Culture  Updating history, naturally

Redpath Museum revamps biodiversity exhibit

Passenger pigeons were once so abundant in Quebec that according to Ingrid Birker, Redpath Museum’s Science Outreach Coordinator,  flocks could “blacken the sky at high noon.” But after finding their way into the recipe for the popular French-Canadian dish  tourtière, they were hunted to extinction.

But there remains a valuable specimen in the Redpath Museum, featured in the recently updated biodiversity exhibit – the only one of its kind to showcase Quebec’s natural heritage.

The exhibit opened in 2000 and was revamped last year to mark the International Year of Biodiversity. According to Birker,  it was extremely important to update the exhibit, since new species are constantly becoming endangered or extinct.

A committee of specialists in the field, including McGill professors and museum coordinators, carefully redesigned the exhibit, adding new specimens, 3D models, and updating their accompanying texts. Since the Biodome is more of an indoor zoo with live specimens, Redpath is the only museum where visitors can learn about Quebec’s natural history. It is the only museum that focuses solely on Quebec’s ecosystems.

The museum collaborated with a number of different experts to collect specimens for the exhibit. Several samples of insects and local plants came from entomologists and biologists at the Macdonald campus. The small reptile models were made by collecting animals, freezing them, and pouring a mould over them. The process does not harm the creatures, as freezing is a natural experience for reptiles that allows them to hibernate during the winter.

The biodiversity exhibit showcases the flora and fauna of each of Quebec’s ecosystems. It begins with the arctic and moves through the taiga tundra, the boreal forests, cities and urban backyards, and finally to the Atlantic coast. Highlights include a record-breaking narwhal tusk that stretches from floor to ceiling, two wolves, and the last eastern cougar ever recorded.

Redpath’s Cultural Director Anthony Howell stated that it is important for visitors to get a sense of “the concept of biodiversity and the limitless differentiation of species we have here in Quebec.” Birker similarly noted that the museum’s mandate in redesigning the exhibit was to “preserve the natural beauty of this part of the world,” and to showcase the artifacts that “define the natural heritage of our province.”

The Redpath Museum is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m. Entrance is free and Redpath Museum Club volunteers offer free tours on Sunday afternoons.