This Old Place

Artifacts reveal the long, long, lonnng history of the place we call Saskatchewan

Science | by Gregory Beatty

150 For 150
Royal Saskatchewan Museum
Until Dec. 31

As far as titles go, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s 150 For 150 is in the vein of many sesquicentennial celebrations we’ve been having. The exhibit has 150 artifacts from the RSM’s collection (which includes over 54,000 fossils and 185,000 plant, animal and fungi specimens).

Grouped in clusters, the artifacts are numbered and accompanied by text panels, with background on the objects and broader scientific issues.

The first thing you see when you enter is a big red 150 with a taxidermied caribou framed by the zero. Wittily, the RSM has used hockey pucks as mounts for the numbers. So, to a certain extent, 150 for 150 is celebratory of Canada.

But the exhibit invites deeper reflection by placing the sesquicentennial in the much broader context of Saskatchewan’s natural history, which extends back billions of years.

Choices, Choices

Artifact selection was done by curatorial committee, says Glenn Sutter, curator of
human ecology.

“We have the privilege of working with this material all the time,” says Sutter. “We put a few things on display, but most of the collection is out of public view. That was the underlying motivation. This number is coming at us. It’s going to be recognized one way or another.

“What can we do to be part of that, and curate the collection, and tell stories around those objects?”

The RSM’s public face is the iconic tyndall stone building on the north-west corner of Regina’s Wascana Centre. But it isn’t a Regina museum, it’s a Saskatchewan institution.

For example: throughout the year, staff, visiting researchers, grad students, volunteers and more do field work in all corners of Saskatchewan, and follow-up research at a nearby annex.

The collection precedes the RSM’s 1955 opening by a good margin, too. With finds by many thousands of professional and citizen scientists, it stretches back to the 1860s.

In recent years, RSM staff have received major media attention for discoveries made in partnership with scientists from around the world.

“We’re able to do that because of the collections we have, and the long history of research at the RSM,” says Sutter.

“Occasionally, you get flashes, like the [dinosaur tail feather] in amber that everyone was excited about last winter,” he says. “Research is a grinding engine, though. It moves along at its own sometimes frustratingly slow pace. But it does test ideas, and that adds to the body of knowledge.”

Technological advances are helping too, says Sutter.

“We have new bee species, for example, that were discovered because of DNA analysis,” he says. “Fifty years ago, that was unheard of.”

Bigger Picture

One goal curators had when they picked the artifacts was choosing objects that would inspire people to consider how long Saskatchewan has existed as a geographic entity.

“In our Life Sciences gallery, it shows the veneers of Saskatchewan history we’re familiar with,” says Sutter. “But if you cut down through time, a lot of other elements become clear — such as the intercontinental seaway, dinosaurs, insects in amber.

“It’s really cool to think there were tropical forests in parts of the province, and all the flora and fauna that go with that,” Sutter says. “It’s the same land mass, but at different times it’s been covered with water and ice; it’s moved around on the planet and experienced different climates. We’re standing on top of all that today.”

Another goal was to reflect the sheer complexity of the ecosystem we live in. Yes, there are “charismatic” species in the exhibit such as the caribou, wolf, wolverine, blue jay, sage grouse and more but there are also insects and other creepy crawlies, along with grasses, berries and other plants.

And let’s not forget lichen and fungi, and even animal waste such as coprolites and pellets — a.k.a. dinosaur poop and owl vomit.

“For a long time, we thought the purpose of research was to impose order on the world and help us understand it,” says Sutter. “That’s fine as far as it goes. But we’re dealing with very chaotic and complex systems that have many shades of grey.

“You barely have to scratch the surface of an ecosystem to realize there’s lots of activity happening beyond the charismatic mega-fauna. It’s nice to have those indicator species, as they tell you about larger systemic effects. But just studying a moose in isolation is not going to tell you very much unless you have information about its habitat.”

A third goal, says Sutter, was to acknowledge the true history of human habitation in Saskatchewan which, again, extends back much further than 150 years.

“It was important to recognize Indigenous history,” he says. “We have one bison vertebrae with an arrowhead in it. It provides pretty clear evidence that humanity’s been part of this landscape for many thousands of years.”

As quaint as our notion of celebrating our sesquicentennial is in the broader context of Saskatchewan’s natural history, it at least provides a measure of perspective — unlike our political and corporate cycles, which are typically in the four-year and “quarterly” range.

It’s a flawed way to think about our existence on Earth, and growing evidence suggests it’s not sustainable, says Sutter.

“My hope is that anyone going into a voting booth has a pretty good sense of local history and how the bigger systems that are impacting them tend to behave,” he says. “And you can only gain that understanding by appreciating how they’ve come about — both our economic system and the larger ecological system we live in.” ❧


Sidebar

Name That Ant

One highlight of 150 For 150 is the opportunity to name a new species of ant found in a 99-million-year chunk of amber.

Really.

University of Saskatchewan doctoral student Meagan Gilbert is preparing a paper on the ant that will describe and name it, and, guided by information in the exhibit on the importance of taxonomy to science, people are invited to offer suggestions.

As well, all 150 artifacts are available for adoption by individuals and organizations through the Friends of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

“The Friends have been around since 1985,” says executive director Michelle Hunter. “We support the museum, do fundraising, run the gift shop, the concessions, the summer camps and birthdays, pretty much anything we can do to help add value to the museum experience.”

One way people can support the RSM, says Hunter, is through a membership.

“A family membership is $40 a year. It can be purchased online (royalsaskmuseum.ca), and gives you a 20 per cent discount on all our programs and the gift shop, as well as free admission to most of the natural history museums across Canada. So it’s pretty good value.”

The “adopt an artifact” idea came from a similar fundraiser by San Diego’s Natural History Museum, says Hunter.

“An adoption costs $150, and you get a certificate of adoption and a photograph of your artifact. You also get your name on the museum website, and a donor wall in the exhibit. There’s a tax receipt for the full amount, and the funds go to support museum research and educational programming.”

Public support is much appreciated, says RSM curator of human ecology Glenn Sutter.

“These are not the museum’s collections, they belong to the people of Saskatchewan, and we look after them on their behalf,” he says.

“For me, museums are all about inspiring awe and wonder,” he adds. “That can happen with objects, or with stories and broader historical context, it can even happen with debates around challenging issues. I think it’s really important.

“We’re naturally reflective creatures, and we need many more opportunities to do that given all the stuff we’re facing.” /Gregory Beatty