On display in the science galleries of the Bruce Museum we have arrays of glittering gems and minerals, a forest of taxidermy animals, cases of archaeological artifacts, and all sorts of other objects, great and small. What many visitors don't realize is that these items only represent a small fraction of our natural history collections.
The Bruce Museum first opened over a hundred years ago. Throughout that time, each science curator has been adding to and building upon existing collections. They may bring in items from their research, or acquire specimens to add to exhibitions, or take donations from the surrounding community. The diversity of interests in the leadership of the museum has led to an equally diverse science collection. We have everything from passenger pigeons to narwhal tusks locked away in our basement storerooms.
Why do we collect so many objects that we are only rarely able to display? Some are used in research by our staff scientists or visiting researchers. We loan others out to museums for their science exhibits. We also keep historically or scientifically important objects to preserve for future generations. Tim Walsh, our collections manager, has restored many items that would otherwise have degraded away.
We are always looking for chances for our lesser-known objects to shine, and we found such an opportunity with Greenwich Town Hall. We will be occupying a display case there until the end of March for an entire two months of science goodness.
Deep in our storerooms, I laid down tape on the floor in the dimensions of the case to plan out our display. We decided on skeletons as a theme, since the larger minerals can be challenging to transport and taxidermy is somewhat fragile. After experimenting with a variety of skeletons and layouts, I chose an African white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), a squirrel (unknown species), a Linnaeus’ two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus), and a monitor lizard (Varanus sp.).
A week later, it was time to get moving. After loading the skeletons onto carts, Exhibition Preparator Sean Murtha examined our pedestals for this project. When I first came on at the Bruce Museum, I was stunned at the level of work that goes into each exhibit. Most museums use the bulk of their space for permanent exhibits, displays that don't change except for major renovations. At the Bruce, we prefer temporary exhibits. Each temporary exhibit is open for 3-6 months, so you wouldn't recognize much in the museum today if your last visit was six months ago.
In this fast-paced cycle, we are constantly taking down old exhibits and putting up new ones. It isn't as easy as repainting the walls and hanging a few paintings either. Our exhibition staff regularly build custom display cases, pedestals like the ones pictured above, and even new walls. It's astonishing to see how much a single gallery can transform between one exhibit and the next. The pedestals made for Town Hall were built for the occasion and represent a miniaturized version of what our staff do every day.
Since we already knew what our layout was going to be, it didn't take long to set up. First, we stapled on the background. Frequent Bruce visitors may notice that this background is actually the mural from last year's Secrets of Fossil Lake exhibit. After the background was in place, we put in the pedestals, and then added the skeletons to their proper places.
Once the skeletons were nudged and tweaked into the most pleasing positions we stabilized them with small amounts of sticky resin. The sloth on its branch has a particularly wobbly base. Labels were the final touch, and then our display case was ready to go.
Even though skeletons are an eerie subject, I think that the way the soft colors bring out the ivory shades in the bones is quite beautiful. I couldn't be happier with the presentation and would like to thank Dan Buckley and Sean Murtha for taking time out of their days to help me get it set up.
The skeletons are on display until the end of March, so there's plenty of time to swing on by Town Hall and see them in person.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow