Returning Home

By Mark Graham and Jennifer Doubt

Even though we try to use our museum powers for good, there are times when things go wrong. Collectors—both amateur and professional—are dedicated and extremely passionate about what they do. That enthusiasm for collecting can sometimes lead to problems, like one that started in the Arctic in the late 1950s.

A river landscape.

The Mackenzie River near Tuktoyaktuk, in the Arctic. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

At that time, a young botanist working for the federal government was conducting field studies in the High Arctic. Many of these early northern studies were proactive components of Canada’s Cold War effort, in case we needed to send troops to the North. Others helped to prepare for oil and gas pipelines leading south, and expanded southern understanding of large-scale wildlife issues. Common goals for these investigations were to document the land cover and the plants and wildlife that inhabited it. Examples of plants and animals were intensely collected and saved as evidence of their work. Among the samples: a lichen, growing, unfortunately, on a human skull.

We can’t know the circumstances, considerations or discussions that surrounded this find, but we do know that the 1950s were not a proud time for Canada’s treatment of Inuit people. In this case, the lichen’s specimen value was given priority, and it was taken from the resting place of the bones to which it was permanently attached. Thus began a decades-long ethical challenge.

The collector delivered the sample to the museum, which employed a lichen specialist. To this day, we receive many specimens each year and consider carefully which donations are appropriate for the national collection. We believe that there was discomfort with keeping the skull—the scientific collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature does not include human remains—but there was also discomfort with the possible approaches to not keeping it, now that it was in Ottawa. This particular lichen specimen was never taken into the national collection, but was set aside in a secure cabinet and left. Time passed, and times changed.

In the past three years, with the efforts of excellent archaeologists and museum colleagues, the history and location of the collection site were traced, and a few small clues were gleaned about the person to whom the skull belonged—an Inuit woman—who had lived so far away. Equipped with this information, we could approach the Elders’ Committee in Tuktoyaktuk (the nearest settlement to the collection site at Toker Point), to seek guidance and to arrange to return her remains to the North.

A row of seats with a knapsack and a rigid carrying case.

In the Inuvik Airport with the small, secure box that was used to transport the object back to Tuktoyaktuk. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

In August 2014, on a modern-day expedition to this town in the farthest northwest corner of the Northwest Territories, the skull, with its lichen, were returned to the Arctic, exactly 57 years from the time they were taken. We are deeply grateful to everyone who helped us on this return path, from its first uneasy steps to its long northward journey.

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Arctic Change 2014: Sharing Our New Knowledge with the World

In December, Canadian Museum of Nature scientists took part in Arctic Change 2014, an international scientific conference that took place in Ottawa about all fields of Arctic research.

There, we joined over 1200 delegates representing a diversity of disciplines, perspectives, nationalities and cultures. Hundreds of presentations were delivered that reported the latest research findings on diverse aspects of Arctic science and policy.

A blooming plant grows in rocky ground near water.

At Arctic Change 2014, museum researchers shared their new knowledge about plants, algae, diatoms and Arctic phytoplankton. Here, we see purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Several blooming plants mingle in rocky ground.

Small-flowered anemone (Anemone parviflora) and mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna). Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of the goals of the Canadian Museum of Nature is to advance understanding of Canada’s Arctic and its relationship with Canada. We achieve this through research, both in the field and in our laboratories, and have recently created a new Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration to increase our capacity in that domain.

We also achieve our goal by sharing our new knowledge widely. One of the ways that scientists share new information is through participation in scientific conferences such as Arctic Change 2014, where new findings are presented formally and informally to others.

A man digs an ice core.

Researcher Michel Poulin extracts an ice sample near Resolute, Nunavut, during Arctic fieldwork. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the conference, Michel Poulin, Ph.D., an expert on Canada’s marine diatoms, phytoplankton and ice algae, was a co-author on two poster presentations. One poster reported changes in phytoplankton taxonomic composition over time in the Canadian Arctic Ocean. The other assessed the ability of sea-ice algal communities to produce compounds for protection again UV radiation. These compounds may be important for photoprotection—like a sunscreen—as the Arctic marine ecosystem responds to a changing climate.

I delivered a presentation on floristic discoveries and biodiversity of the Canadian Arctic vascular plant flora, based on ongoing research with my museum colleagues Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., Paul Sokoloff and Roger Bull. The main points of my talk were that the plant diversity of many Arctic areas is poorly known and that each of our field expeditions results in substantial new knowledge about plant distributions.

A man stands among willows.

Botanist Jeff Saarela and his colleagues have made several Arctic research expeditions in recent years. Here, he takes notes among one of the Soper River’s large tea-leaved willow (Salix planifolia) stands on Baffin Island, Nunavut, in 2012. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

This new knowledge is documented by collections—the hard evidence of a species occurring in a time and place—that are housed in our National Herbarium of Canada and are part of the permanent scientific record. I also presented a poster, reporting our work on the Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska project.

Three Arctic plants.

Some Arctic plants observed by museum researchers during their expeditions. Top left: Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodia). Top right: Marsh cinqufoil (Comarum palustre). Bottom: lance-leaved mare’s-tail (Hippuris lanceolata). Images : Laurie Consaul, Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Scientific meetings are often organized around a particular group of organisms or subject areas, like plants, animals or fossils. But Arctic Change 2014 was focused on all issues related to the Arctic, a region that is undergoing major transformation. This interdisciplinary meeting allowed policy makers to interact with biological scientists, zoologists to interact with botanists, and social scientists to interact with physical scientists.

These sorts of interactions do not occur frequently, though it is increasingly recognized that broad, interdisciplinary approaches are needed to address some of the planet’s most difficult challenges.

Understanding and responding to the effects of climate change on Canada’s Arctic certainly qualifies as a “difficult challenge”.

A key message at the meeting, delivered by Scott Vaughan (International Institute for Sustainable Development), was that “almost all the indicators related to a global ecological crisis are going in the wrong direction”.

View from the audience.

A presentation at the Arctic Change 2014 conference. Image: Daniel Lamhonwah © Daniel Lamhonwah

The museum’s Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration is contributing to our growing understanding of the Arctic, its ecosystems and species—all part of the natural heritage of the country we call home.

Check out the excellent short videos summarizing each day of activities at Arctic Change 2014:

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Water from a stone?

There’s an old saying that’s often used to describe something that is difficult. It goes along the lines of “it’s like squeezing water from a stone”.

In most cases, this is true.

Unless we mimic pressure and temperature conditions that exist deep in the Earth, here on the surface, squeezing a rock and having water come out is a bit laughable.

But when it really happens…when you crack open a rock and get splashed? That is cause for some excitement in the lab!

Hand holding a rock with a cavity.

Finding water in a rock is an extremely rare occurrence. This photo shows the Aris phonolite that was broken open to expose a fluid-filled miarolitic cavity. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

A vial with a small amount of clear liquid next to pieces of split rock.

Once broken open, the fluid within the cavities was collected with a syringe and deposited in a vial for future chemical analyses. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

There is a famous mineral locality in Namibia, the Aris quarry, known for the wide range of rare minerals found in the small cavities or pockets within the phonolite (an alkaline rock). The rocks there are 34 million years old.

One mineral collector casually mentioned that when they break open the rocks at the Aris quarry, they get splashed by water. I was both amused and confused at the same time.

Splashed? By water coming out of a rock? Surely this only happens after it has rained, correct?



Apparently this phenomenon is common—the water seems to be coming from the cavities in the phonolite, some of which can be up to 10 cm in diameter.

Water that has been trapped within the cavities for 34 million years? I was intrigued, to say the least!

First, let’s talk about magma. Magma is a mixture of a number of things: molten rock (liquid), small crystals (solids) and a variety of gases (water vapour, carbon dioxide, sulphur). When magma cools, minerals start to form out of the molten rock as well as crystallizing on top of the existing mineral crystals.

Minerals are formed from chemical components called elements. When magma cools, certain compatible elements tend to enter into the first minerals that are formed. Examples of compatible elements are silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum, potassium and calcium. They bond together and create rock-forming minerals such as quartz, feldspars, pyroxene, amphibole, olivine and micas. These garden-variety minerals account for 99% of the Earth’s crust.

Collage: Close-up views of three mineral specimens.

Left: Arisite from the Aris quarry in Namibia. This new mineral species was described by museum scientists and named for the quarry where it was discovered. Top right: Makatite from the Aris quarry. Bottom right: Tuperssuatsiaite from the Aris quarry. Images: B. Lechner © B. Lechner


As the magma cools further, there are elements that do NOT want to enter the rock, remaining in the magma until the very end, along with the gases. We call these “incompatible” elements—strange elements such as zirconium, niobium, uranium, cesium, lithium, and the rare-earth elements.

Water, carbon dioxide and other gases also act as incompatible components. Incompatible elements are left behind in the magma, rejected by rock-forming minerals due to their size and/or charge. They form minerals only at the very last stages of crystallization.

Mineralogists LOVE incompatible elements! Why? Because they form rare mineral species—the <1% of the Earth’s crust that are the most interesting, for collectors and scientists alike.

When the magma that formed the phonolite at the Aris quarry started to cool, nepheline, aegirine (pyroxene) and feldspar crystallized first. As the magma cooled and solidified, the gases that were in the magma were allowed to escape and form gas + liquid bubbles. Minerals then crystallized within the bubble, or cavity.

In most cases, the gas and liquids within the cavity are all used up and the cavity is dry when cracked open millions of years later. In the phonolite samples we have from the Aris quarry, it appears that not all the liquid in the cavity was used up when the magma cooled.

Using a large rock splitter, we were able to crack a number of rocks open to reveal their liquid-filled cavities. Not often will you see mineralogists dancing in their lab, but if anyone had come near the prep lab on this day, they would have thought a party was happening. Actually opening up a cavity to find water is EXTREMELY rare—more rare than the proverbial needle in a haystack, and is certainly cause for celebration!

A man and a woman use a large rock splitter to break open rock pieces.

Mineralogists Paula Piilonen and Ralph Rowe using a rock splitter to break open pieces of Aris phonolite in order expose the fluid-filled cavities. Image: Glenn Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

By inserting a syringe into the cavity, we were able to capture the liquid and put it into glass vials for further analyses.

Is this original, 34 million year old “water” left over from the magma? Or is it water from the surface that leaked through the rock and filled the cavities? Here is where the real work begins—analyzing the chemistry of the liquid and discovering its origins. If it truly is 34 million years old, the resultant publication will certainly be a historic breakthrough. Results to follow!

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Adventures in Argentina, Part 2—A Zooarchaeological Conference in a Land of Great Natural Beauty

Argentina is a country that boasts a diverse range of beautiful landscapes and natural heritage, a glimpse of which I provided in my previous article. In this second and final entry about my time in this South American nation, I will broaden the view of northern Argentina’s natural splendour with some photos.

Collage: A lake surrounded by mountains, a lizard, a butterfly, a coati, Iguazú Falls.

Top: One of the many artificial lakes in Mendoza Province created by hydroelectric dams. These beautiful bodies of water provide a striking contrast to the desert that often surrounds them, but these dry lands host a rich diversity of animals. Centre left: A member of Iguazú National Park’s reptile fauna, the black and white tegu (Tupinambis merianae). Centre: An orsis bluewing butterfly (Myscelia orsis). Centre right: A ring-tailed coati or coatimundi (Nasua nasua), a close relation of the raccoon, that travels both on the ground and in the trees. Bottom: Iguazú Falls is definitely the realm of the ring-tailed coati. It is located in Misiones Province along the border between Argentina and Brazil. Notice the dark brown colour of the water, which 50 years ago ran clear but now carries a heavy sediment load from deforestation in Brazil. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer

I would also like to talk a bit more about the primary reason I travelled so far in the first place: the 12th International Meeting of the International Council for Archaeozoology, an event that takes place every four years.

As a doctoral student, I specialized in zooarchaeology (often referred to as archaeozoology in Europe, or more broadly—in both Europe and the Americas—as archaeobiology).

As the name suggests, zooarchaeology as a discipline involves zoological investigation as a means of addressing questions of archaeological significance.

For my dissertation work, I analyzed the animal remains found on five archaeological sites in northeastern Syria, all dating to the third millennium BC.

Collage: Many people stand on a hill in the distance, overhead view of workers and excavated structure walls.

Two early Bronze Age archaeological sites in northeastern Syria. Top: Excavations underway at Tell Raqa’i. Bottom: Excavation at Tell ‘Atij. The Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates, is seen in the background. Images: Glenn Schwartz © Glenn Schwartz, Michel Fortin © Michel Fortin

The resulting data were used to determine how domestic animals were managed and which wild species were hunted.

Such information—age of animal at slaughter, differences in the management of sheep versus goat herds, sex and age of wild species targeted by hunters, patterns indicating whether carcasses were butchered for meat or to obtain hides, etc.—permitted a reconstruction of the animal-based economy, which I used to evaluate the role of pastoralism and animal-derived products in the emergence of northern Mesopotamia’s first cities.

Collage: Three photos of excavated remnants of ancient structures.

Left: Foundations of mudbrick buildings exposed in the earlier occupation levels of Tell ‘Atij. Top right: Remains of the Round Building at Tell Raqa’i, an enigmatic structure with a rounded form and many small rooms and platforms believed to have served as a central storage facility for the ancient village. Bottom right: Image of the small building at Tell Raqa’i that likely served as a shrine for offerings and worship. Images: Michel Fortin © Michel Fortin, Glenn Schwartz © Glenn Schwartz

The Canadian Museum of Nature does not have an archaeology division and no longer has an active focus on zooarchaeological research, although we once did (perhaps the subject of a future post!), so my current research duties do not include any projects involving Near Eastern archaeology.

I was kindly granted the time off, however, to attend the conference and present the results of my graduate research. In addition, I was able to make some important contacts relevant to some upcoming zooarchaeological work that I hope to undertake at the museum.

Kathlyn Stewart, Ph.D., the head of our Palaeobiology Section, also has an interest in zooarchaeology. She participated in a five-year research project concerning the evolutionary origins of the hominids, the taxonomic group that includes the great apes and us humans.

As an expert in the palaeobiology of African fish, Dr. Stewart organized an investigation into the contribution of aquatic resources to the diet of our early human ancestors, and in particular how a shift to a menu rich in fish may have provided the biological impetus for the development of more complex brains.

I plan to join Dr. Stewart in a renewed effort to gather data on the use of fish by certain early hominid species. This will require access to good osteological comparative collections for African fish, as the museum does not have much representation of Old World taxa in its skeletal holdings. At the conference, I joined the Fish Remains Working Group and also spoke with representatives of various museums that house specimens valuable in the identification of East African fish species.

So, we are now well-poised to bring interesting zooarchaeological research back to the museum. Hopefully, I’ll be writing additional blog entries in the future concerning zooarchaeology.

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Our Collections Online: A Link to One Family’s History

What do a 1940s chicken farmer, Percy Taverner (the museum’s first ornithologist), a contemporary birder and the museum’s online collection database have in common? Believe it or not, they are all threads that weave together in the following story.

Four people bend over an open cabinet drawer, looking in.

Zoology Collection Manager Michel Gosselin shows part of the museum’s Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) collection to Linton Macartney’s daughters Elizabeth Smith (left), Jane Burgess (right) and Margaret Joyce (not visible). Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

When the museum’s online collections database was launched in 2014, we knew it would be widely consulted by scientists, students and others. But it is open for anybody to poke around and make discoveries, and, in fact, recent explorations have revealed examples of how many different Canadians have been involved in building Canada’s national science collections.

Knowing that I work at the Canadian Museum of Nature, a birding buddy told me in casual conversation that her father had donated an owl to the museum when she was a young girl growing up on the family farm, in Ontario. Linton and Evelyn Ruth Macartney may not have been typical of other chicken farmers of their era. They both had university degrees and took advantage when opportunities to educate their children presented themselves. It was not uncommon, for example, for Linton to gather the kids around to watch him do a post-mortem dissection on a sheep to determine the cause of death.

A screen-shot of the web page.

The online collection record that started the story. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

When the museum’s online collection tool was launched, Jane Burgess (Linton’s daughter) went online to look for the record of her father’s donation. She and her siblings were tickled to find the record. However, there seemed to be an anomaly. The bird species recorded was Otus asio, the former scientific name for the Eastern Screech-Owl (now Megascops asio) and not the Snowy Owl that stuck out in their memories.

An article cut from a newspaper.

The newspaper clipping from the Ottawa Journal, January 28, 1947, that describes the incident. Image: © Public domain

A man spreads the wings of a dead bird.

Linton Macartney holds the “evil genius of the woods” (Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus) that was threatening his chickens. Image: Evelyn Macartney © Evelyn Macartney

This revelation sparked a family discussion and the siblings started digging through their photograph albums and family files. Eventually, some photographs and a yellowed newspaper article were located and more details emerged.

Indeed, in 1947 an owl had gotten into the chicken coop and was threatening to have a chicken feast. When Linton was in high school, he had won a copy of the 1934 book Birds of Canada by Percy A. Taverner and recalled the following passage:

The Great Horned Owl is the evil genius of the woods. Winding silently through the shadowy foliage, through the dark forest, […] it is monarch of all it surveys. In a natural state it fears no enemies save man, and all the lesser animals and birds cower at its soft, hushed flight.

Pages of an open book.

The passage about the Great Horned Owl from Birds of Canada by P.A. Taverner, 1934. (Bulletin No. 72, Biological Series, No. 19. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa). Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Given that rather ominous description, and given that the chickens were his livelihood, Linton felt he had no choice but to shoot the owl. Taverner was contacted and promised to come and look at the owl the next day.

But wait, you say. The bird in these photographs is a Great Horned Owl. The kids remembered a Snowy Owl. And the online record shows an Eastern Screech-Owl. So what is the real story?

This is where things get murky. The Great Horned Owl never made it into the museum’s collections. Taverner may indeed have come to the farm to identify it, but in 1947 he was long retired from the museum. We can only speculate. Perhaps the museum already had enough Great Horned Owl specimens from this region. Perhaps Taverner kept the specimen for his own purposes.

What about the Snowy Owl? Did the children remember a large owl in the winter and incorrectly extrapolate? The story was passed around by word of mouth and family folklore was born. There are no records in the online collections database for a Snowy Owl collected by Macartney. However, there was a Snowy Owl collected by M. Curtis in 1945 in the same geographical region. Murray Curtis was a local naturalist known to the family. Was that the Snowy Owl that the children remember?

A woman holds an owl specimen showing its collection label.

The Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) donated by Linden Macartney. Collection specimen: CMNAV 39812. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

And what of the Eastern Screech-Owl? Well, we know for sure that Linton donated that specimen. And, during a recent visit to see the specimen, one of his daughters’ memory was jogged to remember the time that small owl made its way into the brood house. And given past events and contact with Taverner, no doubt the family understood the value of donating this specimen to the museum.

That appreciation for nature stuck with Jane, who is an avid birder and has sparked that interest in her grandchildren.

Several owl study skins in a drawer.

A drawer of screech-owls in the museum’s collections. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

The 10 million natural-history specimens that are preserved at the museum belong to all Canadians and form part of our heritage. But for one family, a small bird tucked away in a drawer represents a more personal history.

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The Brock Award for 2013

The Canadian Museum of Nature has a long history of research with expertise and leadership in species discovery and work in the Arctic.

Collage: Three people hold down a yellow tent as a nearby helicopter takes off, and a view of a mountain.

Top: Rybczynski and fellow team members keep their tent from blowing away as the helicopter that ferried them to even more-remote sites on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, takes off. Bottom: A nearby mountain shortly after a summer snowfall. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Reginald Walter Brock.

Reginald Walter Brock. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

We continually produce new knowledge that is published in the scientific literature. Our scientific productivity in botany, zoology, mineralogy and palaeobiology result in 50–60 manuscripts each year; a full list is in our annual report.

We ask our research experts to have their best publication considered for the annual Brock Award, the museum’s internal prize for excellence. This healthy competition has gone on for over two decades and is named after a former leader of the museum, Reginald Walter Brock, Ph.D.

As a past Director (1907–1914), Brock was responsible for moving the early collections into the museum’s then-new building, and for recognizing and rewarding excellence in his scientific teams. One of Brock’s rituals was to award a can of tomatoes for great accomplishments in field work. We carry on this charming tradition.

Collage: A can of tomatoes in front of a polar-bear mural, and Natalia Rybczynski sitting inside a tent with a satellite radio beside her.

Left: The emblem of the Brock Award: a can of tomatoes. Non-perishable and easy to use, canned food is of great value on a field expedition. Right: The winner of Brock Award 2013, Natalia Rybczynski. Images: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature, Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

The Brock Award for a scientific publication in 2013 was awarded to Natalia Rybczynski, Ph.D., for her publication Mid-Pliocene warm-period deposits in the High Arctic yield insight into camel evolution (produced with colleagues J. Gosse, R. Harington, R. Wogelius, A. Hidy and M. Buckley).

In this paper, the team reports their discovery of 3.5 million-year-old fossil material from the Strathcona Fiord area of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in the High Arctic.

Collage: The fossil bone fragments of the High Arctic camel, laid out on sand, Natalia Rybczynski holding a small fossil bone in one hand and examining it using a small magnifying glass, a man standing on a sandy slope and digging a hole to collect samples, and a rocky outcrop with hills in the background.

Top: The 30 fossilized bone fragments belonging to a leg of the giant camel discovered in the High Arctic by Rybczynski and her team. Centre left: Rybczynski scrutinizes a fossil. Centre right: Team member and geologist John Gosse of Dalhousie University collects samples. Bottom: The area near Strathcona Fiord where the fossils were found. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Rybczynski knew they had found a piece of the right tibia (lower leg) of a large mammal, but it took the help of new technology (called collagen fingerprinting) to be sure that they had found the remains of a relative to modern-day camels.

An illustration depicting three camels and four flying birds in a landscape with trees.

Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about three and a half million years ago. The camels lived in a boreal-type forest. The habitat includes larch trees and the depiction is based on records of plant fossils found at nearby fossil deposits. Image: Julius Csotonyi © Julius Csotonyi

The findings add significantly to our data on the evolution of camels and help us understand the origin of anatomical specializations seen in modern camels. The work of Rybczynski and her team also adds to our knowledge of this ever-changing region of our country.

Collage: Four people hiking up a sandy slope, Natalia Rybczynski looking closely at the ground while lying on slope, and a view of the sandy, hilly terrain where the camel bones were discovered.

Top: The palaeo team surveying the upper reaches of the site where the camel was found. Middle: Rybczynski collecting samples at the site. Bottom: Team members are dwarfed by the terrain as they work at various levels of site. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Visit the museum’s website for a full account of this award-winning research, including wonderful images and videos.

Posted in Arctic, Fossils, Research | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Build Your Own Museum

What do colourful stamps from Tannu Tuva, a vintage 1926 Marmon, human teeth and pencils have in common? They are all things that people collect.

Stamp and antiques collecting are fairly common, but did you know that Peter the Great collected teeth? In addition to being a professional czar, he was also an amateur dentist.

A scientific illustration of human teeth.

Peter the Great liked to perform surgery on passers-by and amassed a considerable collection of human teeth. Image: Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body © Public domain

And as for pencils, there is even an American Pencil Collectors Society.

The tip of a sharp pencil.

One collector in North Dakota, U.S.A., has accumulated over 25 000 pencils. Image: Thomas Wydra © Public domain

This human desire for collecting is so common that the Russian scientist Pavlov (dogs, bells, conditioned response) thought it was a basic and universal human instinct.

If you like collecting things from nature like rocks and fossils, or bugs and bones, you should come on down and check out the Trading Post at the Canadian Museum of Nature!

A museum educator shows specimens to three young visitors.

The Trading Post is located on the fourth floor of the museum. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unlike the more traditional, didactic museum displays with which we are heartily familiar (evolution from Eohippus to the modern horse), the Trading Post allows you to “build your own museum”. It connects visitors with their own experiences. Visitors trade what interests them, not what the museum wants or asks for. Nor do we tell you what to learn about what you collect—that is up to you.

Collage: A child looks at a rock, a child looks at a shell through a magnifying glass, a museum educator and a child use a microscope that is hooked up to a monitor.

By appealing to the five senses, the Trading Post promotes the use of multiple learning styles. Images: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

On a recent Saturday, for example, one little girl traded a mermaid’s purse, the jawbone of a sheep, a sea urchin, and some rocks that she found on a beach in Newfoundland during her summer vacation. She brought these specimens into the Trading Post, and through the point system, she was able to trade for some minerals that she wanted to make into jewellery.

A child looks at an array of mineral specimens in trays.

Rocks and minerals are the items most-often traded, followed by shells, fossils and insects (dead and prepared). Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

You don’t have to trade to make a “nature exchange”: you are welcome to just bring an object in and share with us the information that you have about it. (One woman said to me last Saturday, “I can tell that’s a beaver skull. My parents found one when I was a kid. I used to bring it to show and tell every year, ’till the other kids got sick of it”.)

Or, if you are a bird watcher, you can bring in pictures of the birds you spot. Or you can make a study project of object(s) you have found, just like a real naturalist would. To each his or her own… museum!

A child holds a specimen in front of a cabinet containing rocks and minerals.

To each his or her own museum. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Throat-Singing Karaoke?

While the connection between Inuit throat singing and the natural history of the Arctic may seem a little obscure at first, it is a story of synergy, opportunity and just plain fun.

During our Extraordinary Arctic Festival in April 2013, the Canadian Museum of Nature partnered with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. A variety of local Inuit singers, drum-dancers and Inuktitut language teachers from the centre presented aspects of Inuit culture to museum visitors.

The Inuit Youth Performers led by Lynda Brown participated in the festival. In addition to demonstrating the unique Inuit performing arts, Lynda explained a little of the history, tradition and playfulness of throat singing.

A pair of museum visitors face each other; one holds a microphone.

Museum visitors try throat singing. Image: C.W. Clark © C.W. Clark

Throat songs are usually done by pairs of singers. Some songs are lullabies, some imitate sounds in nature, and some are a game where the winner is the last person to laugh.

Throat singing was traditionally done by women while men were hunting. Today, both men and women throat sing and often weave throat-singing techniques into contemporary Arctic music.

As part of the performance, Lynda encouraged the audience to try throat singing. She taught us how to sing in a “monster voice”. The youth performers then helped us try to throat sing as a group. We sang, we laughed and we also learned about Inuit culture and traditions that are so closely linked to the Arctic landscape and wildlife.

Lynda Brown and Heidi Metcalfe-Langille demonstrate throat singing.


Soon after that festival, the museum had an opportunity to partner with Science North to create Arctic Voices, an exhibition about climate change in the Arctic. We were keen to share our expertise in Arctic natural history and showcase our extensive collection of Arctic plants and wildlife.

It was also important to make sure that the exhibition was relevant to visitors who have never been to this remote and largely inaccessible part of the world. As such, the exhibition development team wanted to know what we had learned during our Arctic Festival. What activities helped create unique and memorable experiences for our visitors? Not surprisingly, the throat-singing performance with the Inuit Youth Performers came to mind. Science North had experience programming interactive exhibition components with a record-and-play-back technique; they suggested trying to create a karaoke-type kiosk.

When we proposed this to Lynda, she was immediately on board and full of ideas. She enlisted the equally enthusiastic participation of her singing partner, Heidi Metcalfe-Langille.

Two women in traditional outerwear stand in front of a diorama.

Filming in our Mammal Gallery. Image: Laurel McIvor © Canadian Museum of Nature

During a day of filming in the Mammal Gallery at the museum, Lynda and Heidi demonstrated a number of traditional throat songs with great skill, comfort, humour and ease.

Then we tried filming the interactive component. We stumbled, filmed several takes, and were not exactly sure how or if it would work. Truthfully, I felt like I held my breath until Science North’s audio-visual magician Mike Palumbo showed us the final result. The throat-singing kiosk works and is almost as fun as singing with Lynda and Heidi in person!

Try it out and tell us what you think!

Three women stand beside the throat-singing kiosk.

From left: Heidi Metcalfe-Langille, Laurel McIvor and Lynda Brown. Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The exhibition Arctic Voices is on at the museum until May 3, 2015.

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Travelling Exhibitions Are the Best Way to Interact!

While I was busy taking down the Creatures of Light exhibition, with my hands deep in dust, I noticed that although the museum hosts a great many travelling exhibitions from various museums, few people know it also produces its own travelling shows! Have you ever noticed one of these exhibitions from the Canadian Museum of Nature in your vicinity? The exhibits department where I am completing my work term offers “turnkey” exhibitions that are ready to travel anywhere in Canada.

An exhibit module in the exhibition.

Our Feathered Friends, a full-sized travelling exhibition created by the Canadian Museum of Nature. See it in Brampton, Ontario, at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives, from March 1 to May 31, 2015. Image: Canadian Museum of Nature

One person’s discovery is another person’s windfall

As I worked on various travelling exhibitions, I realized they had a lot to bring to communities and institutions. Indeed, if you don’t get the chance to come to the Canadian Museum of Nature in person, these shows get around and keep you informed about our collections, research and expertise. They are considered a way of sharing resources throughout the country, and can also be seen as a way for institutions to interact between themselves. It makes things easier for those hosting our exhibitions, because they need only to plan the space required to host the event. Isn’t that a great idea?

In the following video, the director of the Peterborough Museum & Archives, Susan Neale, shares her views and speaks about the benefits and interest generated by the exhibition Canada’s Waterscapes.

See visitors to Canada’s Waterscapes interacting with the exhibits, and hear museum staff describe the exhibition’s success and impact and comment on the positive behind-the-scenes experience.

An impressive amount of work goes into creating a winning tour

This year (2014), the travelling-exhibition programme is celebrating its 41 years of existence, and its success can be attributed to Rachel Gervais, the programme coordinator.

Before working with Rachel, I never realized the amount of work put in over all these years to come up with content, modules, specimens and educational activities that can be adapted to various audiences and exhibition venues such as museums, libraries, interpretation centres and schools. This colossal task includes planning venues and ensuring that each travelling exhibition is delivered and returned in good condition with no parts missing.

Collage: An open suitcase with boxes and interpretive panels, and boxes and interpretive panels exhibited on a table.

The suitcase exhibition on minerals. Easy to carry, and ideal for hallways or small rooms. Posters, interpretive panels, specimens and educational activities showcase the diversity of the mineral world in a nutshell. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature

The exhibition set up in a gallery.

Thanks to the Canada’s Waterscapes exhibition, you can discover true-to-life specimens and impressive modules. This type of life-sized exhibition is great for any large venue and comes with all the structures needed to set up the exhibition in a flash. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Personally, when my work term ends, I’m going back to Montréal to check out the cultural venues in the area in the hopes of seeing one of these travelling exhibitions! With 16 full-size exhibitions and more than nine suitcase exhibitions on tour, you are sure to come upon one of them in your vicinity. Your municipal library might just be the next venue hosting one of our exhibitions in the near future!

Translated from French.

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Illustrations from Sir John Franklin’s 1823 Book

Last week, my colleague Elizabeth Debeljak showed us a book from the museum’s Rare Book collection, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the year 1819, 20, 21 and 22, by Sir John Franklin.

This week, I thought I’d give you a good look at some of the beautiful illustrations that this 190-year-old book contains. This is just a selection of the aquatint prints and engravings.

Plate titles are provided as they appear in the book’s List of Plates.

A scientific colour illustration of a fish.

“Plate 26, Back’s Grayling’s”. Facing page 711. Aquatint print. The species is now called Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus). Image: Drawn by J. Curtis; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A close-up of the head of the Arctic Grayling.

A detail of “Plate 26, Back’s Grayling’s”. Facing page 711. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by J. Curtis; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A colour illustration showing eight people sitting around a cooking fire inside a tent.

“Interior of a Cree Indian Tent”. Facing page 169. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Hood, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A colour illustration of British tents near shore.

“A View of the Arctic Sea, from the Mouth of the Copper-Mine River, at midnight”. Facing page 361. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Back, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

Colour illustration of a man and child in period dress.

“Portrait of Akaitcho and his Son”. Facing page 203. Full plate. Aquatint print. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Hood, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

A black and white illustration of men portaging a large canoe past a waterfall.

“The Trout Fall”. Facing page 37. Engraving. Image: Drawn by Lieut. Hood, R.N.; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

An incomplete map of coastlines in the Arctic Ocean.

“General chart of the Arctic Sea”. At the end of the book. Engraving. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

The book open to a black and white scientific illustration of a plant.

One of “The Four plates of Plants at the end of the Appendix and immediately preceding the Maps”. Engraving. Image: Drawn by J. Curtis; Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

Title: Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the year 1819, 20, 21 and 22
Author: Sir John Franklin.
Printer/Publisher: John Murray, Albemarle-Street
Printing location: London, England
Date printed: 1823
Dimensions: 28 cm × 23 cm × 7 cm
Number of pages: Approximately 800
Illustrations: 26 aquatint prints, 4 hand-coloured engravings and 4 engraved maps

Read Elizabeth’s article about the recent conservation work to restore this historical book before we put it on display in the museum: A Rare Book by Sir John Franklin Expedition Receives TLC.

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