Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A good conversation

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

Every so often I go out onto the floor of our exhibition galleries and startle the visitors. Well, actually I ask them questions about their experience. Once they’ve got over the shock of this impertinence [and understand that I’m not trying to sell them something] they are usually quite pleased to talk.

I feel quite reticent about intruding on their experience, but to be honest, the bigger hurdle for me is the fear of hearing what I don’t want to hear. What if they don’t like us? What if they’d rather be at the mall, or staring at a wall? Nonetheless, the conversation is always, always helpful.

Not long ago I happened upon Nick Poole’s very challenging post, A Difficult Conversation I won’t try to summarize the piece - it’s worth reading in full - it revolves around a difficult conversation with friends who questioned the worth of museums in the 21st century. “Your industry is like typesetters, or vinyl manufacturers. Its time has come and gone. The real question is how long it’s going to take you all to realise what has happened,” said one. Now, that’s hard to hear.

When I read the post, I was already feeling rather discouraged that the second decade of this new millennium might prove to be particularly hard for museums - financial pressure, declining travel trends, enormous societal shifts around discretionary time and the place of the web in delivering information and social contact. And the post made me more despondent.

And then I went for my stroll in the galleries.

I met a young woman with her 5 year old daughter deep in conversation at the foot of our wonderful mammoth. I asked whether the mammoth was making her nervous. ‘No’, said the mother… ‘She loves visiting the mammoth. We come here every week. In fact, she’s decided to become a paleontologist.

2011 feels a little brighter.

Tim Willis

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How Light and Light It Grows

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

Now that we are past the winter solstice, the days are getting longer and the light is getting brighter. Great! Unless you are concerned about the longevity of material culture, increasing illumination feels wonderful. For those concerned with preserving the physical evidence of the past, however, increasing light levels is bad news indeed.

The colours are much more vivid on the back of this Chilkat blanket.

Energy from the sun, captured, filtered or stored, enables life on earth to go on, but “going on” is just what preservation isn’t. When we conserve something we want it to stay the same, exactly the same; we want it to keep its colour and shape and chemistry intact. But in an organic system, change is not an option. Radiation from the sun provides the energy for materials to combine and the energy for materials to break apart. The energy in light causes the natural colours of fur, feathers, wood and basketry materials to fade; it breaks down the delicate proteins of silk and the gelatin of photographs; it causes paper to turn brittle, rubber to crack, skin to split. Dyed textiles, colour photographs, painted surfaces all lose the vivacity we prize.

And some light is more energetic than others. Ultraviolet radiation is a part of sunlight and of the spectrum produced by some artificial light sources. It is not visible to the human eye, but its high energy is particularly damaging. UV causes skin to suffer from sunburn and worse; artifacts exposed to direct sunlight or unshielded fluorescent light will not last long.

This is not a display of albino birds; they were much more colourful
before lengthy exposure in a sunlit case.

The effects of light exposure are cumulative. Brighter light or longer exposure means greater damage and the effects are irreversible. Like Humpty Dumpty once fallen, no number of horses or men can re-instate colour to a faded dye.

Displaying light sensitive materials is a balance between having enough light to appreciate them while exposing them to the least potential for damage. This is why there are no windows in the Museum’s galleries; sunlight is too dangerous. The glass walls of the entrance and any fluorescent tubes are coated to filter out ultraviolet radiation. Even so, you will not be greeted in the foyer by displays of weaving, butterflies or watercolours. As you move through the galleries, your eyes accustom themselves to less light. An internationally recognized standard for the illumination of sensitive materials, 50 lux, is not very bright, but once your vision is acclimatized it is easier to see fine details.

Most of the Museum’s collection is not on permanent display, however. To many this seems a waste – why keep things that you can’t see? But if we are to pass on the treasures of the past having preserved them for more than our immediate enjoyment, we must keep them safe from the most potent initiator of change. Light is necessary for viewing, but our heritage is safest wrapped in a protective layer of darkness.

Over-exposure to light has caused the dye to fade – the original colour can be seen
where the buttons shielded the fabric around the buttonholes.
On the exposed side of the cuffs, the silk and cotton blend fabric is now
in shreds as light has destroyed the silk.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seeing the Big Picture with the Big Map

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

If you've visited us recently, you must have seen the Big Map in our lobby. Stretching almost 8 metres from floor to ceiling, it's an amazing snapshot of British Columbia.

Where did it come from? Back in 2005, the Big Map was unveiled as the world’s first three-dimensional map of British Columbia based solely on satellite imagery. It is exceptional in detail and dramatic in size. The map provides a never-before-seen perspective on our home. Coupled with a dramatic overlay of movies and digital animation, the map demonstrates an exciting new way to tell the stories of British Columbia and its people.
The Big Map under construction in 2005

Since its opening several films have been produced to play on the big map including First Peoples, Climate Change, and Water. In addition to the movies, the digital animations that play on the map are often a huge draw for visitors. These animations illustrate the size of our province and relative population through direct comparison to other countries. I was surprised to see Ireland or Taiwan tuck neatly into the outline of Vancouver Island: somehow I always think of us as tiny in comparison to these international heavyweights!

Even if you can't visit in person, we can now give you a sample of the Big Map online. Recently we transported the digital animations to the internet. Click here to enjoy them!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

....and a Happy New Year!

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

Continuing on with my festive theme, I went looking for some seasonal archival photographs which would show us how people celebrated New Year’s in the past. I was amused by this image [C-07336], which was inscribed “New Year’s Eve at Mrs. James Fell’s home.”

Unfortunately, this image came to the Archives more than 50 years ago, and very little information about the photo was collected at the time. We don’t have a date (possibly around 1900?), or the names of the people in the photograph (although I’m pretty sure that Mrs. James Fell must be the dowager at the front). Nonetheless, I think it captures an interesting moment – and one that wasn’t easily documented 110 years ago, as an interior, night-time shot was technically challenging.

It’s also surprising how much extra information we can glean just by studying the image closely. For example, the man on the left is smoking a pipe, and wearing a very smart dressing gown over his clothes to protect them. The gentlemen and ladies appear to be “in their best”, but the household looks fairly modest. The cane-seated chair on the right has seen better days and has holes in the back and seat. Two heavy curtains, used to keep heat downstairs on cold nights, are visible on either side of the staircase. The door to a hallway closet is open, showing a variety of household products – a sight not often documented in family photographs of this, or any, era!

When analyzing photos for content, it is also useful to ask the “Who, What, When, Where and Why” questions so that we understand the context of their creation. In this instance we know why the image was created – to record a celebration, and a gathering of friends and family. We know that all the people in the photo are connected in some way to Mrs. James Fell, and since the photograph probably originated with a family in Victoria I think it’s likely that it was taken inside this house, which is identified as James Frederick Fell’s house on Pandora Avenue in Victoria [D-04044].

We can make an educated guess about the year of the New Year’s photo based on the clothing, and the specific date (December 31) is implied in the title. All of this information “adds value” to the image, and makes it worth keeping.

Can you spot anything else in either photograph that you find noteworthy? Or do you know anything more about this family? Do let us know! You can email me directly at The more we know about images like this, the more valuable they become as research resources. (And if you print up any of your own pictures of this past New Year’s Eve, remember to label them lightly, and in pencil, with the date, place and names of the people in the photo. Rename and add information to your digital files too. You might save some future archivist or family historian a whole lot of head-scratching if you do!).