Thursday, June 30, 2011


from the desk of Genevieve Weber
Collections, Research and Access Services 
Royal BC Museum     

My first week as an Archivist at the Royal BC Museum happened to coincide with International Archives Day, June 9th – a happy twist of fate indeed!  Designated by the International Council on Archives, the concept is for professionals around the world to unite to further understanding of archives and archivists.  (For more information on International Archives Day, see here  One way in which archivists around the world raised awareness on June 9th was through an international Twitter event #AskArchivists.  We invited people to send us any question about archives or archivists – about who we are, what we do, our collections, or anything else.  The questions we got were amusing, thought-provoking, and educational (for both parties!)  A couple of them really got me thinking about why I chose to become an archivist, and why I love this job. 
Here are my top five favourite questions and answers. With Twitter we are limited to only 140 characters per post, so the answers were often much more brief than what you see below!

Q1. What is the weirdest/most bizarre thing you have ever found in your archives? (from @Michnelago, location unknown)
A1. Gopher Tails found in Game Warden Records that had been sent to the Warden for bounty!  Other repositories answered this question as well, and lots of animal parts came up – a mole, a bat, a skunk pelt, a monkey arm back scratcher!

Q2. I heard that you have an Atlas in the BC Archives from the 16th century!  Cool!  Can you tell me more about it?  (@E5PI6 in Victoria, BC)
A2.  Yes! Made by Flemish Cartographer Gerardus Mercator in the early 17th Century.  This led to a further discussion about Mercator, the curious party describing him as the “rockstar of cartography.”  The Archives has, in fact, two Mercators.  View their details here and here 

Q3. Which document has given you the greatest emotion in your professional life (and possibly why?) (@Sohayb in Rouen, France)

A3. 8mm film of BC Athletes at 1936 Berlin Olympics; their view marching in the stadium – the Hindenburg flies over!  (Response by fellow Archivist Dennis Duffy)

Q4. Are my 100-year-old civil war letters better off in their envelopes deep in a closet or should I store them differently? (@johnsonmaryj in Colorado Springs, USA)

A4. They should be stored in acid-free envelopes and containers in a stable environment re: temperature and humidity.  We had a number of questions regarding preservation of personal records.  I highly recommend the Archivist’s Toolkit, provided by the Archival Association of British Columbia at  The most useful guide for maintaining personal or small archives I have seen to date! 

Q5. Do you think about human rights or any humanitarian function you would fill out working as an Archivist? (@KarstenKuehnel in Germany)

A5. Yes! Archivists play a huge role in developing a safe and transparent environment for citizens to live in.  That is a VERY short answer for something that I feel passionate about.  Archivists play such an important role in maintaining a democratic and transparent form of governance.   We are very lucky in Canada to live in a country that has a set of rules regarding maintenance of records and public access to the information in them about what our government does.  However, in many countries this is not the case: in dictatorships, for example, records are often destroyed or re-written.  In countries that have suffered from war, mass human rights violations, or natural disasters, the records have been lost and with them the voices of the people.  Archivists without Borders is a wonderful non-profit organization that works to restore the documentary heritage of nations and peoples around the world, and to educate the records caretakers at the same time -

In my next blog post I will further discuss archival humanitarian work and how it is in evidence closer to home.
This is just a small sample of the discussions we entered into on International Archives Day.  We helped people find resources on how to become an archivist; we provided reference services to people with questions specific to our holdings; we told our favourite stories about the profession; we talked about what we have here at the BC Archives; and much more.  It was the perfect way to jump into my role here at the Royal BC Museum!  

follow the museum on Twitter @RoyalBCMuseum

Friday, June 24, 2011

Museum Apps

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

Recently I have been having fun delving into the world of museums and social media, with an eye to developing a Smart Phone app for the Royal BC Museum (stay tuned for more on that soon).

During my research I have come across some cool museum and culture apps that I wanted to share with you. Most of the apps I have seen are for Apple, the few that are for Android I will list with an (A).

American Museum of Natural History – Explorer
This is a site-specific way-finding app. You can look at it from home and get information about a lot of their key objects, but the coolest thing would be to use it onsite and get step by step directions. You’ll never have to ask “Where’s the bathroom?” again.

Victoria and Albert – Search the Collections (A)
Often when I am at a museum like the Victoria and Albert I am so consumed with the artifacts, that I never spend any time with the library or archives. This information rich app that takes their library collection and puts it on your Smart Phone. So now I know what I’ve been missing.

I can’t wait to go back to Tate and play a game of TRUMP. This app invites you to walk around the gallery and build your “deck” with art work that you think best fits different modes such as “battle”, “mood” or “collector”. Meet up with your friends and compare your decks to see if your Pollock trumps their Duchamp.

Joslyn Art Museum – SVNG Trek
This is another gaming app that uses the existing SVNG format to set visitors out on different missions through the museum. Kind of like a 2.0 scavenger hunt.

National Museum of the American Indian – Infinity of Nations
An app developed with children and families in mind. Buffy Saint Marie, who I remember fondly from Sesame Street, narrates this audio rich app that invites families to look closely at the artifacts and make discoveries.

Fredricksburg Battlefield - Fredricksburg Battle
Even outdoor Heritage Sites can have great apps. This one takes you onto a Civil War battlefield and offers GPS based tours, historian videos, audio accounts of soldiers, maps, photos and other archival documents that you don’t often get to see in outdoor sites.

Strawberry Banke Museum – Listen to the Landscape
A large living history site uses this app not only to help visitors navigate through the historic community, but also invites them to immerse themselves in the story through voices, sights and sounds from the past.

Some of the above apps make me want to travel to these places to check them out – one that is a deliberate “travel app” is the Android app Museums in NYC . Find out what’s coming up around the corner and get a glimpse of what is inside before you even go in the doors.

So these are some of the apps that I like, what about you? Have you used a museum/culture app? What did you like?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Natural History Hodgepodge

From the desk of Kelly Sendall,
Manager of Natural History,
Royal BC Museum

Every now and again I am asked to give examples of what’s in the natural history collections at the museum. Sometimes it’s during conversation here or there and sometimes to a group or at a meeting. If I have a chance to think about good examples for a meeting, I consult the experts – all the staff in the Natural History Section. As a result, I always end up learning something about the collections, the natural history of BC or the history of our province. Each time I assemble a smattering of specimens for a show and tell, I am impressed with the scope and breadth of the museum’s collections. Each specimen and associated record (and there are over 750,000 of them in the natural history collections) represents a snapshot in time and place when that species was present, along with all the conditions you can think of relating to the habitat, the year, the season, the weather, yada, yada, yada. So it’s not just the variety or diversity of life in BC that’s fascinating. It can also be the historical context, or something about the collector, or what the environmental conditions were at the time. Each record is rich with context and each specimen is a biological library of information relating the specimen to the environment or its habitat. So for your enjoyment and, I hope, enlightenment, here are a set of assembled examples I used recently.

BIRD: Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) Collected: 1899 by A.C. Brooks

From Sumas Lake and representing a specimen from a place that no-longer exists as it once was. Sumas Lake (see image above) was drained by way of the Vedder Canal starting in 1924 to make way for farmland.Sumas Lake was a seasonal lake which varied in size depending on the degree of run off. The freshet each year would often fill the lake to cover an area of 120km2 from the average low water coverage of 40km2. Over time the lake was completely drained to marshland and was full of resident and migratory birds.
Tringa flavipes

This specimen shows the real value of museum specimens to document history and change to the biology/ecology of BC – changes which will continue and accelerate given the growing human population.

FROG: Coastal Tailed Frog (Ascaphus truei) Collected: 1965 in Washington State.

This species of frog is only found in the Pacific Northwest of Washington State and Pacific Southwest of BC. In fact the only population of the species in Canada is here in BC. The ‘tail’ of the male frog is an aid to improve the fertilization of eggs, which are laid in fast-flowing water. The tadpoles have sucker-like mouths to help them stay in one spot underwater
Ascaphus truei

The RBCM collection includes a paratype specimen for the subspecies, Ascaphus truei montanus which is a species all by itself now (Ascaphus montanus)

INVERTEBRATE: Soft Sea Urchin (Sperosoma biseriatum) Collected: 2002 by RBCM and Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans researchers off Graham Island (from 1722-2083 meters of water!)

Sperosoma biseriatum
This species of sea urchin belongs to a strange group of other urchins called ‘soft sea urchins’. Although many species have venomous spines I’m not sure if this one, which typically occurs in the Bering Sea, does. Another species (S. giganteum) in this genus is reputed to be the largest in the world with the test in some specimens measured at 32cm across.

MAMMAL: Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) Collected: March 2010 from Bear Mtn. Dawson Creek, BC. by a private biological consulting company monitoring the site for bat mortalities.

This specimen is one of two donated to the RBCM as frozen voucher specimens at the end of May this year. They are wind farm mortalities from the new Bear Mountain site near Dawson Creek.

Lasiurus borealis
At the time they were found in August 2010 they were thought to be the first record of the Eastern Red Bat for BC. Subsequent DNA research on behalf of the Ministry of Environment into the identification of the only other known Red Bat specimen from BC, a specimen collected in 1906 in the Skagit Valley and held by the Canadian Museum Of Nature, proved that it was also an Eastern Red Bat and thus the first record for the province. It had been previously identified as a Western Red Bat (Lasiurus blossevillii) in the RBCM handbook series. This DNA identification and the new record of the Eastern Red Bat will be published by the researcher involved. This specimen was prepared as a study skin and the skull and skeleton will go to the museum’s beetle colony for cleaning prior to being added to the mammal research collection. The second specimen was badly damaged by the wind turbine blade so it will be preserved whole in alcohol. Tissue and hair samples were taken and these will be sent to a PhD student at the University of Calgary who is studying the migration of forest bats. The timing of the bat kill suggests that the bats were migrating. The tissues will be used for microsatellite DNA analysis which will help identify the population or geographic region where the bats originated. The hair will be used for stable isotope analysis which will indicate what the bats were eating and help indicate what area the bats were from. Red Bats are considered to be rare in Western Canada but recent research has extended their range as far north as Nahanni National Park in the NWT. Studies of bat kills at wind farm sites in the eastern US indicate that the Eastern Red Bat may constitute up to 60% of the total mortalities. There is work going on currently to determine why they are so susceptible and preliminary video findings show that this species is attracted to the turbine blades for some reason. The provincial Ministry of Environment is planning to follow up on this new distribution record by doing some survey work in the Okanagan region to try and confirm earlier acoustic records which were interpreted as being Red Bats.

FOSSIL: Anomalocaris

Known now to be the largest Burgess Shale invertebrate animal that reached lengths of 50cm, it didn’t start out that way when first discovered late in the 19th century. Appendages adorning the head of the beast were originally thought to be whole animals themselves. Easy to see from the image (left). Much later a fossil representing the entire body was discovered, from collections at another museum I might add, and the real truth was known as to its appearance and very large size. It must have been an impressive predator in the Cambrian oceans.

Fossilized frontal appendage of Anomalocaris

FISH: Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis) Collected: July 2005 from Silvermere Lake

The Yellow Bullhead, a species of Bullhead catfish, is a voracious scavenger typically feeding at night on a variety of plant and animal material, both live and dead, including small fish, crayfish, insects, snails and worms. They can grow to half a meter in length weighing close to a kilogram. On average they live for up to seven years. Normally ranging throughout the central and eastern US from central Texas north into North Dakota and north to the Great Lakes region, this specimen is the first for BC and is from Silvermere Lake northeast of Langley, BC.

Ameiurus natalis
It was only when our curator examined the sample more carefully than the researchers who had originally collected them that that the sample was found to contain examples of the Yellow Bullhead. Nobody knew they were here in BC and seemingly well-established on the lower mainland. Their arrival was likely as a contaminant in a shipment of bass.

INSECT: Black Witch Moths (Ascalapha odorata) Collected: Early 20th century from southern Okanagan and Victoria.

These moths are about 15cm across and were at one time more commonly found in BC than they are today. Six of the eleven specimens in the group shown here were collected from Victoria. Distributed from Brazil to the southern US, in spring this moth undertakes a northward migration. During this time adults occasionally reach as far north as BC. Its name reflects the cultural belief in Mexican and Caribbean folklore that it is a harbinger of death.

Ascalapha odorata
So there you have the short story on 7 out of 750,000 records from the Natural History Collections. Stay tuned because we're adding at least a few thousand stories a year to the collection and I may pipe up again about a few more.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

5 Museum Visits That Changed My Life

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

I learned recently that the wonderful exhibition developer, Judy Rand had written about museum experiences that changed her life. One of them was the moment she smelled apple pies baking in the kitchen of our Old Town gallery at the Royal BC Museum. This got me wondering if I could say the same. Had I experienced a museum visit so profoundly affecting?
Well, indeed, I've had a few. Here are five of them I'd like to share them with you:

1. Weather Permitting exhibition at the Minnesota History Center
For me, this is a text book demonstration of how to tell a story simply and powerfully. With a simple setting – a basement ‘rec’ room and a few props - a bare light bulb, an old radio and television and a basement window - one is transported in just 8 minutes into a the heart of a terrifying [ and particularly topical] event – the effect of a devastating tornado.

2. The Lifeline at the Churchill Museum, London
The Lifeline is a 15-metre-long interactive table on which visitors 'open files' documenting each week of Churchill's life during the war. I chanced upon the day that the Battle of Britain started and a squadron of Spitfires in silhouette flew down the entire length of the table. It is a superb and surprising application of technology.
3. Michelangelo's David, Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence

I've never had my breath taken away by an object - well, perhaps once when I received a rugby ball in the face - but I've never been so moved by an inanimate object. He’s is bigger and much more beautiful than I'd ever imagined. The approach to David at the Accademia is an exercise in extraordinary anticipation. (Michelangelo's David Photo: David Gaya License: {{GFDL}}

4. The Akely Hall of African Mammals, American Museum of Natural History, New York
Is it any wonder that the museum has not changed this space in eight decades? It's old school for sure, but still a wonder!

5. Wilson Fur Suit, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, UK
My first museum... well the museum I loved as a boy in my home town in England. On my way home from school I would drop in a stare at a simple display of artifacts in a case, including a fur parka that was owned by Edward Wilson. Wilson was Robert Scott’s closest friend, and died with him in 1912 on their terrible trek back from the South Pole. He grew up in my hometown and his story inspired me through my life and left me an insatiable interest in stories of exploration.

Do let me know: what museum moments have stuck with you and why?

Tim Willis

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dirty Laundry

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

Many of the textiles returning to Helmcken House after the installation of the new fire suppression system were very dirty.  To clean or not to clean?  Both the original appearance and the loss of evidence must be considered.  Vacuuming away dust that has settled on exhibits is one thing; washing away the fingerprints of use is another.  Could the grease stains on a pillowcase be from Dr. Helmcken’s hair oil?  Might the stains on a jelly bag reveal something about 19th century fruit processing?  The lives of 150 years ago differ from ours in the details and it is amazing how much is not recorded about the minutiae of “everyday life”.  The information held in tea cosies and carpet slippers can be invaluable.

Not everything was created with laundry in mind, and years of use have enfeebled many aged textiles.  Composite artifacts may not withstand treatment more strenuous than vacuuming because the parts may respond differently creating destructive internal stresses: if the lace inserts shrink in water, the dresser scarf could self-destruct.  Many dyes developed in the 19th century are not stable in water; some can be stalled by controlling the pH of the rinse water, but only if experimentation has established a safe procedure beforehand.  All fibres must be assessed, all colours, including those of patches and darns must be tested before wet treatment. 
Making the decision to wash textiles at the RBCM is made easier by the quality of water in Victoria.  Because it does not contain the minerals that make water “hard”, and requires only minimal filtering to remove particulates, delicate artifacts can be safely and effectively washed in tap water.  Positively charged calcium and magnesium ions can lock negatively charged soil to negatively charged fibres; conservators faced with hard water must use de-ionised or distilled water to prevent the formation of intractable “re-deposited soil”.
Old textiles can easily be damaged while wet.  To make the risk worthwhile, detergent should provide maximum cleaning but minimum stress.  In the past, laundering meant lots of heat and soap – very effective at getting things clean, but too harsh and alkaline for fragile artifacts.  Contemporary detergents, even those recommended for delicate fabrics, contain perfume and dyes to conform to our current ideas of how “fresh” and “clean” should look and smell (few of us would choose brown detergent!).   While additives cycle through our household laundry they can pose problems for artifacts that are rarely re-washed.  The traces of dye and perfume, not to mention “fabric conditioners” and “optical brighteners” can change colour or interact with older materials unexpectedly, as well as presenting a 21st century version of “clean”.   

The attraction of an historic house is seeing artifacts in the context of their original settings, not isolated in protective cases.   Artifacts displayed in the open, though, are vulnerable to many dangers including soil and pollution; just the removal of dust can be very stressful for aged materials.  The rooms of the past, however, would not have been filled with a century of dirt.  While cleaning artifacts takes its toll, displaying soiled ones gives a less than historically accurate impression.
Dirt has sifted through the knitted bedspread on open display.
Soiled and stained textile being considered for washing.
The unstable red and green dyes have bled into the white wool of a child's embroidered coat.