Wednesday, 11 June 2014


The Canada Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization has the formidable task of fitting a thousand years of Canadian history into a 43,558 square foot exhibit.

One of the hardest parts must have been designing the transitions between one environmental reconstruction and the next. A transition has to feel continuous and not abrupt, but still convey a sense of change so that all the environments don't bleed into one. It also needs to save space wherever it can. The very best are so subtle that you don't even notice them.

My favourite transition is here, between the Ontario Street and the Canadian Prairies.

Did you notice what they did? I didn't until last year.

Take a look at the furniture store on the Ontario Street, and the railway car in the Prairies.

They're the same object! It's just decorated differently on each side.

You don't notice because you're looking at the CPR ticket office and the Govan train station. This interrupts your perception of the object. By the time you turn back around, you're in the next streetscape already, so you don't perceive its continuity.

And if you do happen to look at the side of the object, they've got you covered there too:

This panel on the driving of the last spike slows you down, once again distracting you from noticing the transition. (I especially like this view because it's Ontario on one side and Saskatchewan on the other.)

And by making one object stand for two, they save space too.

If you like this sort of thing, check out the post "The Awkward Transitions of Disneyland!" on the wonderfully detailed theme park blog Passport to Dreams Old & New. Theme parks were one of the reference points used by the Canada Hall's designers.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Pterosaurs in the Atrium

Speaking of the Canadian Museum of Nature's atrium: from 1999 to 2006, it was the home of two life-size sculptures of Pteranodon fighting over a fish.

I thought they were gone forever, but recently discovered that they now hang in a small, glass-walled building just behind the museum itself. I have no idea what this building is used for; does anybody know?

The pterosaurs were sculpted by Doug Watson (who also did the mammoth family in front of the museum) and Jean-Guy Auger. This page on Watson's website has a ton of information and photos of the sculpting process. You can even buy your own copies of the miniatures he made while planning it out!

I don't know why they didn't put these guys back in the atrium after the renovations. There's nothing in there now except the admissions desk.

It's also too bad the pterosaurs were never there at the same time as the totem poles. That would have looked awesome.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Totem Poles in the Atrium

Before the Canadian Museum of History was called the Canadian Museum of History, it was called the Canadian Museum of Civilization. But before it was called the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it was called the National Museum of Man, and it shared the Victoria Memorial Museum Building with the Canadian Museum of Nature (then called the National Museum of Natural Sciences).

The two museums split up when I was four, so I only have vague memories of the way it used to be, and photographs from that era are nearly impossible to find. One thing I do remember is that there were totem poles in the atrium, but I can't remember any details about them.

But recently, two things happened. Firstly, I read A Museum for the Global Village, a fantastic book about the creation of the Museum of Civilization. It mentioned that among the many totem poles on display in the Grand Hall (a full-scale reconstruction of a composite Pacific Northwest Coast native village) were the very poles that had once stood in the VMMB's atrium. This should have been obvious -- it's not like they would throw them away! -- but it had never occurred to me.

The other thing that happened was that I finally found some pictures. These two photos come from the website of Edward J Cuhaci and Associates Architects Inc, the architectural firm that restored the VMMB in the late sixties:

They clearly show three poles in the atrium, and enabled me to identify exactly which poles they were. Here are photos of those poles as they are today, accompanied by descriptions excerpted from Raven's Village, a guide to the Grand Hall published in 1995.

House Waiting for Property Pole (Haida):

"The two figures at the base are Sus'an, mythical Sea Grizzly Bears. The lower one is wearing a tall hat with six potlatch rings, or skils, on it, and has a doorway through his abdomen. These two figures relate the myth about a young man who displeased his mother-in-law because she found him lazy. ... The son-in-law is depicted on the pole above Sea Grizzly Bear, wearing his Sea Grizzly Bear skin and clasping skils in his arms. ...

Three Watchmen are depicted at the top of the pole. The two small human figures on the sides are wearing skils, which were also worn by chiefs at potlatches. Each ring on the hat might have indicated the number of potlatches a chief had held. The central figure wears a hat sculpted in the shape of Killer Whale's fin. The figures appear to be watching -- either for guests or for enemies.

Below the Watchmen is Eagle with a hooked beak, and between his wings in Gunarh's wife. She is holding the dorsal fin of Killer Whale who, after her death, took her soul down to the country of whales. The myth describes how her husband tried to rescue her from the keepers of souls that live in the undersea world. ...

Below the woman's feet are the stylized fins and upturned tail of Killer Whale. Next is the face of the woman's husband, holding onto the head of Killer Whale. This pole dates from around 1875, and it once stood in front of a community house at Haina on an island near Skidegate."

Howkan Village Pole (Kaigani Haida):

"The pole depicts the story of the great flood. At the top is White Raven, as he was before he flew out of the smoke hole while stealing light from Sky Chief. Below are a series of skils with four humans clinging to the sides. The skils are on the head of Qingi, the supernatural father of White Raven, who was raising a totem pole when a great flood struck the world. As the water rose, his guests and relatives scrambled up the pole to save themselves from drowning. White Raven alighted on top of the pole, causing it to grow into a gigantic tree filled with the survivors of the flood. Below Qingi's extended tongue is Sculpin, and at the base of the pole is Qingi holding a human upside down between his bear-like claws. This pole was collected in early 1900 by Lord Bossom, who had it lashed to the deck of a ship and taken around Cape Horn to England. It was returned to Canada in 1969."

Kwaxsuu Pole (Nisga'a):

"[This] is a memorial pole that comes from the village of Angidah in the Nass River district and contains two grave boxes, although neither box actually contained human remains. The top box commemorates a chief who died in infancy, and has Grizzly Bear cub sitting on its lid. The lower box was put in place at the time when an important chief died; it has Wolf on its lid. Below the lower box is a face, representing a crest entitled Split Person. Grizzly Bear is next, holding a copper in his teeth, and at his feet is Bear cub, with his head pointing down. Another Grizzly Bear stands at the base of the pole, with a salmon in his mouth and a Bear cub between his legs. The Bear cub represents all the children of Grizzly Bear, and the faces on the Grizzly Bear's paws stand for the People of the Smoke Hole."

I also have this photo, of uncertain vintage:

It's a screenshot from this video about the more recent renovation of the Museum of Nature. The Kwaxsuu Pole and House Waiting for Property Pole can be seen on the left and right, but between them are two smaller poles.

Chief Qomoqua's Pole (Nuxalk):

"At the top of this pole is the blue face of the elusive supernatural Qomoqua, ruler of the undersea mythical creatures. On his head he wears Killer Whale ears that form a circular curl on each side. Beneath him is Owl; then comes Eagle, holding a disc in his claws. On the disc is the face of Chief Qomoqua, who commissioned the pole, and at the base is another image of his namesake, the supernatural Qomoqua. Legend says that people who are caught in whirlpools are carried down to Qomoqua's house below the sea."

Tallio Village Pole (Nuxalk):

"The disc represents Sun, with Eagle or Thunderbird perched on the top. Below the disc is the mythical Cannibal Bird, Giant Sharp Nose Man Eater at the North End of the World, whose ashes turned into mosquitoes when he was burned to death. Immediately below his down-turned lips is Beaver, and beneath him is the broad smiling face of an unidentified supernatural being. At the base is another face, with a sharp nose and a wide-open mouth, which was once used as the entrance to a house."

Here's a photo showing where all these poles are in the Grand Hall if you want to see them for yourself.

If you have any photos of the old Museum of Man, please let us know in the comments!


MacDonald, G.F., and Alsford, S. 1989. A Museum for the Global Village: The Canadian Museum of Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull. 235 pp.

Ruddell, N. 1995. Raven's Village: The Myths, Arts and Traditions of Native People from the Pacific Northwest Coast: Guide to the Grand Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull. 53 pp.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Sparrow Drawer

The sandhill crane today. He no longer welcomes you to the exhibit, but he's still dancing. Photograph taken by me.

I love poetry. There's no art form that's better at conveying what it felt like to be in a certain place at a certain time.

With that in mind, here is "The Sparrow Drawer" by Canadian poet Diana Brebner, from her posthumous poetry collection The Ishtar Gate. The poem takes place in the old bird exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Most of the displays she describes no longer exist.

The Sparrow Drawer

I. The Sandhill Crane

The sandhill crane, in his glass case, performs
his nuptial dance. Jumping, bowing, and wildly

flapping, reads the museum description. Well,
aren't we all the same in love? This dead

male is frozen in the pose, on a bed of
stone. Thus, the museum welcomes us to its

permanent exhibit: Birds in Canada. When I
bring my daughters to the museum, because

it is cleaner and easier than a day in the
bush, they always ask to see the birds, or the

big animals. And I tell myself: this will
do them good. They know enough about mud,

rain, being hungry, no toilets, and wanting
to go home. In the real world, a bird is

always gone before my two-year-old can look.
Or, alternately, I can never find the great

blue herons they insist are really there.

II. Birds by Number

In the Eastern Hardwood Forest thirty-three birds
are mounted on log pedestals, each in a pose

that is meant to be life-like. I remind myself
these are dead bodies. I have no memory for

useful things, but I can remember my first
sighting of migrating snowbirds (Junco hyemalis)

in Algonquin Park, the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
at the feeders near the cabin, the enormous

black and white Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus
pileatus) with its blood-red crest, up near the

cliffs at Luskville. I can tell you where, and
who was with me, down a great-list of the birds

I believed forgotten. My daughters learn birds
by numbers, matching a numbered body with a

name on a list, given in three languages, as if
that will make them real. The fact is, my girls

enjoy this. They call them doll-birds. And the
bird names are repeated solemnly, as if each

name were part of a spell. And I do it too.
For who can say this is not reverence, a litany,

a prayer, a wish for something promised. The
name of one woman who died finds its way to

the list, and I remember my first sighting of a
            rare old man I loved.

III. The Sparrow Drawer

It is time for us to be leaving; somehow we find
ourselves before one final display. It is the same

forest, rearranged by seasons, and including
the ducks, herons, owls, and hawks, that are

familiar to The Forest, as they call the example of
hardwood forest that is local, and ours. And then,

beneath the glass cases, my eldest daughter finds
two drawers. Above them a simple label reads:

Would you like to know more about birds? How
many times did I bring that other child to this

place? We never found these boxes. And they
are not hidden, merely unexpected. The first

lights up as we pull it out. Eggs. Large and
small. Blue, green, mottled beige, brown. Great

white goose eggs, the hummingbird's egg glowing,
a white pearl, all in rows, labeled, an old child's collection.

And the second drawer opens quietly, and as easily
as the first, lights up, displays its contents.

This is the sparrow drawer. No-one has gone to any
trouble to make this look pretty. Dead sparrows

lie in an uneven row, their bodies in disarray,
frozen on snow, which is also synthetic batting,

with black plastic arrowheads stuck in strategic
areas to accentuate their differences. The caption

tells us: all sparrows look alike to the untrained
eye. They are difficult to tell apart in the field.

Chipping Sparrow. Savannah Sparrow. Lincoln's Sparrow.
Song Sparrow. Swamp Sparrow. And alone, beneath

the line of identical bodies, a Pine Siskin, just
to show us how even one species can be mistaken for

another. And what have I seen hovering in a field?
I could swear it was the child I have lost. Love

I have learned the hard way; how many hovering boys
in schoolyards look just like him. Of course, I don't

want to see this, or the dead birds, and I close
the drawer. But my girls will not leave it alone.

They open it. I close it. They cry. So, we open it
again. We say the names of the different sparrows.

I tell them that any creature, once named, cannot
be forgotten. This, I believe. You see, there are

no numbers there, only names. The Pine Siskin trembles
at the bottom of the drawer, as we roll it shut.

Brebner, D. 2005. The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems, ed. Stephanie Bolster. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal. 192 pp.

These Canada geese were mounted on the ceiling of the old bird exhibit, and surrounded by mirrors that made it look like there were a lot more than there really were. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

AMNH Digital Special Collections

I recently discovered an incredible resource on the website of the American Museum of Natural History: the Digital Special Collections.

It's a browsable and searchable archive of thousands of images from the museum's library: technical illustrations, photos from museum expeditions, and -- most dear to my heart -- photographs of long-gone exhibits and of exhibits under construction.

Here are two of my favourites. The information I've provided comes from a terrific book about the AMNH called Dinosaurs in the Attic.

This is a skeleton in the process of being mounted by the great osteologist Samuel Harmstead Chubb. It's the last mount he completed before he died in 1949: a donkey turning his neck to nibble at botfly eggs on his hind leg. Chubb is mounting the skeleton using his system of suspending each bone from a scaffold and making tiny adjustments until it's in exactly the right position.

Here's a photo from the Life Magazine archives of Chubb with the nearly-completed mount.

This is a social weaver bird nest in the final stage of installation in the Biology of Birds Hall. A whole flock of these birds will collectively build one huge thatched nest, and add to it each year. This particular nest -- as well as the crown of the acacia tree it was built in -- was collected in South Africa in 1925 by ornithologist Herbert Friedmann.

There are plenty more images to be discovered. Go explore!

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

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Making History

Posted on behalf of Andrew, whose account isn't set up yet.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization website now says history.


On this 7th day of January, the 2000th and 13th year of the Common Era, the Canadian Museum of Civilization no longer exists.