It’s only natural: Canadian Museum of Nature

Canada Museum of Nature


The first impression on entering the Canadian Museum of Nature is akin to that of a cathedral, dedicated to the diversity of nature-a sense enhanced by the stained glass as one enters the doors. Though not quite as grand as its British counterpart, there are similarities between the buildings, including the exterior decorated with reliefs of animals. The building itself was not always used for this purpose, however. It first housed the Geological Survey of Canada, and their extensive collection of rocks, fossils and other minerals. Then, after the Parliament building burned down in 1916 (you may remember this from yesterday’s review of the Bytown museum), Parliament set up emergency quarters in the museum, where they stayed for the next four years.


Today, the museum is split into seven galleries, plus a shop, cafe and an IMAX cinema. On entering the light and airy Bird Gallery (4th floor), the visitor is presented with the question “What is a bird?”. There are some opportunities for visitors to touch specimens, such as a mallard wing, but mostly interactivity is limited to games designed for children and interactive computer screens. For example, I learned that one Museum Girl is the equivalent weight of 606 blue jays. The interactive screens provide visitors with information regarding a particular species, including its song, as well as specific collection information for that specimen. Unlike most bird galleries in older, more traditionally presented natural history museums, the gallery does not present one specimen as the type for all of that species. Instead, it bravely covers variations between individuals, such as between adults and juveniles, males and females, colour differences between individuals, as well as seasonal differences.


The Vale Earth Gallery (3rd floor) covers a wide range of topics in the earth sciences, from the big bang to how life on earth first appeared to mineralogy. These are all fascinating topics, but can be daunting for a visitor unused to such concepts. Geology exhibitions are among some of the hardest to get right: the content matter, though fascinating once you get into it, covers big time periods and even bigger concepts. The specimens themselves are usually little more than rocks. Fascinating, once you know what to look out for, but if not pitched correctly the content can either end up going over the heads of the audience, or, worse, come across as tiresome and dull. Unfortunately, this exhibition felt as if it had tried to do too much in too small a space, with too much text and not enough objects.


Extreme Mammals (3rd floor) is a free, temporary exhibition, which poses the question “What is a normal mammal?” through looking at extremes. The first extreme is that of size, with a life size model of the largest ever land mammal, Indricotherium, greeting you as you arrive. This is contrasted with the smallest ever mammal, Batodonoides vanhouten, a rodent about the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil. The exhibition then goes on to look at various characteristics of mammals, such as headgear (such as horns and antlers), reproduction and movement.


The exploration of mammalian characteristics in Extreme Mammals is so comprehensive that it made parts of the permanent Mammal Gallery (2nd floor) feel a little bit redundant. However, it is still worth a visit. The visitor is greeted, on entering the gallery, with a polar cub staring out at them over an iceberg. Making their way through the plastic icebergs that make up the beginning of the gallery, visitors learn about how animals are adapted to Canada’s particular breed of cold winter. A particular highlight is the opportunity to touch the 7.5 cm of blubber that keeps seals warm. The rest of the gallery continues in a similar vein, with dioramas, including beavers, bears and reindeer. Like the Bird Gallery and the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery, the Mammal Gallery makes the most of its Canadian specimens, meaning there was something that even the most seasoned Natural History Museum connoisseur could get out of it. There is also a good section on urban wildlife, though it is rather disappointing that the animals in this section are cartoon representations rather than real specimens.


The RBC Blue Water Gallery (2nd floor) looks at the most abundant substance on the planet, and the fish that swim in her. It begins with the question, “Where does water come from?”, a provocative start to the gallery, and one with the equally provocative answer ‘From Space”. The gallery is a mix of real specimens, models and even live aquaria. The gallery is quite small so, for the most part, visitors have to make do with models of whales, though there is the obligatory blue whale skeleton at the centre of the room-a staple of Natural History museums worldwide. Similarly, the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery (1st Floor) is a mix between real fossils and models. About 85% of the display is real fossils, a notice at the front proudly declares, but there are also some dinosaur dioramas (though no animatronics).


There is plenty for children to do in the Museum. On top of the interactive games, in the Birds Gallery, children have the opportunity to learn how to take care of birds in a bird hospital; in Blue Water, they can man an Arctic exploration vessel, or dress up like different mammals in the Mammal Gallery. The Extreme Mammals exhibition also had a craft activity, where visitors could also build their own extreme creature. The only gallery lacking something specifically for younger visitors was the Vale Earth Gallery. In addition, there is a dedicated “Discovery Zone” (4th floor), where children have the opportunity to look closely at the museum’s handling specimens as well as take part in specific activities.


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