2020 has been a year like no other.

The Canadian Museum of Nature closed both of its facilities in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa, which houses the museum’s exhibitions and galleries, reopened to the public in September with measures in place to ensure the safety of staff and visitors. The Natural Heritage Campus, the museum’s research, collections and administrative operations facility in Gatineau, Quebec, remains officially closed.

Upon closure of the Natural Heritage Campus, museum staff vacated the collections, research laboratories, library and archives, and offices in which they normally operate and transitioned to working from home to minimize the spread of the virus in their community. Around the same time, all travel and field research, which has always been a core component of the museum’s science work, was cancelled as a result of the many uncertainties caused by the pandemic.

The Natural Heritage Campus houses the 14.6 million specimens that make up the museum’s national natural history collection. Normally, it is a hub for collection-based science activity, but it has been eerily quiet since the start of the pandemic. When the campus closed, access was initially permitted only to staff responsible for completing essential tasks required to safeguard the collections. Since late summer, staff, research associates and students have been granted entry to the collections, laboratories and other workspaces for projects that cannot be completed at home. Strict safety measures are in place and access is carefully controlled. Most of the time, however, the majority of the museum’s research and collections staff continue to work from home.

A black desk with a calico cat sitting in front of a laptop and two monitors.
The home office of CMN employee Christina Jenness, complete with furry assistant. Image: Christina Jenness © Canadian Museum of Nature

Despite the challenging circumstances, our resilient research and collections team has made great progress in advancing the museum’s scientific work, focusing on biodiversity, geodiversity, and the Arctic.

Here are a few examples of what we achieved:

We completed some research projects, advanced others, and have even started new ones. We published more than 30 papers in peer-reviewed journals on diverse biodiversity and geodiversity topics. We pooled our knowledge with other institutions by participating in multiple virtual conferences.

We organized backlogs of collection data to import into the museum’s collection management system (CMS) so that the information can be mobilized online and used by global researchers, in addition to making great strides in an ongoing project to migrate the museum’s collection data to a new CMS. We also managed a successful crowdsourcing project—Expedition Arctic Botany—that is accelerating the digitization of our Arctic collections while at the same time engaging the public in a new way.

Furthermore, we celebrated the museum’s recent acquisition of the world’s best collection of minerals from Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, and we completed the installation of a new Library Information System that will allow the museum to mobilize its holding information via Worldcat.org, the world’s largest library catalog.

Image of a blue mineral specimen.
Carletonite, one of 71 new mineral species discovered at Mont Saint-Hilaire, QC, Canada (6 x 9 cm, CMNMC 87519). Image: © Gilles Haineault

We continued our leadership role in the scientific community, serving on executive boards and committees for scientific societies, and on editorial boards of scientific journals, as well as participating in global forums working to advance our collective understanding and respect for nature.

We engaged in diverse outreach initiatives that enabled us to share our work with the public, including social media campaigns and virtual events with partners across the country. We were also part of the museum team that produced Planet Ice: Mysteries of the Ice Ages, a new exhibition that explores the power of ice and cold in shaping the world we live in today.

Lastly, we turned our annual Natural Heritage Campus open house event, during which we normally welcome some 3,000 visitors behind the scenes, into a video series that shows the significance, diversity and beauty of the museum’s national natural history collections.

By mid-summer, the museum had procedures in place to allow safe resumption of some field activity. As a result, we conducted fieldwork on fishes, lichens, mosses, small mammals and mussels, mostly at study sites within the vicinity, near the National Capital Region. Two palaeobiologists even made a trip from Ottawa to southern Saskatchewan by car to work at dinosaur field sites.

Man standing in front of a small dirt hill holding a shovel.
Paleo student Mat Roloson standing in the quarry where former CMN palaeontologist Wann Langston Jr. collected a Triceratops skeleton in Grasslands National Park in 1962. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

There is no question that the pandemic changed the world. For the last nine months, it has certainly altered the way we conduct our science work at the museum, but it has not changed the importance of the work itself.

With a vaccine beginning to roll out across Canada, we feel hopeful that the world and our lives will eventually return to normal. But as we emerge from the pandemic, the global crises of biodiversity loss and climate change will come back into focus. We know the solutions to these challenges must be based on science.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has a crucial role to play in generating new knowledge and understanding about our planet’s biodiversity and geodiversity. This in turn informs decision-making about managing, protecting and sustainably using our natural heritage; building, curating, conserving and sharing the national natural history collection to enable biodiversity and geodiversity research now and in the future; and helping the public understand the natural world around them.

The museum’s science work is perhaps more important now than ever. The pandemic has slowed us down, but our work continues. I, for one, am looking forward to 2021.