Nine Things Noticed …
… at the Canadian Museum of Nature
Walking through the freshly renovated and re-opened Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa the other week, I was pleased to see the school groups and families enjoying the museum experience. There are some excellent new exhibits, and the visitors were busy with the obvious crowd favourites: the big dinosaurs, the blue whale skeleton, the splendid mineral cases.
I was enjoying the exhibits too, but as a museum person I tend to get distracted by technical details: word counts, case design, floor plans, materials, and lighting. Always lighting!
I also try to look for the good things that other visitors might not take in: the small details that give exhibits extra impact, and the less obvious fossils, building stones, and architectural details. The Victoria Museum building has just passed its centennial; its “Scottish baronial” architecture may lack the exuberance of some of its Beaux-Arts counterparts, but it still holds some interesting features. And of course there are all sorts of treasures hidden between the dinosaurs.
With that in mind, here in alphabetical order is a haphazard selection of features that some visitors might not notice:
1. Horsefly and McAbee Fossils
The Horsefly and McAbee are wonderful fossil-rich sites of Eocene age (a bit more than 50 million years old), in the interior of British Columbia. The fossils occur in sediment that had been deposited in basins between the mountains; they include life forms of forests, lakes, and swamps. As the small exhibit near the back end of the paleontology gallery demonstrates, these fossils are special, some of the best-preserved anywhere in the world.
2. Local Limestone
Where foundation and wall interiors have been left purposely exposed by the renovation, you can see that much of the structure is supported by blocks of locally quarried dark limestone, mortared together. I wasn’t able to determine what unit these came from, but I am guessing that they are of Ordovician age, remnants of an interval during which the Ottawa area was covered by warm seas.
3. Missisquoi Marble
The staircase landing floors appear to be “Missisquoi Marble”, a building stone also seen in structures such as the Parliament Buildings and the Manitoba Legislative Building. This distinctive stone, part of the Strites Pond Formation from quarries in Philipsburg, Québec(near the US border), is Late Cambrian to Early Ordovician in age, so a bit less than 500 million years old. The grey “swirls” represent cuts through dome-shaped cyanobacterial mounds (stromatolites) that formed on an ancient shallow seafloor.
The outside of the building features carvings of various Canadian creatures. This head over the main entrance seems intended to represent a moose, though to my eye it would be a moose that includes at least a hint of Bullwinkle. Or maybe it is a caribou, or some sort of generic multi-purpose cervid?
5. Nepean Sandstone
The building’s exterior is graced by this attractive and apparently durable local sandstone, which is also exposed in a few places in the interior. The Nepean is part of the Potsdam Group, an Early Paleozoic unit that blankets the Precambrian Shield over a large area of eastern North America. The Nepean consists of sediment deposited in a low area known as the “Ottawa Embayment” and is thought to be of Early Ordovician age. It thus dates from much the same time that the Missisquoi was forming in Québec; it is rather pleasing that they have been brought into close proximity with one another.
6. Paleocene Mammals
This “post-impact” scene, representing a time very shortly after the end-Cretaceous events, depicts the skull of a recently-extinct Tyrannosaurus surrounded by the flora that flourished during the fern spike. Small multituberculate mammals are inhabiting, gnawing, and perhaps scavenging the skull of the former “Lord of the Earth.”
What can barely be seen from the visitor’s vantage point is the way in which the artists have imbued these creatures with a varmint quality that could be nothing but mammalian.
At first glance, the handrails have a pleasant, slightly Beaux-Arts feel:
But examined more closely, they show this intriguing trilete decoration …
… which looks shockingly similar to the Ediacaran problematic fossil Tribrachidium, which hadn’t even been discovered at the time the railings were designed.
Coincidence? Almost certainly.*
The decorative red marble on the stairs is a Cretaceous limestone that is full of rudists. These were unusual bivalved molluscs that grew odd coral-like shapes and formed reef structures on ancient seafloors. They are abundant at sites in southern Europe, which is the likely source for this beautiful marble.
9. Sheep, Goat, or Alien?
This carved head at the foot of the stairs may represent a young bighorn sheep, though it looks rather more like the offspring of an ill-considered liaison between a goat and an alien. It seems to share its large-eyed malice with the “dinosauroid,” a big-brained biped that was proposed by Dale Russell as the possible outcome of theropod evolution (that is, if the asteroid had not fortuitously caused their extinction). At the time he suggested this, Russell was a scientist at this very Canadian Museum of Nature.
*And yes, I realize that this shape is a “standard” decorative form.
**I know that we could just ask Russell about this, but it is always more fun to speculate.
text © Graham Young, 2011