Curators' favourites

Curators' favourites McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 11, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 12
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Curators' favourites

McGill has several museums and special collections scattered all over the downtown and Macdonald campuses. The Reporter asked seven curators to pick their personal favourite item from their collection to share with our readers. From rhododendrons to radiation, the choices tell us about who we are, past and present.

A caring mom

Morpho butterfly
Stéphane Boucher

Choosing my favourite specimen among three million insects is not easy. Insects are attractive for different reasons. Our Morpho butterflies are spectacular because of their bright metallic blue wings, while other insects are noteworthy from an historical point of view. Examples in our collection include a tiny beetle collected in the 1830s during the voyage of the Beagle, probably by Charles Darwin himself, and some of the many butterflies collected by Henry Lyman in the late 1800s. But I have chosen a local specimen with an interesting ecological story. This insect is a digger wasp in the family Sphecidae. Females hunt for insects that will serve as food for their offspring. This species (Sphex ichneumoneus), known as the great golden digger wasp, hunts for long-horned grasshoppers in the family Tettigoniidae. The female paralyzes the grasshopper with her sting, carries it back to her nest, and lays an egg on it. The wasp larva will then have fresh food to eat — a living but paralyzed grasshopper. This great golden digger wasp was caught in the act right here in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue.

Stéphanie Boucher
Lyman Entomological Museum

Paved paradise

Rhododendron canadense
Courtesy of Tracy Eades

With a collection of over 135,000 specimens, to choose a single favourite item in the McGill Herbarium would not do it justice. I do, however, feel a certain reverence when I come across a specimen from our Holmes Collection. Andrew Holmes was a Montreal doctor and amateur botanist in the early 1800s, and the plants he collected document our local botanical history. In 1821, the native species Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) grew in a peatland north of Crémazie that has been since destroyed by excavation. American water-willow (Justicia americana), a native plant currently listed as threatened in Quebec, grew at the mouth of the St. Pierre River in an area that is now overshadowed by major highways. Not only are Holmes's specimens beautiful and well preserved, they are also a testament to urbanization during the past two centuries and are reminders of habitats long gone.

Tracy Eades
Associate Curator
McGill Herbarium

A Nobel endeavour

Rutherford apparatus
Jean Barrette

The Rutherford Museum contains a collection of the actual apparatus used by Ernest Rutherford to investigate the newly-discovered phenomenon of radioactivity when he was Professor of Experimental Physics at McGill from 1898 till 1907. A striking feature for the visitors is that the apparatus used by Rutherford for his seminal discoveries are home-made and very simple in design and construction.

On the nature of alpha rays. Rutherford used this apparatus (shown here in an exploded view) in 1906. In this experiment the rays from a radioactive wire pass between two insulated parallel plates spaced 0.21 mm apart and connected to a storage battery. The pencil of rays after emerging from the plates fell on a small photographic plate giving an image of the line source. Reversing the electric field at intervals reversed the direction of deflection resulting in two line images. By combining these results and those of a similar experiment where he studied the deflection of alpha rays induced by a magnetic field, Rutherford could determine the charge to mass ratio of the alpha particles. He showed that this ratio is the same for alpha particles expelled from the different radio-elements and is equal to half that of the hydrogen ion. This work led to the revolutionary theory of radioactive transformation for which Rutherford was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1908.

Professor Jean Barrette
Curator, Rutherford Museum
Department of Physics


Jean Barrette

Sound of silence

The McPherson Collection is comprised of antique physical instruments and apparatus dating from the mid-19th century to about 1920, many of them used in teaching and scientific research at McGill. What is striking for the visitors is the beauty of many of these instruments and the craftsmanship with which they have been made. A good example of this is our collection of instruments build by the famous physicist and instrument maker Rudolph Koenig for the study of sound.

Around 1850, Helmoltz's resonators became the first precision simple-tone detectors. These apparatus, which were tuned to respond to specific frequencies, were held to the ear, thus allowing an observer to detect simple tones from complex tones in the surroundings. They were a mechanical means for uncovering the underlying basic sensations that had been distorted by mental processes. Physicist and psychologist Hermann von Helmoltz made use of resonators similar to that in our collection for a variety of researches into music and vowel quality, to confirm earlier predictions for harmonics, the existence of combination tones and beats, and to refine his theory of resonance. Using Koenig's resonators he claimed to be able to detect up to sixteen harmonics form one vowel sound. The McPherson Collection has thirteen such brass resonators covering more than three octaves.

Professor Jean Barrette
Curator, Rutherford Museum
Department of Physics

Cartographic whimsy

Caption follows
Authentic Mappe of Olde McGill, 1935, by George Everett Wilson
McGill University Archives

Our current favourite is a representation of campus life, Authentic Mappe of Olde McGill, 1935, by McGill graduate George Everett Wilson (B.Arch '34). Reports from alumni suggest Wilson's Mappe was reproduced on newsprint for distribution to students on lower campus in the late '30s. The Mappe is a guide to campus life from a '30s student's perspective, highlighting the downtown campus with the distractions of sport (tennis courts where McLennan now stands), directions to the drinking establishments (including the "Ritz Bar"), a chorus line on what was then known as Burnside Street (now de Maisonneuve) and couples embracing both on and off campus. The off-campus references to "picture houses," jazz clubs, shopping and general social distractions remind us not only of Montreal's urban history but of the close relationship the campus, and its students, have with life in the downtown area. This is a terrific first-person account of campus life in the '30s created for students by a student.

Wilson's Mappe is part skewed geographic perspective, part social commentary, following in a style of illustration first made popular in the '20s with John Held Jr.'s New Yorker illustrations. This image is based on a digital reconstruction of two worn (and torn!) copies of Wilson's Mappe. Reproductions of the Mappe are currently on exhibition at the University Archives offices (ground floor McLennan) and in the Lobby of the James Administration Building.

Johanne Pelletier
Director and University Archivist
McGill University Archives

Belle of the ball

Ogilvie dress
Courtesy McCord Museum

Featured in the McCord's current exhibition The Scots — Dyed-in-the-Wool Montrealers, this silk satin dress in a variation of the Ogilvie tartan is remarkable both as a fashion statement and as an expression of cultural identity. Worn by Montreal's Mrs. A.W. Ogilvie in about 1860, the gown dates from a period of renewed pride in Scottish heritage, when traditional Highland symbols such as tartans were being elevated to high fashion by trendsetters like Queen Victoria. Family history tells us that in 1860, Mrs. A.W. Ogilvie wore this dress to a ball given in honour of the Prince of Wales, who was in Montreal to inaugurate the Victoria Bridge. That she would wear it to such an important event indicates dedication to matters of fashion, as well as pride in the Ogilvies' Scottish lineage.

Cynthia Cooper
Costume and Textiles
McCord Museum

Physical graffiti

Owen Egan

The things that I like the most at the Museum are the imprints of life that have been left behind. One of these imprints is from deep geological time; it was left by spineless creatures that wandered over a sandy beach about 530 million years ago near Perth, Ontario. Their preserved tracks and trails are seen on a large sandstone slab mounted in the main staircase. The mass of stony squiggles and bumps catch the raked northwestern light every morning and make me think of the simplicity of life on an ancient Canadian beach. The tracks were probably made by two separate animals: the ancestor of the Horseshoe crab, and the other, a slug-like sea snail. These animals lived in a shallow inland sea that covered eastern and central North America for over 100 million years. Today, we have found many older fossils and fossil trackways but this still represents the best preserved evidence of life from a blissful time many, many eons ago.

The other set of marks were left behind in the more recent past by human hands and engraved in a dark corner of the Museum, behind the pillars of the Victorian lecture hall. Many of the inscriptions include dates and degrees, and some even have a sense of humour: "Chris Columbus 1492."

The names from the '40s chronicle rank rather than degree:

"HL Snyder, #2 C.A.U.C. '44 Shawinigan Falls."

"J. Slatter, R.C.A.F. 1943."

These incisions make you pause and wonder about a less blissful life not so long ago. The most recent and probably the most carefully executed initials are lovingly tooled and chiselled:

"M.L. + N.B., BA. Eng. Lit. 2001"

And really make you wonder what happened to their owners!

Ingrid Birker
Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology
Redpath Museum

World traveller

Needle case
Courtesy Redpath Museum

My favourite object in the Redpath Museum is a sail needle case. It is of no special visual interest: its manufacture is rather ordinary, it doesn't even contain any actual sail needles. It does, however, hold a wonderful note, which speaks of previous owners and its travels around the world in the early 19th century:

A cane needle case given me by Mr. Gorham, 2nd mate on board 'Woodside' who had it in his possession for fifteen years. He got it from his brother, who must have had it from 10 to 12 years; he got it from a very old seaman. This small case has been all round the world. Namely: Round Cape Horn on the Coast of California, to different parts of Europe at least ten times; round the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies, twice; through the western country as far as the Oregon Territory; to Halifax and Nova Scotia, and even to Upper Canada. It is made of cane, stitched with twine, and has two Turks heads on. In my opinion it is a great curiosity.

Written at sea on board of ship 'Woodside' while on her way to the East Indies. In latitude 21.12° South and in longitude 34.11° West. Wednesday, 7th August 1844.

Jas. Campbell Gibb A.D.R.L.

The note gives tangible evidence of the social context that one attempts to construct for those many artefacts without any voice.

Barbara Lawson
Curator of Ethnology
Redpath Museum

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