Friday, 27 December 2013

Life Through the Ages

The logo of the old "Life Through the Ages" exhibit was frequently used to represent the museum itself, and still remains on direction signs in Ottawa. Photograph taken by me.

I thought I'd inaugurate this blog with a reproduction of an article about the creation of "Life Through the Ages", the old fossil gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature (or the National Museum of Natural Sciences, as it was called at the time). This is the exhibit that I grew up with in the 80s and 90s, and I loved it.

The article was written by Asoka Weerasinghe, one of the chief people behind the creation of the exhibit, and ran in the February 1999 issue of the Ottawa Paleontological Society Newsletter, following a talk he gave at a meeting of the Society on January 13. The editor of the newsletter was Robert Sensenstein.

This is reproduced without permission, but as far as I know this information has never been published anywhere else, and it deserves to be more widely known. The only reason I have a copy of this obscure publication is that I was a member of that Society, and indeed was at that talk!

The full citation is:
Weerasinghe, Asoka. 1999. Creating the Dinosaur Hall (Life Through the Ages) at the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa, Canada (1970-1974). Ottawa Paleontological Society Newsletter 8(2): 2-7.

I've added some photos of the exhibit as it used to be. Images from that era are hard to come by!

Daspletosaurus in the old dinosaur hall, with wall mounts of Anchiceratops and Dromiceiomimus in the background. All three of these skeletons are also in the new fossil gallery. Image from Animal Planet.

Creating the Dinosaur Hall (Life Through the Ages) at the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa, Canada (1970-1974)
by Asoka Weerasinghe (former Head, Thematic Research Section, Design and Display Division, National Museums Corporation of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.)

I got involved in creating this Hall only in November 1970. I believe that the Museum was closed to the public sometime in 1969, with a public announcement that it would be opened to the public with brand new exhibits in one year. I don't think that the then Museum's managers had a clue as to how long it would take to design, fabricate and install a major Museum Gallery.

What was important to remember is that Canada was exposed to innovative design concepts at EXPO-67. So the powers-to-be at the National Museums Corporation at that time wanted nothing inferior in design as to what they had seen in Montreal in 1967. So it was logical for them to hire Tom Wood, who himself was an artist and designer, and the Manager of the Canada Pavilion at EXPO-67 in Montreal as well as the Canada Pavilion in Osaka, Japan in 1970, as the Chief of Design and Display for this project.

When he couldn't find any paleontologist with some sympathy to design in Canada, he found me through my Prof (Ward Neale) at Memorial University, Newfoundland, to guide the story line and design to create the Dinosaur Hall. By then I had returned to my old job as a Geologist with an engineering firm (Low, Parsons & Brown) in Watford, Hertfordshire, in England, after having handed over my Master's Thesis, in May 1970. It so happened that I was a liberal scientist, being a published poet, artist, and sculptor, and the only graduate student who wanted to work in a Museum, while all my colleagues wanted to go to the field as economic geologists, to the oil fields, et cetera. So I was brought over from London, England, to do the job.

As you are aware the two scientists who were responsible for the content of the Hall were Dale Russell and Dick Harrington. And they had a team of preparators of the vertebrate fossil specimens, headed by Hank Shearman, who passed away from a heart attack before the Hall was opened. He was succeeded by Danis who was his assistant at the time. I believe he joined the Drumheller Museum later. The designer who was chosen to design this particular Hall was Alan Todd, a bright young graduate form the Ontario College of Art. He is now the Chief designer for the National Gallery in Ottawa. The Chief of Design was Jacques St. Cyr, who by the way designed the maple leaf in the Canadian flag. Unfortunately, Tom and Jacques are no longer with us today.

Panel mount of Coelophysis in the section leading up to the dinosaur hall itself. Photograph taken by me, and featuring my fingers.


The complete budget for this Hall was $600,000. This included the salaries of the contractual staff, design, building the infrastructure, fabrication and the installation of exhibits, which also included the audio-visual components. The monies weren't sufficient even then, but we had to do our best with what were given to us.

At the early conceptual stages of designing the Hall, it was essential that the scientists (Russell/Harrington) and the designers (St. Cyr/Todd) understand and agree as to the function of a Museum, because this was the first time that all of them had been involved in creating a major Museum Hall. This was to enable them to establish their joint responsibility, to interrelate their separate roles and interests, to produce what is expected of a good Museum design.

So what was agreed on was that - a Museum is generally accepted as a permanent, non-profit institution, essentially educational or aesthetic in purpose, with a professional staff, which acquires objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public at some regular schedule. A Museum among other things was agreed to be a communications system, with the dominant aim of disseminating knowledge, mainly through exhibitions. This formula was applied then, 25 years ago, and perhaps these concepts may have changed or evolved during the past 25 years to meet the intellectual and fiscal challenges.

The old dinosaur hall. Image from Edward J Cuhaci and Associates Architects Inc.


The next question that needed an answer and an understanding was - Why an exhibition? What was concluded was that it is a device employed by Museums to impart knowledge, and also a vehicle to accomplish the obligation of giving back to the public in an interpretive form what has been discovered during their daily museological functions of collecting, preserving, and researching. And it was established that to execute a good Museum design, Drs. Russell and Harrington, and designer Todd should acknowledge the above terms of reference of the functions of a Museum.

And thus far, my role as the Head of Thematic Research was to be the man-in-between. To see that the design will interpret the science informatively and without an over-kill by the designer who might have an inclination to do his own thing, nor let the research scientist try to incorporate everything that he wishes to say without letting the design interpret the science to the layman. So appointing me as Head of Thematic Research brought about a happy medium. The designers felt that I could understand their language well and with a lot of sympathy, and the scientists knew that I would not let them down, since I had gone through the apprenticeship in their camps as a research paleontologist myself. My specialty was Ordovician trilobites.

Smilodon in the Ice Age section of the exhibit. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay.


The next question that needed to be answered and understood was - What is a good Museum design? This we concluded was a design which had a built-in functionalism in the basic architecture, a built-in flexibility in design so that it would be able to adapt to the changing media, and also have a smooth visitor 'flow-pattern' throughout the Dinosaur Hall. It was also agreed that the exhibits should have an attracting and holding power; must stimulate the imagination; allow the viewer to respond and interact with the object, whether be it by sight, sound, smell, or touch; and also change with the changing times.

We also concluded that the initial impetus for a good Museum exhibit should always come from the scientist. This, we agreed, will provide the preparatory force for the designer to produce a good Museum design. This was to be accomplished by producing a clear, scientific "approach paper" for the designer, who will then study the proposed theme and the subject matter. This approach paper was prepared without reference to the exhibit design, as the scientist was not the designer nor should he pretend to be one. This approach paper we agreed should describe ideals of the scientific intent for the design. It was agreed that the treatment in the approach paper will have sufficient depth to serve as a source of information for the designer, and not to exceed 30 typed pages, depending on the subject and type of the proposed exhibit.

At this stage I, as Head of Thematic Research, and the researcher for the Hall, sat with the designer to explain to him the science in the approach paper in a layman's term and discussing with the designer the methods in the parameter of design, was best suited to interpret this science. So it was now that the designer was able to produce an initial visual response, with ideas of possible methods of treatment to interpret the subjects within the science of paleontology.

These visual methods focused on the museum objects that were to be displayed. The deeper the immersion and understanding of the theme and the subject matter outlined in the approach paper by the designer, the more imaginative and original the visual response happened to be. In fact I went through the exercise of teaching Paleontology 100 to the designer. And this exercise wasn't alien to me as I had taught Paleontology 100 to a class of 120 students at Memorial University. Todd needed that basic knowledge to come up with a good overall design.

Hypacrosaurus in the old dinosaur hall. This skeleton is in the new fossil gallery too. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay.


Once the possibility of a good Museum design was realized by designer Todd, Russell and Harrington, together with my contribution arrived at a definitive story line for a valid and balanced scientific story with a continuum throughout the Hall, which was given a title - Life Through the Ages. It so happened that I came up with the title not knowing that there was a book with the same title. So it was a question to find out whether the title was copyrighted, and it so happened that it wasn't, which cleared us to keep the proposed title.

So this definitive story line was based on the approach paper submitted by the scientists Dale Russell and Dick Harrington, and developed in unison with the exhibits that were being prepared by Hank Shearman and his colleagues at the paleontology laboratory, and the design was tied closely to the exhibits. The Paleontology Division was situated at Woodward Avenue in the west end, and the designers worked from 39 McArthur Avenue in Vanier, which is now the home of the Canadian National Geographic Society. It is at this point that the artifacts and specimens and graphic details were introduced.

So it should be clear now that the story line was based on the approach paper (written by Russell/Harrington) and developed in unison with the proposed exhibits (that were being prepared in the paleontology workshop and lab which was located then in the west end) and design, and tied close to it. At this point we saw the evolution of the intended interpretation of the scientific information to be conveyed in the exhibit to the public, and its methods of interpretation. And it is at this point that the artifacts, specimens, and graphic details are introduced into the design.

You may wonder when will the Director of the Museum get involved in the creation of the Hall. The Museum Director then was Dr. Louis Lemieux, who is no longer with us. He was brief with the progress of the evolution of the Hall, whenever we felt that he should be aware of the on going events.

Robert Bakker's drawing of Daspletosaurus. This picture can be just barely seen on the exhibit label in the second photo from the top. Image from Paleoartistry. 


The exhibits were all well controlled by me as the Head of Thematic Research, and approved for the factual content by Russell and Harrington. And if we felt that we needed some external expertise, then we would approach a paleontologist or even a palaeobotanist outside the Museum. The botanical graphics were controlled by a Museum botanist, Albert Dugal, who was responsible for the Plant Life Hall. Robert Bakker was contracted to do the Dinosaur drawings which were made up as backlit transparencies. He was paid $250 for each rendering, which I could easily put a dollar value of a $1000 for each rendering now. The Museum of Nature should have the original renderings in its holdings somewhere. The colour transparency of Triceratops was done by artist Ely Kish. The original of this rendering too should be in the Museum's art inventory.

Ely Kish's painting of Triceratops. Image from Postcrossing.


Next we had to deal with another very important aspect in interpreting the specimens that would be incorporated in the Dinosaur Hall. We all agreed that a Museum among other things was a school, a university, or a research institute; that is, its product is education - human learning. The Halls filled with museological objects were indeed silent teachers, increasing the knowledge of those who visit it.

So, we realized that to interpret a museum object or specimen to the public required a form of communication which was by the late 60s, early 70s had not yet been fully understood or developed by the majority of Museum Interpreters.

As a cardinal rule, it was important for us as Museum interpreters to acknowledge the universality of education, thus making a conscious decision not to insult the visitor by speaking down during the obvious process - interpretation.

At this point we had to arrive at a consensus as to what educational level that we should focus when writing interpretive texts for the specimens, et cetera. And we agreed that all the texts should be written at a Grade 10 level. So that is what you see on the walls and panels. Another aspect that bothered me, having lived in England for 12 years, and before that having been taught the English language by the British colonial masters in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), was my introduction to the Americanization of the English usage and spelling. There was no consistency in spelling of words, and at that time there wasn't a Canadian-English dictionary. When this question was imposed by me to the two Directors of the Museum of Natural Sciences (Dr. Lemieux) as well as the Museum of Man (Dr. Bill Taylor), they wanted me to use the Oxford English Dictionary as my guide.

There were other parameters that we had to accept to make the exercise in writing interpretive texts a success. They were, (1) for a Museum object which also happens to be a paleontological specimen, to communicate well to the visitor it should cause excitement, curiosity, surprise, provide a personal sense of discovery, and if possible, when interpreted should be timeless. 2) That the interpretation of information of the object should not be piecemeal or disjoint, leaving the major burden on the visitor to correlate that date visually or intellectually to make it meaningful. 3) Where appropriate, the interpreter should communicate his or her knowledge of the object so as to allow the visitor to do his or her own interpreting. 4) It is inadequate only to identify the object, but we must strive to relate its significance to us, to the environment, or to our past, and give it a meaning. 5) The visitor should not be given an opportunity to question, discover, and form some of their own opinions, in case they go away with inaccurate connotations and answers.

We also worked with the premise that a museum object, whether an artifact or a specimen, has always a story to relate. If the story is not obvious through the dimensional image of the object or specimen, then the interpretation of the story rests in its complementing label or text. And this is important. These secondary interpretive components must attract and hold the visitor's attention, impart information about the object, and probe the visitor to want to learn more.

So, if much of the success of interpretation of the museum object is dependent upon the quality of these labels and texts, then I came to the conclusion that its contents deserved careful consideration.

Reverse view of Daspletosaurus, with dinosaur skin casts and light-up Q&A panels visible on the wall. Image by Chuck Clark on Flickr. 


A good text or label always lends a voice to the inanimate museum object or specimen. A poor label or text will cause the object to be mute, thus detracting the visitor from the object.

So Russell, Harrington and I, thought that the kind of labeling that was needed for the exhibits in the Dinosaur Hall was that they should be carefully studied and determined during the early planning stages of the exhibits. We thought that the textual components of the object should be an integral part of the design, both as a visual element and also to conceptualize intellectually the theme and story that is related to the object.

As most of you know, writing labels and texts is in itself a fine art, and follows the basic principles of good precis writing. The writing has to be imaginative, instructive, brief, and should provoke the visitor's interest. Brief, because it has been established as a fact through museum visitor evaluations, that visitors reading a long and clumsy textual material is a rare phenomena. Only a few of the visitors will read every label in a museum, regardless how succinctly the labels may have been prepared. So, after much thought, we decided to limit our texts, not labels, to 35 to 50 words. This is why you may see that most of the text on the wall panels and back lit transparencies in the Dinosaur Hall are between 35 to 50 words. This was a challenging proposition, but we managed to do it after much editing and re-writes between the three of us. I wrote them and then took them over to Russell and Harrington, they looked at them, massaged them the way they thought they should be et cetera, and that is how it happened, and it wasn't easy.

The three of us agreed on four types of textual writing for the exhibits to establish the interpretive function. Exhibits that were grouped as a unit displaying an overall theme had a main label, which was also known as the area heading. This was brief and imaginative, announcing to the visitor the subject of the exhibit area that he or she will next see, and of course, attract the attention and guide the visitor through the displays. e.g. ANCESTRY OF MODERN ANIMALS WITH BACK BONES 360 MILLION YEARS AGO.

These overall themes of areas often contain sub-themes. These, again, we thought should be brief, and often should provide enough information to contribute to some awareness of what the exhibits are supposed to say.

The next text is a biggy - the explanatory label or body text. This is the one which we thought should be written between 35 and 50 words, with specific information which will tie in the specimens in a particular area. So if I have to continue with my earlier area label, this is what we wrote for the body text -

Some fishes had acquired the ability to breathe air and crawl on land. The first forests appeared, as the woody tissues of certain plants became strong enough to support tall trees and able to conduct water to leaves high above the ground. (42 words)

And finally there were the captions or specimen labels identifying the museum object. This also provided basic information to the visitor, such as the original locality of the object, etc. e.g. Triceratops sp. (65 million years ago), Frenchman Formation, Saskatchewan. The body texts and captions were approved by the scientists and then by the Director of the Museum. The final responsibility and accountability rested on the Museum Director.

Ringed seal skeleton from the section on the Champlain Sea. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay.

The installation of the exhibits, dinosaurs, et cetera, were executed by the paleontology preparators and technicians. The lighting was supervised by Chief of Design, Jacques St. Cyr, and the designer Alan Todd.

This more or less concludes the evolutionary processes that took place from the early stages of writing the approach paper until the exhibits are installed for the opening of the Dinosaur Hall - Life Through the Ages, at the Victoria Memorial Museum's, National Museum of Natural Sciences which happened on October 4, 1974, and declared opened by the then Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The Secretary General of National Museums Corporation was Bernard Ostry.

However, there were a few glitches that we had to overcome during the whole preparatory process. The major glitch was the possible vandalizing of the Dinosaur skeletons. When it was discussed how we could see that nothing could happen to the bones, as it would take a great effort and money to replace any missing bone, I was the one who convinced the rest that I doubted that anything would happen to the bones when the visitors realize that they are their national treasures and no harm should come to them. I even argued that the parents would control the yearnings of their youngsters who would want to pluck a bone from here and there.

And I was dead wrong. Within a week, a cast of a tooth of Tyrannosaurus went missing. And so did the cast of the skull of Aegyptopithecus, the monkey-like ape, the probable ancestor of both the great apes and man, which was hanging out of reach to the average adult visitor. This was the most irritating loss as we got it from the University of Egypt. Since we did not take a cast of the specimen, which was foolish on our part, we had to replace the missing skull with a photograph of the skull.

Then during the discussions to find the best remedy to curtail further vandalism, the installation of plastic plants was agreed upon.

-Asoka Weerasinghe

Another angle on Hypacrosaurus. The wall mount of Edmontosaurus is in the new fossil gallery as well. The children's hands-on "dig" in the background was a later addition. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay