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Nature’s Nation: exploring Canadian natural history museums

This past May I submitted my thesis proposal on 19th century Canadian natural history museums. It was the same week the Canadian Nature Museum in Ottawa re-opened

—glass tower and blue whale and all. The proposal went in just as the museum opened its doors to popular acclaim: an auspicious start to my research project and a reminder that this particular natural history museum looms large in many imaginations, not just my own.

I can begin with own memories of the Victoria Memorial Museum. The museum inhabits a neo-gothic pile that we called the ‘castle’ when I was growing up in Ottawa. The museum was on our family’s regular Sunday circuit and was probably a life-line for my parents with six restless kids packed into a Parisienne station wagon. What I remember most from those visits are the habitat dioramas: they shimmered mysteriously like aquariums, spilling pools of light into the darkened halls of the museum.

Those cases were really my first encounter with ‘nature.’ The dioramas presented Canada as a series of beautifully composed tableux: they impressed upon my suburban mind a Platonic form of nature—pristine, austere, and devoid of people. And as nature went, so did Canada—indeed, what was the difference? The museum proposed a wild north to Ottawa’s carefully tended parkways and tulip beds, and hinted at Canada as nature’s nation, which lay beyond the pruned lilacs and docile Jersey cows of the Central Experimental Farm, another regular family outing destination.

These impressions are no doubt filtered through several years of exposure to environmental history literature. Yet I like that something that enchanted me as a child should now motivate me as a new scholar: the difference being that I now view dioramas as much more complicated ‘meaning machines,’ as Donna Haraway puts it. My project, however, is about more than dioramas; these are important, but I want to locate them as part of the wider flows of specimens, people, and ideas that circulated through North American and European museums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One question I have is how does a national nature emerge out of such transnational flows?

Susan Sheets-Pyneson makes some progress in charting this networked exchange in her 1988 book Cathedrals of Science. That monograph, part of a small historiography about natural history museums, is also the only one that recognizes Canada, which is ignored in Tony Bennett’s more recent Pasts Beyond Memory (2004). I am also curious about field expeditions, especially by American museums such as the Carnegie and the Smithsonian, which Robert Kohler examined in All Creatures (2006). There is thus a good literature to draw on—and room for my own study.

I have a suspicion that as I follow this topic through the various provincial and national museums, I will be drawn back into fisheries. This topic was the subject of my M.A. thesis, during which I discovered the Dominion Fisheries Museum (DFM), a short-lived institution located in Ottawa in the 1890s. It drew several thousand visitors a year to marvel at its aquariums and its working fish hatchery, and was originally a repository for displays exhibited at international fisheries. The DFM was folded into the Victoria Memorial Museum when it opened in 1912, and so it gave me a little thrill to discover that aquariums were once again a part of the contemporary natural history museum. And I won’t be surprised—given all the tales I’ve heard about dissertations taking interesting turns—if aquariums make an unscheduled appearance in the final draft of my thesis.

William Knight is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University

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William Knight

Curator at Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp.
William Knight is curator of agriculture, food, and fisheries at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in Ottawa. He wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Fisheries Museum.