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.