Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Museum of Nature Re-Opening Day, part 3

Tonight is Heritage Ottawa's free lecture at the Canadian Museum of Nature by project manager Maria Somjen, who will be presenting on the process to rehabilitate and renovate the historic Victoria Memorial Museum Building in a six-year process. Accordingly, this is the third and final post in my series of photos from the museum's re-opening day last May.

In Part 1 I shared photos of the crowds on opening day and the restored atrium. In Part 2 I covered some of the new architectural elements.

Here, in Part 3, I'm sharing some photos of some of the exhibits in the museum, again from the opening day.

Since I'm typing this after a marathon CCCA board meeting, in which we reviewed current development applications with requests totalling 75 floors of increased zoning limit (see the 20-page agenda), I'll have to leave my comments brief.

In the basement there is a little wooden model of the museum. This one's oriented from the south, an angle you can't see easily in real life (certainly not from above). There are a number of new elements that were added at the rear of the building, including the loading dock and the heating plant. But since I didn't take any photos of it on opening day, I'll have to leave those for another time.

The first exhibit I'll talk about is the Water exhibit. When you walk in, the first room has a lot of little creatures mounted behind glass. Unfortunately, there isn't much description, aside from the organism's name, if that. You're expected to go to the computer panel to read up on the items, which is flawed because only one or two people can read the panel at once, and if I wanted to stare at a computer screen I'd have stayed home. While it is nice to have the extra detail available at your fingertips in the museum, they shouldn't have removed nearly all interpretation from the specimens.

In the second room, there was a bit more in the way of text, but it was all grouped together, segregated from the specimens. The couches at the back with the relaxing watery sounds, and the mostly visual video projection you can watch from the couch made for a nice break after a long day of exploring the museum.

Of course, the main attraction of the water exhibit is the skeleton of Tallula, the blue whale. I think I was too stressed by the insane crowds on opening day to really appreciate it. It was a bit better when I saw the exhibit again at night.

The birds exhibit was one I didn't expect to enjoy, but it actually impressed me quite a bit. When I saw the "what are clouds?" sign above, it reminded me of the science class parody film "Look Around You - Water", which asks around the two minute mark, "What are birds? We just don't know." Later, when visting the birds exhibit, I saw this sign asking "What is a Bird?" and just had to laugh.

The birds exhibit, not unlike the mineral exhibit, did a very good job of showing the ranges and dimensions of different types of birds. Each one was accompanied by an explanation of what you were looking at. This exhibit asks you to guess how many different species are represented in this assortment of six similar-looking but different-sized birds.

My biggest disappointment, though, was the insect exhibit. It looked hastily assembled, and maybe it's been developed further since then, but it was very sanitized. Individual pods showing individual (albeit live) species of insect.

While it can be very intersting to watch a blue death-feigning beetle feign death, the exhibit is nothing compared to the old insect exhibit. There were maquettes of miniature kitchens for the cockroach exhibit, I seem to recall an extensive ant exhibit, among others that gave me the jitters. In one part of the museum, there even used to be an active beehive contained in plexiglas that had an access port to the exterior of the museum. I didn't see that around anymore.

A large window shows the insect care area, which is neat in concept, but you can't really see many insects, and when you can there's nothing to tell you what they are.

Of course, the thing that people remember is the dinosaur skeletons, a.k.a. the fossil gallery. I don't know about you, but when I never wanted to go to the Museum of Nature as a kid; I wanted to go to the Dinosaur Museum.

It seemed smaller to me than before, but maybe just because I'm bigger. This was the first exhibit I visited, and I was still pretty disoriented by the crowds. Like the water exhibit, there was little written material around, mostly computer screens.

The dinosaurs I wanted to see were ones like these. Only I wanted to see the skeletons. There was a travelling exhibit like this that visited the Museum of Nature a decade or so ago where they had a bunch of animatronic dinosaurs, plus a lot of interactive ways to explore, including (if memory serves me right) various mechanical models of how the skeletons function. And a sand pit.

I understand that the Fossil Gallery is one of the exhibits that's been open for some time, while the rest of the museum was still being renovated. My desire for information was dulled by this device, which you're supposed to hold up to your ear to hear an explanation of the exhibit in front of you. If you can manage to hear it over the sound of the crowds, and you have the patience to listen, you won't hear much of it before some kid comes along and instinctively presses the language selection buttons, restarting the recording. Wisely, they didn't have these devices in any of the newer exhibits.

The thing I enjoyed most in the dinosaur exhibit was this large flow chart on the rise of the mammals. I think I recall a similar one prior to the renovations which was a lot smaller, so this larger one was a big improvement. This is on the fossil gallery's second floor, which, I noticed as I passed the fire safety floorplan on the wall, has only one way in and out.

There was a lot more that I was surprised to find I didn't photograph, like the people dressed as insects dancing about the atrium, and the minerals exhibit, which was actually very interesting and informative (though I don't know if anything can rival the old one, where you went down a "mineshaft elevator" to get to the exhibit). There were also a couple exhibits I didn't even check out, like the mammals exhibit.

Despite my criticisms and pining for memories of exhibits past, the museum is a great treat for kids and adults alike. Enjoy the architecture, the heritage, and the specimens and the information they carry with them.

The museum is expecting this week will bring its 500,000th visitor since last year's re-opening. Head to the museum early before the lecture tonight to take in some of the many sights, and maybe that visitor will be you!

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