Our Complementary Collections

Part of my job involves working with the museum’s images and I sometimes find myself in our photo archives room looking for a particular negative or slide. Next to the boxes and cabinets of photographic material, I occasionally sneak a peek in the other storage units that share this room.

A decoy representing a Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica).

Barrow’s Goldeneye. This decoy may have been created as an art piece. Created by David W. Nichol (1890–1977), a well-known carver from Smiths Falls, Ontario. Date unknown; acquired 1977. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

If you have visited the museum’s exhibition building or research and collections facility or follow our blogs, you know that the museum houses more than 10 million natural-history specimens.

You may not know that the museum also holds smaller collections of items such as cultural artefacts, rare books, works of art, photographs and field notebooks. These holdings are preserved for documenting and commemorating the history of the museum and to demonstrate the inspirational role that the natural world has on humankind. They have also been used in publications, exhibitions, loans, communications and other museum programming,

In this blog article, I would like to introduce you a small sampling of the Nature Art Collection. Tucked away on the second floor above the library at our research and collections facility is a room containing many works in an intriguing variety of media, such as oil paintings, watercolours, sculptures, drawings, photographs and more.

Collage: Storage racks holding framed, two-dimensional artworks, an open cabinet containing sculptures on shelves.

In the Nature Art archives room. Images: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

Objects find their way into our collection via different routes.

Sometimes, original artwork has been commissioned to illustrate a particular publication. For example, artist Eleanor Kish collaborated with Researcher Emeritus Dale Russell in the 1970s and ’80s to re-create the vanished worlds of dinosaurs.

A painting of two dinosaurs in their habitat.

In prehistoric northern Wyoming, a small ornithopod dinosaur, Tenontosaurus, devours fruit from a cycad-like (benettitalean) plant; an egg-stealing theropod dinosaur, Microvenator, watches. Originally created as an oil painting for publication in An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America, by Dale Russell, 1989. Image: Eleanor M. Kish © Canadian Museum of Nature

More recently, Paul Geraghty’s original watercolours of Canadian mammals were used for illustrations in Donna Naughton’s wonderful book The Natural History of Canadian Mammals. Some reproductions of these illustrations were also displayed in the Stone Wall Gallery at the museum.

A painting of a North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) clinging to a tree trunk.

This original watercolour of a North American porcupine by Paul Geraghty was reproduced in The Natural History of Canadian Mammals, by Donna Naughton, 2012. Image: Paul Geraghty © Canadian Museum of Nature

Other collections have been donated to the museum. Some of my favourites are the bird paintings by James Fenwick Lansdowne (1937–2008)—one of Canada’s renowned wildlife artists, whose works have been exhibited around the world. Domtar donated about 75 of his works.

A painting of a male and a female Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) on a branch.

Scarlet Tanagers. Watercolour by J. Fenwick Lansdowne, 1972. Image: J.F. Lansdowne © J. Fenwick Lansdowne

Paintings and drawings are not the only type of art that can be found in the collection. For example, I was surprised to find a collection of 255 decoys, acquired starting in the 1970s. In 1986, the exhibition The Real Decoy was mounted in the museum and told a story of the history of people and their relationship with nature. Individual decoys have been used other times to accompany other exhibitions, or for educational programmes.

A decoy representing a Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors).

Blue-winged Teal. This working decoy is made of cork. Created by Marcel Defasse, circa 1930–1940. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

A decoy depicting a curlew.

Not all decoys are ducks. This curlew is a shorebird. In the upper photo, note the hole in the bottom: the decoy would have been mounted on a stick and placed on a mudflat. Created by Boudreau, circa 1912–1930. Images: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

Another charming collection comes from Nova Scotian potters Ernst and Alma Lorenzen. Their botanically accurate ceramic mushrooms were modeled using fine Nova Scotia clay and from live models, from 1949 to 1998. The identifications of the pieces in the museum’s collection were verified by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada mycologist Scott Redhead. (After all, we are a museum of natural history!) In a way, they are a unique set of three-dimensional scientific illustrations, and at one time they complemented the living specimens in the museum’s former Plant Life Hall.

A sculpture depicting three mushrooms.

Scientifically accurate mushrooms (Leccinum aurantiacum) in ceramic by Alma Lorenzen (1916–1998) and Ernst Lorenzen (1911–1990). Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

And for something completely different, how about a picture of killer whales grown from live moulds? The artist, Hugh Cunningham (1928–2007), held a Ph.D. in science. His background in chemistry and toxicology was particularly useful in developing what he called bio-art. His art was produced by growing moulds (fungi) on a thin film of agar medium on the surface of a sheet of glass. Two thousand to 50 000 colonies of mould, some mixed to produce different colours, may be found in a 40 cm × 50 cm picture, which is hermetically sealed between two sheets of glass.

Several killer whales (Orcinus orca) are depicted leaping and swimming at the surface of a bay, near a lighthouse.

These killer whales were “drawn” using live moulds. Many of the moulds were still living when Ottawa bio-artist Hugh Cunningham donated the piece to the museum in 1995. It’s called Frolic; date unknown. Image: Hugh Cunningham © Hugh Cunningham

The Nature Art Collection is stored in a light-, temperature- and humidity-controlled room to help preserve the artwork. However, sometimes parts of the collection are loaned to other institutions such as museums and government departments if conditions are suitable. So the next time you are visiting the Senate or the Prime Minister’s Office, look around. You may see something from the museum’s Nature Art collection.

Thanks go to archivist Chantal Dussault for retrieving these artefacts for me. In a future blog article, I hope to introduce you to another part of the museum’s secondary collections.

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