Monday, March 22, 2010

Nature Museums

Before I moved to Toronto for school I spent the summer doing “Montreal” things. As any self-respecting Montrealer would, I dreaded the thought of living in Toronto. So before I left I embarked on a mission of sorts to fortify my Montrealness. One of my destinations was the Biodôme, a museum that recreates some of the ecosystems of the Americas namely the tropical forest, the Laurentian forest, the St. Lawrence Marine ecosystem, and the Arctic and Antarctic. There’s nothing particularly “Montreal” about the Biodome except that is one of our major tourist attractions. The Biodôme, Insectarium and Botanical Gardens, and Planetarium, are part of what is called the Montreal Nature Museums and are operated by the city. Having an affinity for animals I’ve been to the Biodôme several times in the last few years but it’s been a while since I’ve visited either the Insectarium or the Botanical Gardens.

I visited all three museums on a double date. Going to a museum with a group of friends is very different from going alone. You spend less time at each exhibit, skimming more and reading less. It becomes more of a social activity than an educational one, but the learning potential is still there as each person picks up tidbits and shares with the group. As the “museum person,” I find myself wanting to explain the museum, apologize for its shortcomings, point out what people missed. Going with non-museum friends reminds me that the general public doesn’t see the museum content the way we expect or hope that they will. What I find scary, and frustrating, is when people use exhibits as an opportunity to misinform their friends or family. I’ve often seen visitors position their opinions as facts, and said “facts” in opposition to those presented by the museum. Not that a museum’s authority can’t be questioned, it can and should, but it’s frustrating to watch parents use a museum’s exhibits to provide their children with unfounded information.

Since the Biodôme consists of habitats, there are no displays to change, no new exhibits. One new addition was an orange plastic caiman above the caiman habitat. A text panel reads: “Want to make a wish? Before you do, you should know that our caimans happily gobble anything thrown into their basin.” Visitors are asked to instead make a wish and throw a coin down the plastic caiman. Money goes to fund environmental projects in line with the Biodôme’s mission. It can be difficult to navigate a museum, albeit the Biodome does not feel like a museum, and most signs tell visitors what they can and cannot do without an explanation. I thought that it was refreshing to see that the museum is explaining to people why their actions are harmful and instead is offering a preferred and beneficial alternative.

All three institutions offer many didactic opportunities, but what they offer for casual visitors is simply an opportunity to look, to see specimens that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see in person. They offer us the wondrous and the fantastic although with less than ideal text panels and bad English translations.

10 down. 22 to go.