The beauty of museums: whales, birds, biophilia and a tweeting Dinosaur

A HUGE inflatable whale at the Canadian Museum of Nature

This past weekend, I traveled to Ottawa to visit the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) with my family. I’ve been to the CMN a few times before, and each time there are new things to see – this weekend it was the special exhibit titled “Whales Tohora“.  The content for this exhibit was effectively presented and we spent a long time learning about whales.  I was particularly impressed with how the exhibit dealt with the difficult issue of “whale strandings” i.e., when whales sometimes get stranded (sometimes in large numbers) on beaches or other low-laying coastal areas.  It’s a tricky situation because we (the all-knowing and all-powerful humans) want to save them, but it’s not always possible, nor is it always appropriate to do so.  The exhibit showed how some people and cultures see these strandings as a ‘gift’ from the ocean whereas other people are deeply saddened by such events and rally to save the whales.  The CMN did not shy away from tackling this issue, and they did it in a way that all three of my kids (ages 8, 10 and 12) were able to appreciate.

The rest of the whales exhibition was also enjoyed – from the tiny Hector’s dolphin skeleton to the life-sized blue whale heart (a plastic model, of course!), and we all learned about ambergris (and got to see and smell it, too).  I think I can now properly articulate the differences between porpoises and dolphins thanks to a huge poster illustrating all the groups from a phylogenetic perspective. And my kids were thrilled to learn how whales were terrestrial before they were aquatic. Go, Evolution!

Part of the CMN bird gallery

Whenever we go the CMN we always visit our favourite exhibits and the Bird Gallery is one of these.  This gallery is bright and expansive, and is filled with stuffed, dead birds. I must be honest – I really enjoy seeing all those dead animals.  This may sound morbid, but this kind of display really resonates with me.  The best way to illustrate biodiversity is to have biodiversity on display, in an open, and accessible way.  Specimens are needed to bring people closer to understanding and appreciating biodiversity.  I did observe some people playing on the interactive computer terminals and reading some of the content on the poster boards. Most people, however, were simply staring intently into the glass cases and looking in awe at the shapes, sizes and colours of bird biodiversity.  This happens in the bird gallery, but also in the mammal exhibit, where some terrific dioramas illustrate species in their natural habitats.  The CMN has got it right with these kinds of displays.

Being a good entomologist, we made sure to stop by the Animalium (too bad it is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the basement next to the theatre) to see some live Arthropods (and slugs and amphibians, too):

Up close and personal with some bugs and slugs

I am glad that they have live Amblypygids (aka tailless whip scorpions) to view (they are so bizarre-looking!), and seeing people squirm in fascination at the tank full of wriggly mealworms is terrific.  When seeing these reactions, I am reminded of E.O. Wilson’s arguments about the “Biophilia” Hypothesis. This is the innate and instinctive connection that people have with the natural world.   It is so obvious when you go to a natural history museum, especially somewhere like the Canadian Museum of Nature, where you can see a displays about the death of whales in one corner, stunning dioramas in another, and live cockroaches in the basement.  People wander through the galleries, and when they see displays of nature that make them feel good they have smiles on their faces.  They recoil and squirm at other times – and it is with the usual suspects (e.g., spiders, snakes, bats).  This visceral and squeamish reaction is STILL a reaction and this fills me with hope.

The day that Museums are empty and people have no reaction to biodiversity will, to me, represent a world that has completely lost its way.  Let’s keep supporting museums and help maintain biophilia.

A small part of a grassland diorama at the CMN

I can’t talk about a museum without mentioning the Dinosaur gallery.   It is very well done and the CMN, and you could hear the squeals of delight from a hundred feet away.  And I was pretty excited to get a tweet from “Vic the Dino“.  You can follow this mighty beast on twitter @VicTheDino

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3 thoughts on “The beauty of museums: whales, birds, biophilia and a tweeting Dinosaur

  1. Yay Biophilia!
    I love museums and I support them 100%. ( I just spent two hours behind the scenes at RAM in Edmonton!), but I hope they never become substitute for experiencing nature face to face. That’s what I love about entomology, you can just step outside your door and begin exploring the diversity immediately.

    (and thanks for the Carabus tweet!)

  2. I agree with you – Museums should not substitute the “real deal” but are a good complement to it! And for many folks, the museum experience can really get the juices flowing and before you know it, they are outside with a butterfly net…

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