Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A Living Showcase of Plants

My only picture of the Canadian Museum of Nature's Plant Life exhibit, taken in the late nineties. That's my cousin.

I recently came across an article about the creation of the old Plant Life exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature. It's in the March-April 1980 issue of Trail & Landscape, the newsletter of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club (which is still extant!).

The Plant Life hall was a real old-school natural history exhibit -- no bells or whistles, just specimens and information. And of course lots and lots of live plants! It was very serene, which I suppose was its undoing. All the Museum documents leading up to the latest renovation mention that Plant Life was one of the least popular exhibits. (See this PDF, for example.)

I liked it, though. (I also liked its neighbouring exhibit, Animals in Nature, which I'll have to write about at some point.) I was happy to discover on a recent trip to the Museum that the observation beehive (a fondly remembered fixture of the Plant Life exhibit) is still in existence, now residing in the Nature Live exhibit alongside the other live insects.

Anyway, here's the article, reproduced without permission as always, including the photos that accompanied it. I'm intrigued by the mention of the Animal Life exhibit, which was gone by the time I remember.

The citation is:
Haber, Erich. 1980. A Living Showcase of Plants. Trail & Landscape 14(2): 36-39. https://archive.org/details/traillandscape1421otta

A Living Showcase of Plants
Erich Haber
National Museum of Natural Sciences

No doubt many of you who have visited the Victoria Memorial Museum building following its opening in 1974 after a five-year renovation program have been impressed by the updated displays that form part of the permanent exhibit halls. The development of these major exhibit areas is an on-going process requiring the efforts of the Museum's scientific staff, exhibit planners, designers, model makers and painters, as well as contract personnel.

In 1974, four of the new halls scheduled for completion in the Museum of Natural Sciences were opened to the public: The Earth, Life Through the Ages, Birds in Canada, and Mammals in Canada. Two years later, a fifth hall, Animal Life, dealing with the process of evolution and the diversity of animal life living at the present time, was completed. Two remaining halls are still in preparation. Animals in Nature, a look at the geographic distribution of animals and their adaptations to various environments, is to be completed this spring, hopefully in April.

The hall of Plant Life, next to Animals in Nature on the fourth floor (east wing), has been in preparation since 1969. Structurally, the hall has been completed for several years, and, in fact, has served in part as a "mini-museum" for displays of such items as nature art, ceramic fungi, models of whales, decoys, and specimens from the Museum's collections. The Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club's centennial exhibit was also displayed in the hall of Plant Life last year. Since January, 1979, the entire hall has been open to the public as a temporary exhibit area. Some of the original artwork, photographs and models which were prepared for the permanent exhibits have been on display, set amidst a backdrop of natural wood panels and lush plant growth.

If you have visited the Plant Life area, you may have wondered what the scope and content of the completed hall will be. You might well ask such a question since there are very few major exhibits in museums dealing with plants as the main subject that you could use as a reference point. Although most of the topics which will be treated in this hall were conceived over ten years ago, the plans for the layout of the exhibits and the manner of exhibiting the various subjects have evolved through several phases.

The physical structure of the hall was designed to accommodate the use of a large number of plants of various sizes which were to provide the cohesive element unifying the whole exhibit. The specimens themselves serve as living showcases and are arranged in plantings to demonstrate the general characteristics of major groups such as the ferns, conifers and flowering plants. They have also been selected to illustrate the diversity in growth forms as represented by trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, epiphytes and succulents. The plants serve not only as functional elements, but, as well, are arranged to be aesthetically pleasing. By their abundance and variety, they provide an atmosphere of luxuriant greenery in a hall whose purpose is to emphasize the importance of green plants within the biosphere.

The successful cultivation of the numerous plants is possible due to an overhead system of high intensity growlamps which provide approximately 1,000 to 2,000 foot candles of light in certain areas. Enclosed planters containing their own lighting system house succulents, carnivorous plants, and epiphytes on artificial trees. Illumination throughout the hall is automatically controlled with the simulated daylight period occurring at night after Museum hours. Two gardeners are required to maintain the numerous plants in the hall and those scattered throughout the Museum building.

A view of the gymnosperm planter with its representative conifers, Cycas and Ehidra. A diversity of flowering plants is exhibited in a large planter on the right and in the turret behind the archway. Photo by Harry Foster.

Plants growing in large ceramic pots hang from the ceiling in an exhibit area which will eventually house large models of a plant and a bacterial cell. The large reflector growlamps, here in the off mode, are visible overhead. Photo by Harry Foster, National Museums of Canada.

Within this framework of living plants, a storyline based on five main themes is presented: evolution of plants through the ages, biology of the main groups of organisms, plants in nature, plants and floristic regions of Canada and economic botany.

The evolution of plants through the ages is covered in a narrated slide programme supported by an exhibit of fossils, coloured reconstructions of extinct species and a 7 metre mural depicting the changes in the landscape during progressive geological periods.

In treating the biology of the main groups of organisms, emphasis is given to the basic distinction between the prokaryotic organisms (the bacteria and blue-green algae which lack nuclei and membrane-bound cell organelles) and the eukaryotic ("true-nucleated") organisms which comprise all other groups including the animals. The morphology, importance and life history of such groups as the bacteria, blue-green algae, water and slime molds, fungi, lichens, bryophytes and vascular plants are briefly reviewed. Special topics of interest relating to seed plants including pollination, dispersal of seeds and fruits, the importance of light to plants, and the structure of seed plants, are brought to life through the use of specially prepared artwork, specimens, photos and film loops. A fairly recent addition to our plans includes an observation beehive which is to accompany the exhibit on pollination.

The exhibit of plants in nature, a slide programme supplemented by a vegetation map and photo panels, presents a broad perspectus of plants in their habitats from around the world. On a more national level, the plants and floristic regions of Canada are reviewed in the hall's diorama theatre. Here, seated and with adjustable earphones provided, visitors will be able to view the movie, Plantscapes of Canada, which was filmed under the guidance of the Museum's botany staff. Eventually, eight dioramas, each representing one of the floristic regions depicted in the film, will be completed. The first diorama, now in preparation, is a representation of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest Region as seen at the Shaw Woods Nature Preserve near Eganville, Ontario. (See Albert Dugal's article on page 46.) In an adjoining area, the local flora of the Ottawa Valley is presented by way of large photo panels of specific habitats with superimposed close-ups of some of the common plants from each habitat. Preserved and mounted plants of the season will be on view in special display racks.

The last area for completion will be an economic botany exhibit. Topics such as plant fibres, spices, beverage plants, and plants and art will be developed in the coming years under the Museum's maintenance programme.

This spring, a number of permanent exhibits will be completed. Included will be plants through the ages, bryophytes, pollination, dispersal of seeds and fruits, structure of seed plants, plants in nature, part of the plantscapes of Canada, and the local flora exhibit. The installation of these exhibits represents the first phase of the completion schedule.

As you can see, the development of a major exhibit hall is a long-term project which involved considerable planning, documentation and resources. Visitors to the Museum of Natural Sciences can see the progressive development of a unique exhibit hall on plant life that represents an unusual display greenhouse complete with artwork, photos, films and specimens.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

National Museum of What?

Google News' archive of old newspapers is proving to be a fascinating source of material for this blog.

For example, I just learned that in the 1980s, the National Museum of Man in Ottawa had a hell of a time trying to figure out what their new name should be. They wanted to change their name because it was sexist, and they wanted the name change to coincide with their move to a new building across the river.

But what should the name be? The museum proposed about 50 names, including these three:

Museum of Man and Woman
Museum of Mankind
Museum of People

None of these were quite right, so in the winter of 1984-85, they opened it up to the public. They received about 2,000 letters, over half of which favoured the original name, National Museum of Man. Here are some of the other suggestions:

Museum of Canajun Injunuity [presumably a joke]
Museum of Civilization
Museum of Man and Nature
Museum of Mutation
National Heritage Museum [the second most popular, after the original name]
National Museum of All Men
National Museum of Herstory or History [hmm!]
National Museum of Man (Embracing Women)
National Museum of Man and His Wife
National Museum of Men, Women and Gays [yikes]
National Museum of Others
National Museum of Post-Matriarchal (Patriarchal) Culture [what?]

This wasn't getting them anywhere, so a committee of experts was created in January 1986 to sort it out for good. Presumably it was they who picked the name "Museum of Civilization", although I'm not sure when or why the change was made from "National Museum" to "Canadian Museum".

Montreal Gazette, 30 January 1985
Free Lance-Star, 14 February 1985
Montreal Gazette, 25 January 1986

Friday, 20 November 2015

Old Canada Hall Walkthrough

The Canadian Museum of History has posted a nice interview with Douglas Cardinal, the architect who designed the museum building back in the eighties. Cardinal is also the lead architect for the new Canadian History Hall (opening in 2017), which provides a nice bit of continuity.

I'm going to miss the old Canada Hall, though. Here's a walkthrough that Andrew and I shot on 28 August 2014, just four days before it closed for good.

I hope that the new hall retains the immersive quality of the old one.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Airplanes in 3D

My good friend and fellow Ottawa blogger Charles Akben-Marchand has posted some 3D photos of the storage facility of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Grab some red-and-blue 3D glasses and check them out!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Take the Sci & Tech Reopening Survey!

The Canada Science and Technology Museum is soliciting public opinion on the plans for their reopening in 2017. There's only four days left to take their survey, featuring concept sketches of the new facade and new exhibits, so take it now!

My favourite thing is the plan for the Transportation exhibit. The locomotive room was always the coolest thing in the museum -- you don't have to be a train fanatic to get a kick out of a big room full of trains -- and judging from the picture above, they plan to extend the concept to canoes, bicycles, snowmobiles, and everything else. Looks awesome!

But that's just my opinion. Tell them what you think!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Akeley's Ark

The dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of African Mammals are like magic windows, glowing internally with reflected light.

Like everything else in New York, the sheer scale of the Hall is impressive. The dioramas are bigger than any I'm used to, and most of them contain a number of individual specimens, not just one or two. And there are two levels!

Not to mention the centrepiece of the Hall, a herd of African elephants. One of them was shot by Teddy Roosevelt, although I don't know which one.

The Hall was the brainchild of taxidermist Carl Akeley, who was worried about the disappearance of Africa's wildlife as agriculture and civilization spread across the continent. He wanted to ensure that there was some record that these animals had existed.

He also wanted to use the Hall to drum up public support for conservation. It worked! Akeley himself was instrumental in persuading the King of Belgium to create Virunga National Park to protect the mountain gorillas.

Unfortunately, the northern white rhinoceros, pictured in the diorama above, hasn't been so lucky. It was reported just last December that one of the last six individuals has died.

The gerenuk, my favourite antelope.

Akeley was, by all accounts, a badass. He was once attacked by a leopard and killed it with his bare hands. He also more or less invented modern taxidermy. This photo from LIFE magazine (24 May 1937) explains the process better than I ever could:

The attention to detail in sculpting the muscles really shows. Look at the subtlety of the facial muscles of this Grevy's zebra:

Equal to Akeley's desire to preserve Africa before it was gone forever, was his desire to bring Africa to you. In an age before David Attenborough specials, it wasn't easy for an average North American to see African wildlife in its natural habitat.

Detail of gemsbok diorama

To that end, every diorama was based on an actual location. (Museum artist Stephen Quinn visited the site of the gorilla diorama a few years ago.) Fanatical about accuracy in every detail, Akeley and his team catalogued all the plants in the area, and collected everything from dirt to fallen leaves, all of which ended up in the dioramas.

Colour photography wasn't in widespread use yet, and anyway, cameras don't capture colour in the same way that your eye does. So artists painted "colour notes" in the field so that they could accurately reproduce the colours when they got back to New York. Above are the colour notes for the plants in the mandrill diorama (source).

Here you can see the lighting setups for dioramas representing two very different environments and lighting conditions -- bongos in a shadowy bamboo forest, and gemsboks in the baking Kalahari desert. The lights are mounted behind a "window" right above the glass panel that you look through.

The bongo diorama also contains a small mirror, hidden from view, that reflects a gleam into the bongos' eyes.

This diorama, of hunting dogs at sunrise, features my favourite lighting effect in the whole exhibit. One main light shines onto the backdrop, illuminating the spot where the sun is rising above the horizon. The effect is subtler than it appears in this photo; in person, it really does look like the glow is emanating from the rising sun.

New York Times, 17 May 1936

Several times during my visit to the Hall, I saw people standing in front of the gorilla diorama, taking pictures of it with their cell phones. Silhouetted against the glass, elbows out to their sides, their pose looked identical to that of the big male gorilla in the centre of the diorama. I wish I'd gotten a photo of that.

Carl Akeley died in 1926, before the Hall was completed. He was on a trip to collect material for the gorilla diorama. He died, and was buried, very close to the location depicted in that diorama, a location he considered to be the most beautiful place in the world.

Libyan desert

If you want to see more of Akeley Hall of African Mammals, this Flickr user has some awesome photos of the dioramas taken with a fisheye lens. And this amazing online exhibit on the AMNH website has a ton of archival materials relating to the Hall.

Colobus monkeys


Preston, D.J. 1986. Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History. Ballantine Books, New York, 308 pp.

Quinn, S.C. 2006. Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. Abrams, New York, 179 pp.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The rules for making a national museum in Canada.

Rule 1: Hire an expensive, internationally renowned architect to create a jarring, distinct, and ostentatious design to please architectural critics and hopefully win a prize.

Rule 2: for the love of God make sure you have a large grand hall that you can rent out to wedding groups and for diplomatic occasions. Remember just because you’re subsidized by 35 million people doesn't mean you can afford to get cheap.

Rule 3: have a grand entrance to allow the people bask in the glory of the design. Don't worry about putting anything really at all in the grand entrance, the aforementioned superiority of the architectural design will pummel the visitors submission.

Rule 4: This is really important, don't forget to include the actual exhibits in your museum. The public will spend exorbitant amounts of money to get into your museum, even though you’re a public institutions, so they will expect to learn a thing or two. Make sure to keep it as impressionistic as possible. Remember taxpayers aren't paying for specific facts.

Rule five: Be sure to refer to your national museum as  world class at every available opportunity.  If you don't, people might realize, I mean, er, suspect that your full shit.

Review:  When looking at the floor plan of the museum, if exhibits are a clump in the middle of everything else, instead of everything else a clump middle of the exhibits, you know you've done a good job. They only complain because they're jealous.