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.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Up and Down

Above: The Atlas 5A rocket being installed outside the Canada Science and Technology Museum in 1973.

Below: The same rocket being taken down, yesterday.

Credit for both photos belongs to the Lost Ottawa Facebook community.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Dioramas in Milan

Photo from here.

My family lived in Italy for a year when I was ten, and I used to love visiting the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale in Milan. One of the highlights is their terrific collection of nature dioramas, made by Valter Fogato and others.

Having grown up in Ottawa, I was used to dioramas of Canadian wildlife, but Milan had dioramas of creatures from all over the world.

I didn't take any pictures of the dioramas myself, but I've been able to find a bunch here and there on the web.

Photo from here.

You don't often see dioramas of animals running. Perhaps this is because one's first instinct would be to say that they wouldn't fit -- they need space to run around in. But of course, at any particular instant in its run cycle, the animal doesn't take up any more room than it does when it's standing still. The running poses add real dynamism to this diorama of two guanacos.

Photo from here.

I wish I had a better picture of this diorama of an aardvark attacking a termite mound (there's apparently an aardworf in the diorama as well). It takes place at night, which looks really neat; you don't often see that in dioramas either.

Photo from here.

I don't actually remember this diorama of barbary sheep and addax, but  I came across it while looking for pictures to use in this article. I love how they've incorporated a replica of Saharan giraffe rock art; it's a subtle reminder of human presence.

Photo from here.

This diorama of grizzly bears catching salmon does a great job of conveying a frenzy of activity.

Photo from here.

Many of the dioramas have two different species in them, like this one of a muskox and a caribou. This not only saves space, since one diorama can stand for two animals, but also gives the opportunity to depict interspecific behaviour.

Finally, here are a bunch more that I like, but don't have anything clever to say about:

Siberian tiger and sika deer. Photo from here.

Emu. Photo from here.

Narwhals and walrus. Photo from here.

Yak. Photo from here.

Bactrian camel. Photo from here.

Friday, 16 January 2015

"Life Through the Ages" Videos

You've got to love the National Film Board of Canada. Not only do they have an enormous online library of their films, all viewable for free, but they also take requests for what they should upload next.

Naturally, I requested that they upload the two videos that used to play in the Canadian Museum of Nature's old fossil gallery, Life Through the Ages. It took them a while to get to them, but they did!

Here's Origin of Life on Earth, which used to play in English and French at the very beginning of the exhibit. It was made in 1972, so I'm guessing it was part of the exhibit when it opened in 1974, and it lasted until the museum was closed for renovations in 2004.

Watching the film as a kid, I didn't really understand what I was seeing. But I loved (and still love) the haunting music, which really set the tone for the rest of the exhibit.

The second film is Extinction of the Dinosaurs, which played just after you came back upstairs from the dinosaur room. It illustrates the then-current idea that the dinosaurs died because of a nearby supernova.

This video wasn't on display for nearly as long. It was made in 1976, so must have been added to the exhibit later. And it was removed sometime around 1988, I'm guessing because of mounting evidence for the asteroid impact hypothesis.

In our modern age of super-realistic CGI dinosaurs (which I like!), I miss seeing stylized, impressionistic animated dinosaurs. I'd love to see a modern film with dinosaurs, accurate to what we know now, animated in this style.