My first job for the Canadian Museum of Nature was providing photographs for the brochure that introduced the museum’s collections and research facility to the public in 1997 —the site of Saturday’s Open House. It was the first time in decades that all the collections of the museum were together again under one roof.

A man touches one of hundreds of antlers on a wall.
Technician Alan McDonald examines one of the hundreds of antlers in the museum’s Large Skeleton Room. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The job cemented my love for natural history and scientific research. The depth and breadth of various collections held within the walls of the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus is without rival in Canada and is equal to the greatest collections in the world. That brochure was the first time that all the various collections were featured in one document.

Two images: spiral-shaped shells and eggs of a Rock Ptarmigan.
The beauty of nature: shells from the invertebrate collections and eggs of a Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) from the vertebrate collections. Images : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Yet for all the tapeworms and Narwals, my favourite things in the collections are the labels on the specimens—particularly the original labels, with some dating back to the 19th century.

Two rows of bird skins with specimen labels attached.
A drawer of bird skins with attached specimen labels that provide scientific data such as where and when the specimens were collected. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During the Open House, it can be hard to see the labels well but they tell you the real story. They take you out onto the land and into the elements, to the badlands of Alberta or the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. They tell the story both of the specimen and of explorations across Canada. Each specimen is a window into the past and, as we are now learning with our Arctic fossils, into the future as well.

Close-up of a hand holding a pressed plant.
A plant being prepared for mounting for the museum’s National Herbarium. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Recently, the museum asked me to come in once again to photograph the collections—to show off just how extensive and fascinating they really are.

Close-up of a woman examining a large mammal skeleton.
Research assistant Marisa Gilbert examining a specimen in the Large Skeleton Room. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During the shooting there was talk of a great photograph that the Smithsonian did years ago that showed off the amazing scope of one of its collections. “Wouldn’t it be great if we did one like that”, we thought.
Well, during this last round of shooting we did it. Because it is such an effort to open cabinets for viewing, to pull out and move shelves and to display the invertebrate specimens for each and every Open House or special tour, it was decided to try the next best thing—to have a life-sized photograph showing what you would see if all the drawers were open.

Thanks to the painstaking work of Judith Price, Assistant Collections Manager for Invertebrates, and Jean-Marc Gagnon, Curator of Invertebrates, hundreds of specimens on shelves were laid out for the camera. And this is just a fraction of the entire invertebrate collections!

Open drawers of cabinets showing invertebrate specimens.
Judith Price and Jean-Marc Gagnon stand among a sampling of the museum’s 1.5 million invertebrate specimens. Image : Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Because the final print would reach almost 2 metres high, we brought in a 60 Megapixel digital camera from Toronto with the help of Walter Borchenko at BK3 Digital and Mamiya Leaf. With that high-resolution camera we managed to get incredible detail of each and every specimen the length of the display. Look for it on Saturday—it’s like looking at the real thing.