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Blog

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

12/02/21

Comet Leonard visible in morning

Comet Leonard finder chart

At the edge of the solar system, there is a cloud of small, icy objects that are left over from the formation of the solar system. They’re too small to see from Earth, and much too far to visit, and yet they are like a deep=freezer full of evidence of how our solar system formed, preserved in the cold of deep space. Luckily, every so often one of these icy bodies gets bumped or deflected into a new orbit that carries it towards the inner solar system. Right now, you can see one of these tiny bodies in the sky with nothing more than a pair of household binoculars.

The object in questions is called Comet 2021 A1 (Leonard) – it was the first comet discovered in 2021, by Greg Leonard, a senior research specialist working at the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona. Catalina scans the sky looking for new things, so it finds a lot of comets, and this isn’t the first Comet Leonard, either. However, this comet Leonard may be bright enough to see without a telescope later this month.

How Do I Find It?

The comet is currently sitting in the morning sky between the Big Dipper and the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, and it has been seen in binoculars from a dark location (read: outside the city, without any nearby lights or the Moon to interfere). You can use the detailed chart below to zero in on where the comet will be each night – its orbit carries it around the sun fairly quickly and it’s in a different spot every night.

What Will I See?

If you’re using binoculars, you will probably see a faint round ball of grey light, perhaps with the hint of a tail sticking upwards. Try not looking directly at the comet, but direct your eyes slightly away and get the more sensitive parts of your retina involved – this technique of averted vision is key in seeing fainter objects.

If you have a DSLR camera, try sticking it on a tripod and taking some time exposures of the sky – use ISO of 800 or higher and exposure times of 1 second up to about 10 seconds, and see what you get. (You might get something with other kinds of cameras or cell phones, but probably not.)

Why bother?

I’m not gonna lie, seeing a faint fuzzy ball in the sky isn’t going to make you jump up and down because of the physical appearance of the object. It’s a challenging observation of an object that humans may never see again, and a chance to see an object that is older than anything on our planet. Plus, comets have a way of being unpredictable, sometimes surging in brightness unexpectedly or even breaking apart into multiple pieces. You never know what you’re going to see.

Finding a comet with binoculars is something we can’t do very often – maybe once a year or even less. It’s also perfect practice for using a telescope – many of he skills you develop finding Comet Leonard will help you out if you aspire to use a telescope at some point. But for me, the chance to see such a fleeting celestial visitor is a magical experience, one that really makes me feel connected with the cosmos.

Now, all we need are some clear skies…

 

 

11/30/21

Building Blocks of the Plains: A Fieldstone Wall in the Prairies Gallery

The Brockinton house is a humble yet beautiful fieldstone ruin in the Souris River valley.

Beginning in 2012, The Museum’s curators worked together to plan exhibits for the Bringing Our Stories Forward project (BOSF). As we travelled around the grasslands region to prepare ideas for our new Prairies Gallery, we developed a list of topics that would be essential for a representation of this region. We rapidly agreed on some things that had to go into the Gallery: prairie vegetation, the importance of wind, Indigenous prehistory (and most particularly mound-building cultures), and several other topics. One of these was fieldstone.

A wall of the Brockinton house shows some of the geological variety of fieldstone types.

What is fieldstone, and why did we think it was essential?

When European settlers arrived on the prairies, they wanted to build permanent houses and other buildings. They were now in a region where there were almost no trees away from the river valleys, so material for wooden houses could be scarce. Many settlers came from parts of Europe where houses were built from stone that was quarried from solid bedrock, but on the Manitoba prairie the bedrock was either buried far below the land surface, or it was soft Cretaceous shale that was useless as a building stone.

There was however, a building stone resource that was readily available: loose fieldstone boulders, which lay on the land surface or could be readily found by digging near riverbanks. Fieldstone is a mixture of many kinds of stone. These stones formed as bedrock at  different times, under varied conditions, and include igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock types.

Some fieldstone structures in southwestern Manitoba are much grander than the Brockinton house. The photos above and below show St. Paul’s United Church in Boissevain, built as a Methodist church in 1893.

Like the settlers, fieldstone had immigrated to the prairies. During the Ice Age (Pleistocene Epoch), huge glaciers covered Manitoba. Glacial ice flowed southward, pulling blocks of stone out of solid bedrock. Blocks (glacial erratics), left behind when the ice melted, are used as fieldstone. Most fieldstone thus originated far to the north of where it is found today.

Most fieldstone in southwest Manitoba comes from bedrock far to the north. This stone dates from the Precambrian (over 541 million years ago) and Paleozoic (541–252 million years ago) ages. In the Ice Age (2.6 million–10,000 years ago), the stones were picked up by glaciers and moved great distances.

Fieldstone occurs with other sediment in glacial deposits, such as here in the Assiniboine River valley near St-Lazare.

Since fieldstone was a distinctive natural material seen across many parts of the prairies, and since it was used by settlers when they built many of the early buildings, it was clear to us that the fieldstone story should be included in our Prairies Gallery. We already planned to build an exhibit about the Brockinton National Historic site, a significant precontact bison kill site in the Souris Valley south of Melita, so it made sense that we also create an adjacent exhibit that would represent a wall of the Brockinton house, a late 19th century structure that sits at the top of the slope above the archaeological site.

Fieldstone blocks of variable size are mortared together in a wall of the Brockinton house.

But how could we build this exhibit? Stone is really dense, and a mass of solid stone would have been far too heavy to be supported by the floor in our gallery space. Stone is also not really a topic that would have been suited to an animated video like our beautiful Prairies Mural Wall, and a flat panel display would have been just that: flat. We needed some way to allow visitors to observe and touch the genuine stone, in a setting that imitated a real fieldstone wall.

Fortunately, in our various travels around southern Manitoba we had met Todd Braun, a stonemason who works in the Altona area. By consulting with Todd and with our exhibit design team, a plan took form: a frame would be fabricated from steel clad in plywood, and Todd would prepare the stones to attach to that frame, reducing their weight by slicing them thin.

These are some of the fieldstone blocks that had been chosen by Todd Braun as possible raw material for our fieldstone wall.

Todd and I selected stones to represent the great variety of fieldstone seen in southwestern Manitoba. Many of these came from boulders and cobbles that Todd had found during his visits to various gravel pits. A few were rocks that we found together, and in one or two instances I went to other geologists to request examples of very particular rock types.

The selected stones were laid out so that we could see how they would fit into the wall.

A steel framework was fabricated in three sections to serve as a “skeleton” for the wall structure.

Once we had agreed on the stones to be used, Todd prepared them using traditional techniques, breaking each rock with a hammer until it had a blocky shape. These blocks were laid out in their approximate relative positions for the wall. After a fitted layout was achieved, Todd patiently took each block and trimmed it with a saw so that the visible surface was effectively a “veneer” with only a few centimetres of thickness. These veneers were then attached to the steel and plywood frame using adhesives and metal hardware, and the space between them was covered in traditional mortar. The “corner stones” were a particular challenge, since they had to be cut in such a way that they would look like solid three dimensional blocks once the wall was assembled.

The wall sections were tipped on their side to allow the sliced stones to be placed. Note how the corner stones have been cut so that they will look like three-dimensional blocks.

This view from the underside shows the substantial steel structure that underlies the wall.

The completed base section of the wall is light enough to be lifted by Todd’s tractor.

To allow the wall to be assembled in Todd’s workshop prior to its installation in our gallery, the frame was actually built in three sections. This made each piece light enough to be readily moved, and small enough to fit through the smallest doorway between the Museum’s loading dock and our new Prairies Gallery. Very early one morning, Todd arrived at the Museum with the completed wall sections on his trailer. These were hoisted into the loading dock, and rolled through the Museum to the wall’s permanent gallery location. Todd and our construction team had created an ingenious hoist system that would allow each upper wall section to be lifted into position on the base section. Once the wall sections were in place, they were bolted together, and Todd covered the joins with fresh mortar.

In the Museum, the upper wall sections were attached to a hoist and girder system so that the base section could be wheeled into place beneath them.

The base section was rolled in on two pallet jacks.

The finished wall looks very much like the walls you can see at Brockinton House and on other buildings in southwest Manitoba, and it beautifully demonstrates both fieldstone construction and the geological variety of this fascinating material. As is the case for some other Museum exhibits, there is no evidence of the incredibly complicated and lengthy development and construction process that allowed this structure to “look like the real thing.”

The finished wall is surrounded by interpretive materials, telling the fieldstone story.

Who turned out the light?

With the days growing ever shorter, I find myself thinking about light and how we tend to take for granted the hard work that plants do, harnessing the energy from the sun. Photosynthesis is the beginning of most food chains on earth, the exceptions being bacteria (Archaea) that can obtain energy from inorganic chemicals like sulphur and ammonia. But since we don’t eat bacterial ooze for breakfast, this process remains relatively unimportant to humans. Photosynthesis is what gives us life!

Plants like Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) engage in photosynthesis, one of the most important chemical reactions on earth. (c)  Manitoba Museum

Photosynthesis is a process where plants, and plant-like aquatic creatures such as phytoplankton, use energy from the sun (photons) to combine water (H2O) with carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, to make sugar (C6H12O6). Oxygen (O2) is a “waste” product of photosynthesis. This reaction takes place in special green-coloured plant cells called chloroplasts. Plants and phytoplankton use the sugar they make to grow and reproduce themselves.

Animals and fungi are incapable of photosynthesizing; they have to “eat” plants to stay alive. Even meat-eaters (i.e. carnivores) are ultimately dependent on plants for their survival, because they eat animals that eat plants or phytoplankton. Further, the oxygen that plants produce is also required by animals to breathe. Thus, we depend on plants for our very lives.

All animals, including insects like this bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on a sunflower (Helianthus sp.), depend on plants for food. (c) Manitoba Museum

Some northern plants are “evergreen”, which lets them begin photosynthesizing as soon as the ground thaws in spring. In contrast, deciduous plants have to grow a whole new set of leaves before they can begin photosynthesizing again. As there is almost continual sunlight over the summer months in the far north, tundra plants can photosynthesize almost non-stop during this time. They must quickly produce enough sugar over the short summer to stay alive, in a dormant state, over the long, dark winter.

The evergreen Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), begins photosynthesizing as soon as it can, even when there is still snow on the ground. (c) Manitoba Museum

One way that plants can increase the amount of light they receive is by slowly moving in response to the direction of the sun (i.e. heliotropism). Like tiny solar ovens, species such as Entire-leaved Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia), move their flowers each day so that they continually face the sun. As a result, the flower temperature is several degrees warmer than that of the air. This improves seed production, in part, because pollinating insects are more likely to visit warmer flowers. In other plant species (e.g. sunflowers or Helianthus) it is the leaves that rotate to be perpendicular to the sun, increasing the amount of light for photosynthesis.

The umbrella-shape of the flowers of Entire-leaved Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia), concentrates the sun’s rays on the young seeds developing in the center. (c) David Rudkin

Many ancient human societies in the northern hemisphere held religious gatherings or celebrations around the winter solstice (typically Dec. 21 or 22) because even though they knew many cold days were still ahead, the amount of sunlight would begin to increase again. Evergreen plants, like spruces, pines, mistletoes and holly, were sometimes part of these events, because they are the plants that refuse to wither when the light begins to fade.

11/18/21

William Beal, Renaissance Man of the North

This last summer the museum installed a new permanent exhibit about William Beal in our Parklands Gallery. Beal was a settler from Minneapolis who arrived in the Swan River Valley north of Duck Mountain in 1906, and homesteaded in the Big Woody district.

William Beal, self-portrait, Swan River, Manitoba, circa 1918.

William Sylvester Alpheus Beal (1874-1968) is best known now as a photographer, and left behind dozens of high quality images of his fellow settlers in the region. But Beal was much more than a photographer – he was the “Renaissance Man” of Swan River, a true intellectual in a land of loggers and farmers. Besides having his own photo studio, he was a professional steam engineer and oversaw engines at various logging operations.

William Beal used a camera like this one to photograph the people of Swan River Valley. He developed the 5 X 7 inch glass negatives in his own studio using chemical mixtures. Eastman Kodak camera, circa 1903, and chemical bottles. H9-5-716A. Copyright Manitoba Museum.

He was also an amateur astronomer and constructed his own telescope; he formed a literary and theatrical society, and organized musical recitals; he organized and served on the local school board for 37 years; he was an assistant to the local doctor, providing a type of vaccine injection to locals during the 1918 Influenza pandemic; he was an electrician and fine carpenter; and he was renowned for owning a vast library. Evidently the only thing that didn’t interest him was farming, but he nevertheless cleared land, harvested crops, and received his full homestead grant. 

Black Settlers in Manitoba

The racism William Beal experienced in the United States denied him his chance of becoming a medical doctor. Though he formed close friendships in the Big Woody district, he was the only Black man in the area, and experienced racism there as well.

In the early 1900s the Canadian government actively prevented immigration of Black people to Canada, through misinformation campaigns, bribery of officials, and arbitrary requirements not asked of white immigrants. In 1911, 200 Black farmers from Oklahoma were finally able to enter Manitoba at Emerson, after a rigorous and delayed inspection. It’s not known what hurdles Beal faced when entering Manitoba back in 1906, but after he settled in Big Woody district, he was there to stay, and contributed so much to the local community. He passed away in 1968 at the age of 94.

Abe and Dora Hanson, Big Woody district, Swan River MB c. 1917. Photo by William Beal.

Percy and Emma Potten with children, Evelyn and Bert, Big Woody district, Swan River MB 1915. Photo by William Beal.

Roy and Hilda Sedore, Big Woody district, Swan River MB c. 1916. Photo by William Beal.

Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal, was published in 1988 by Leigh Hambly and Rob Barrows, a former Manitoba Museum photographer who grew up in the Swan River Valley. It features detailed research on Beal’s life and many of his photographs. 

11/01/21

The enduring diorama – Museum pronghorns still going strong after 50+ years

The Museum opened our newly renovated Prairie Gallery just last spring with spectacular new exhibits on the intriguing and engaging natural and human history of southern Manitoba. The addition of ground squirrels and their burrows, a riverbank bison bone bed, a homesteader stone house, an old school room, and hundreds of new specimens and artifacts, along with life-sized animations, prairie soundscapes, and feature videos provide exciting immersive experiences.

The pronghorn diorama still makes it feel like you are on the prairie.© Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

But some things from the old ‘Grasslands Gallery’ didn’t need changing, only a facelift. The pronghorn diorama at the gallery’s entrance remains as awesome and as valuable an educational tool as it did when it opened over 50 years ago in the summer of 1970, when it caught the eye of our first official visitors, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth:

(From the Winnipeg Free Press, July 16 1970, p. 3, “Museum Visit Delays Couple” by B McA’Nulty.)

The Prince asked a good question – pronghorn were frequently seen in the province prior to 1880, but are now only rare visitors wandering from North Dakota or perhaps Saskatchewan. But this is just one of hundreds of good questions that the diorama can illicit and help answer.

The diorama was designed, its backdrop painted, and installation overseen by renowned Manitoba artist Clarence Tillenius. He began planning in August 1968 and completed it, along with the bison diorama (much longer in production, from 1963), in June of 1970. As has remained the tradition for our dioramas to ensure authenticity, Tillenius visited the site that is portrayed, driving with other Museum personnel north of the U.S. border “to a point south of Waskada from where I [Tillenius] painted a study of the west end of the Turtle Mountains [sic] which appear in the background landscape.” (From a June 12 1970 letter to Dr. F.A.L. Matheson, then-president of the Museum.)

A rough plan for the diorama as envisaged by Tillenius. The basic size and shape was maintained, but only two actual pronghorn, a male and female, were in the final exhibit with a herd painted into the backdrop.

The pronghorn diorama effectively introduces the new Prairies Gallery much the way it introduced the original Grasslands Gallery, except for the new vibrant panels and its reinterpretation in a modern context. But it still shows the southwestern part of the Manitoba as it was before colonization, providing an opportunity to think about the transformation of our prairies over the last 250 years. The pronghorn diorama might be the closest some of our visitors ever get to experiencing original prairie in three dimensions. They can wonder at its expanse, its wildlife, and ponder its future. And it will do so for the next 50 years, or more we hope, perhaps inspiring the next generation of nature-conscious Manitobans to save our last vestiges of wild grasslands and their inhabitants.

The pronghorn diorama with new interpretation. Even after over 50 years, it inspires wonder and empathy.© Manitoba Museum

Enduring – according to the dictionary – means having a validity that does not change or diminish. The pronghorn diorama, and the Museum’s many other signature life-size dioramas (bison, polar bear, caribou, moose, wolf den, elk, bat cave, snake den, Delta Marsh, Winnipeg 1919, and Nonsuch) are prime examples of enduring, undiminished wonder, exploration, and inspiration.

Come see for yourself!