Expanding My Horizons: Awesome Arctic, Part Two

What’s involved in turning an idea into an exhibition? This was a big mystery to me when I was assigned the task of heading the development of the Awesome Arctic exhibition, which opened at the museum on November 29, 2011.

Roger Bull stands at a table covered with photographs, papers and a laptop.

Curating an exhibition of photos involves many tough choices. Here, Roger works with the shortlist of 300 images to decide how to best tell the stories of the museum's Arctic research. In the end, 56 images were used. Image: Mariana Lafrance © Canadian Museum of Nature

As explained in my previous posting, I am the museum’s DNA Lab Coordinator. Developing an exhibition was a new challenge, another interesting turn in my work at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The idea that we were to turn into an exhibition: our scientists conduct fascinating and diverse research in the Canadian Arctic. The approach for presenting this idea: a photo show of our researchers working in the North, and of the plant, animal, mineral and fossil specimens that they collect and study.

Roger Bull sticks a photo to a wall that has other photos on it.

To help them design the layout of the images, the Awesome Arctic exhibition team worked in a scale environment of the exhibition space. Here, Roger works at the mini photo wall to finalize the layout of images of museum botanists at work. Image: Mariana Lafrance © Canadian Museum of Nature

This sounded straightforward to me! How hard could it be to get some photos onto a wall? The project team—including Mariana the co-curator and text writer, Marc the design lead, and Annie the graphic artist—filled me in at our first meeting: from idea to exhibition is a multi-step journey.

Here was our to-do list: collect photos from the researchers; select the images that best tell the interesting stories of our Arctic research; design the image layout; work with a post-production artist to clean and correct the photos to make them look their best; select the printing and mounting method; write, edit and translate text to describe the images; design and proof the layout of the text; design banners for the entrance to the exhibition; coordinate the production of the final photo prints, text panels and graphics; develop an Arctic soundscape to play in the exhibition space; configure this space, including patching and painting the walls; coordinate and supervise the final installation; and finally, rest up and dress up for a big preview-evening event!

Mounted images for the exhibition lie on the floor by the wall on which they will hang.

At long last, the installation of the exhibition begins! Here, the printed and mounted photos are laid out on the ground as they will appear on the walls. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

My head was in a spin after that first meeting and I had a new understanding of the hard-working exhibitions group.

Imagine you were given a pile of 20 000 photos and told to pick out only 56 that summarized all of the other images. This was the job in front of us. My co-curator Mariana and I spent several long days scanning through 13 000 digital photos and 7000 old-style slides. Looking through these photos took me back to the Arctic’s big expanses of tundra and water, and got me exhilarated about the project. Selecting those photos that were the most exciting and dynamic, we decided on a short list of 300 images.

After printing snapshot-sized versions of these 300 photos, we worked with them in a scale model of the exhibition space. After many hard decisions and a few late nights, we had 56 images neatly arranged in a mini-version of the Awesome Arctic exhibition.

Mariana then sat down with the researchers who were involved in the work that is shown in the carefully selected photos. From these experts, she learned about the plants, animals and minerals that drew them to the North. The scientists also shared their experiences of living and working in the Arctic—the mosquitoes, the 24-hour summer sunlight and the diet of dehydrated food.

The final production steps transformed our small model of the layout of the photos and Mariana’s text into a full-sized exhibition that tells fascinating stories about our Arctic research.

Two men check the level and spacing of mounted images that they are hanging.

Hanging photos is a delicate job. Getting the images level and evenly spaced takes skill and patience. Here, the professional installers check to make sure that everything is perfect before moving to the next wall. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the preview evening, there was excitement in the air. The researchers are thrilled that we are sharing with the public our passion for studying Northern environments and ecosystems.

So, next time you are at the museum, come and see Dr. Kathy Conlan’s cold underwater adventures in marine biology, our botanists’ explorations of the tundra to document Arctic plant diversity, and the fossil found by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and her team that is a “missing link” between seals and an extinct terrestrial ancestor.

Come and discover the Awesome Arctic!

In the midst of the Awesome Arctic exhibition, Roger Bull sits on a camp chair before a tent, some rocks and plant presses.

Surrounded by the completed exhibition, Roger enjoys a quiet moment in the Awesome Arctic field camp. Set up to give visitors a feel for camp life, this tent will provide shelter to a museum scientist in the Arctic next summer. Image: Mariana Lafrance © Canadian Museum of Nature

This entry was posted in Arctic, Exhibitions, Fieldwork, Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Expanding My Horizons: Awesome Arctic, Part Two

  1. John Gilbert says:

    I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition. The program says that it opened on November 29 but does not say how long it will run. Do hope it will still be there early in January.
    Are you doing any work specifically on the Queen Elizabeth Islands? I am assisting with the research on a book on the Joint Arctic Weather Stations, all of which were located in the Islands.

    • Roger Bull says:

      There is not yet a firm end date for Awesome Arctic but it will certainly be showing through the first half of 2012. So, a January visit will work! I hope you enjoy the exhibition.

      Yes – there is a museum scientist with an active research program on the Queen Elizabeth Islands. Natalia Rybczynski, a palaeontologist who studies extinct mammals, has research sites on a number of the Queen Elizabeth Islands including Devon and Ellesmere. You can read about her discovery of Puijila darwini, a prehistoric walking seal at http://nature.ca/puijila/index_e.cfm. A model of Puijila’s skeleton is a feature of the Awesome Arctic exhibition.

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  3. John Gilbert says:

    Last week I finally got to see the Awesome Arctic Exhibition. You did a great job of giving examples of the various areas of research being carried out in the Arctic as well as showing a wide selection of geographic locations around the north. The 1986 photo of the camp at Sand Bay, Axel Heiberg Island is remarkable. I would have liked to see more of Eureka (my old home) than just the plane, but perhaps there will be more in the future? It was good to see photos of Devon Island – a most interesting part of the north, it has lost something of its attraction since more northerly settlements were established in the 1940s. Showing reseachers, such as Richard Harington, at work adds another dimension to the exhibition. I overheard a mother telling her daughters that they should aspire to become Arctic researchers.

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