Peeking into museum attics

Moose, American bison and muskox skeletons in the museum's vertebrate collection. Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

Moose, American bison and muskox skeletons in the museum’s vertebrate collection. Photo: Roger Baird, courtesy Canadian Museum of Nature

Does the term “pack rat” arouse your curiosity, or give you a cold shiver?

A flurry of books, articles and even TV shows have lead to greater awareness of hoarding as a condition that ranges from mild to debilitating. Indeed, by some estimates roughly 5% of Americans, or about 15 million people, are affected by some form of hoarding disorder. Taken to excess, it’s not pretty.

But of course, collecting for a purpose can be ordered, impressive and instructive.

Those who like lots of cool stuff – especially those who enjoy natural science – may want to consider a rare opportunity in Gatineau next weekend. (That’s in Quebec, minutes across the river from Ottawa.)

The Canadian Museum of Nature is having an open house of their vast research collection Saturday Oct 19th from 10-4 at their Natural Heritage Campus facility:

Discover the impressive national collections of plants, animals, fossils and minerals, which are housed in an area equivalent to five hockey rinks! See some of our 10.5 million natural-history specimens and meet leading science experts who curate and study them.

Bring your camera and join a self-guided tour.

Reservations are not required for this free, bi-lingual event that is “especially suitable for kids”. It takes place at 1740 Pink Road, Gatineau (Aylmer sector), Quebec.

Artifact Handler Pat H

Artifact Handler Pat Hilborn explaining the significance of a model car collection. Photo: Lucy Martin

Most museums lack the space to display all their collections. Some make up for that limitation with occasional “behind the scenes” tours – which you have to know about, or watch for.

I had the pleasure of roaming the storage aisles of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology with my local historical society last spring. The Ottawa Citizen’s Bruce Deachman wrote up what that tour is like in this April 2012 profile of artifact handler Pat Hilborn:

At last count, a few months ago, the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, which includes the Science and Tech, Aviation and Space, and Agriculture museums, held 103,568 objects in its collection, with upwards of 200 being added each year. As artifact handler, it’s Hilborn’s job to go out — about 50 times a year, he estimates, to the nation’s barns, basements, attics and garages — and collect these objects and bring them back to one of the museum’s warehouses, where they’re catalogued and studied, and every now and then put on display.

“It’s always different,” says the Manotick-raised Hilborn, “and it’s never boring. You never know what you’re going to find when you get to some houses.

Bikes climb the wall above clocks and boats at the storage facility of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology

Bikes climb the wall above clocks and boats at the storage facility of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology. Photo: Lucy Martin

Looking for similar insider-tour opportunities happening in the region this fall, I found one at the American Precision Museum, in Windsor VT, on Sunday, Oct 27 at 3 pm (Limited space $10 fee).

I never heard of that museum – another good reason to visit Vermont. That one-day tour, and current exhibits sound interesting:

The Museum preserves the heritage of the mechanical arts, celebrates the ingenuity of our mechanical forebears, and explores the effects of their work on our everyday lives. The American Precision Museum, housed in the original Robbins & Lawrence Armory, now holds the largest collection of historically significant machine tools in the nation.

This museum closes for the season Oct 31. Admission is free on Sundays.

If you know of other “behind-the-scenes” tours worth mentioning, please do share.

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