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True Colours Shining Through – the building of an exhibit

Exhibits begin as the germ of an idea and often take on a life of their own. This was no different for the new Colours in Nature exhibit, now open in the TD Canada Trust Discovery Room. This space was set aside to showcase the hidden treasures of our collections that we ordinarily don't have an opportunity to display; less that 5% of our collections are exhibited at any one time and there are many spectacular specimens that are available for research, but not generally accessible to visitors.

We ( the Natural Sciences section - Botany, Geology & Paleontology, Zoology) had been thinking about ways to combine our collections for exhibit under one theme, but were looking for an additional and different angle to go along with a scientific perspective. What most makes an impact on a behind-the-scenes collection visitor? The numbers of specimens impresses, of course (we have over 150,000 natural history specimens), but it is also often the diversity of colour and beauty of what we have on the shelves that strikes a chord.

Trays of blackbirds, orioles and grosbeaks (left) and various tropical butterflies (right), some of the thousands of specimens that were examined as possible exhibition pieces.

Trays of blackbirds, orioles and grosbeaks (left) and various tropical butterflies (right), some of the thousands of specimens that were examined as possible exhibition pieces.

So why not have an exhibit on colour? Initially we aimed to create a series of exhibits, each featuring a specific colour, but despite our substantial collections it just wasn't possible to gather enough specimens of any one colour to make a significant exhibit. We decided on a single exhibit of seven cases, one each for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and one for multi-coloured specimens. Although the main impact (we hope) would be visual appreciation of the collections, panel text would tie the individual cases together under themes of where colour comes from and how different animals perceive colour. These themes are constrained by text length limits - it is surprisingly tricky to write entertaining, concise, yet meaningful text (haiku, good haiku anyhow, is tougher to write than a full-length novel, in my opinion).

The floor plan for the exhibit with the square multicolour case front and centre with the hexagonal cases arranged as a colour wheel of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Black bars on the walls are text panel positions.

The floor plan for the exhibit with the square multicolour case front and centre with the hexagonal cases arranged as a colour wheel of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Black bars on the walls are text panel positions.

Our concept was shared among other exhibit team members that include an exhibit manager (who keeps us on track and within budget), a designer, conservation and collections personnel, technical support, and programming staff. Exhibit case sizes, arrangement and lighting were determined first, all physical limitations that impact choice of specimens.

Standardized photos and written records are maintained to track the condition of each specimen over the exhibition period.

Standardized photos and written records are maintained to track the condition of each specimen over the exhibition period.

The curators have the onerous, though perhaps enviable, task of going through the collection and choosing appropriate specimens. Along with space limitations, specimens might be unsuitable for display because they are too delicate or are compromised in some way. Each choice is given a final 'health-check' by the collections manager through a condition report that includes a photograph; this makes certain that the specimen can withstand the rigors and risks of display and allows us to keep track of any possible deterioration during the course of the exhibition. Lighting and environmental conditions of exhibition galleries can potentially damage specimens.

The mock-up of the 'yellow' case (left) and the final look with black backgrounds and mounts.

The mock-up of the 'yellow' case (left) and the final look with black backgrounds and mounts.

Along with the designer, the curators determine the arrangement for a particular case so that the specimens show their 'best side' and the case as a whole is visually interesting. Because Colours is, in a sense, showing the jewels of the collections both figuratively and literally, we were seeking a jewelry display case atmosphere where the colours and vibrancy of the specimens would jump from the cases. We also wanted the colours of the various animals, minerals and plants to form an organic whole where the colours and forms would complement one another.

The conceived arrangement for the 'blue' case (left) and the final setup with black background, mounts, and labels.

The conceived arrangement for the 'blue' case (left) and the final setup with black background, mounts, and labels.

Conservation staff finishes the mounts and determines acceptable light levels that will not damage the specimens - all are susceptible to fading. Then curators and collection manager install the mounts,  specimens and labels, and final lighting adjustments are made by technical staff. Designed and proofed panels are wall-mounted. The end result is many hours of individual effort and teamwork.

After initial installation, light levels are tested with and without the plexiglass covers to ensure specimens will not sustain damage over the duration of the exhibit.

After initial installation, light levels are tested with and without the plexiglass covers to ensure specimens will not sustain damage over the duration of the exhibit.

Only the visitor can judge how successful our efforts have been, but the opportunity is there to see some splendidly brilliant specimens that provide a glimpse into the diversity of our research collections. The final tally for Colours in Nature approaches 300 specimens, and all continents but Antarctica have representatives. With the rare exception, almost all of these specimens are on exhibit for the first time.

A partial view of the final installation showing several of the cases and a wall panel. Each case is lit individually to display the specimens to best advantage.

A partial view of the final installation showing several of the cases and a wall panel. Each case is lit individually to display the specimens to best advantage.

The exhibit, I think, affirms the words of a Cindi Lauper song, "True colours are beautiful, like a rainbow" - or perhaps, as an educational institution, we would be better to quote Oscar Wilde:

"Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways."

Come by this winter and have the jewels of the natural history collections speak to your soul. Although we'd like to think you can leave with a little meaning mixed in there, too.

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Dr. Mooi

Curator of Zoology

See Full Biography

Dr. Mooi received his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Toronto working on the evolutionary history of coral reef fishes. Following a postdoctoral fellowship in the Division of Fishes of the Smithsonian Institution investigating the biology of deep sea fish families and examining relationships of perch-like fishes, he was Curator of Fishes and Section Head of Vertebrate Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. While there he was involved in several expeditions to Indo-Pacific coral reefs as part of his fish research. Dr. Mooi joined The Manitoba Museum in 2004 focusing on fish evolution and post-glacial biogeography of snakes, toads and sticklebacks in the province.