GEM, which has actually been around since 1892! My little collection of antiques also includes an Owl Clip (still being manufactured), a RingKlip, and a brass Clipper Clip, along with some stud fasteners that would have been inserted by a machine. For a fascinating look at the history of the paper clip, and to match up my samples with their names and manufacturing dates, check out The Early Office Museum online. (

You can also look at archival photographs of 19th and 20th century office interiors in British Columbia by accessing the Archives search page and using the keywords [office and interior].

Interior of the Brackman-Ker Milling Company office, Rossland, B.C. 1904. BCA B-07702

My collection of paper fasteners isn’t large and it will never end up in a museum, but for me it represents a hundred and fifty years of society’s struggle with paper records. How to organize them, how to control them – always a challenge in a paper-based office. It’s also the essence of an archivist’s job – capturing, holding together and managing the important bits of information that we’ll need in the future. I feel a certain affinity with the humble paper clip.

And I think we’ll need them for a long time to come. Although for efficiency and for the sake of the environment, we are supposed to be working towards a paperless office, I can’t actually see a day anytime soon when we’ll be able to give up our useful little friend, the paper clip.