A 25-metre-long skeleton of a blue whale stunned hundreds of visitors at UBC’s new museum last month. Large skulls, piles of bones, stuffed birds or meticulously assembled rodents intrigued people wandering through the maze of black cabinets.
Dimly lit windows offered peaks at jars filled with pickled snakes, lizards or fish that glowed yellow or red under the light. Some specimens are over 200 years old and extremely sensitive to light, so architects had to scrap original designs to make the cabinets entirely glass. Preservation was the first priority.
“It’s a fabulous collection,” said Rachel Pauley, a conservation student at UBC. “I’m excited for them to display more.”
The UN declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, and last month delegates from 193 countries met in Japan at the Convention on Biological Diversity to negotiate a treaty protecting biodiversity around the world.
Just as important as government efforts to protect biodiversity are local efforts to make people care about biodiversity. UBC’s new Beaty Biodiversity Museum and Research Centre hopes to do just that by bringing out a fascination for the diversity of life on this planet.
From fascination to appreciation
Eve Rickert, the museum’s acting director of exhibits and public programs, said that they want people feeling excited – not depressed – about biodiversity. She said that bringing out a fascination with species can lead to a deeper appreciation of the natural world.
Biodiversity, a term coined in 1986 by biologist E. O. Wilson, refers to the variety of life, whether through genes, species or ecosystems. The more diverse a gene pool or an ecosystem, the more chance of survival in the face of threats like disease or climate change.
Pollution, over-fishing, deforestation and climate change threaten biodiversity all over the world. The blue whale, like the one displayed in the museum, is just one of thousands of endangered species. A threat to biodiversity is a threat to human wellbeing, according to the World Health Organization.
Derek Tan, the museum’s digital media specialist, said the museum has a responsibility to address these issues.
“We don’t hammer people over the head with it,” he said. “Whether or not we should is another question … We focus on bringing you a sense of fascination and discovery.”
From the microscopic to the bigger picture
An interactive lab at the back of the museum allows children to get closer to the specimens through microscopes.
The different collections, some dating back to 1910, came together to aid the inter-disciplinary study of biodiversity by 50 scientists at UBC. The idea to share the collection of 2 million specimens with the public came later. The museum is unique, in that is it primarily a research facility.
“We are absolutely a public museum, but we do walk that fine line between public museum and research facility,” said Lindsay Burlton, lead interpreter and volunteer coordinator of the museum.
The museum’s goal, beyond showcasing its collection, is connecting the public to the research on biodiversity carried out in the adjacent research centre.
Cristina Petersen, a visitor to the museum, said that there could have been more information on the bigger picture of biodiversity, since many displays offered little more than latin names of specimens.
“I would have liked more explanation,” Petersen said, “like big posters showing life cycles and how we are interconnected.
“Everyone knows humans are at the top of the food chain, but it would be nice to see the way we are connected to these other species,” she said.
“With the new shift to environmentalism I would expect there to be more talk about the bigger picture.”
The museum plans to incorporate themes on conservation, ecology and evolution. A tree of life display will allow visitors to find a common ancestor between themselves and a specimen.
For now, visitors can go to the theatre and watch a video showcasing researchers like Dr. Diane Srivastava. She researches the consequences of losing biodiversity. In it, she said that humanity’s connection to other species is more than dependence; it’s shared heritage.
“Each time you lose a species, you lose a page from a book,” Srivastava said. “So the story of life every time you lose a species is incomplete …
“In some ways that’s part of our inherited biological culture. It’s just as valuable as a painting in a museum or ancient architectural wonders. Every time you lose one of these its a travesty.”