Puffin and prancing (plover?) pals (top photo)

One of my favourite things to do at the museum when I was a kid was draw – the animals held a particular fascination – where else are you going to get a lion to pose for you, absolutely still, just six inches away from your nose? (Or an ostrich, for that matter). Back then, the presentation was old-style in two different ways – classic Victorian glass-cases of specimens, and big ‘scenic’ dioramas with a grouping that might be found together in the wild (set against plastic plants and painted backgrounds heavy on the cyan/magenta axes).

There are still some large and attractive dioramas (open now, and spreading into the viewing area itself) but on the whole, the newer exhibits are much less artistically embellished, and more intellectually dense – with big diagrams displays and sample-drawers of families, related ecosystems, climate niches and adaptations, surrounding somewhat more abstracted individual exhibits.

But the keener with a sketchpad has not been in any way ill-treated. Though we now have to invent (or research) backgrounds for the individual animals we want to draw (instead of copying the scene-painter’s imagination over again each time), the way they are exhibited now almost always allows us a view from many sides and angles – previously prevented both by the limiting viewing-plane glass of the dioramas, and the close-packed Victorian cases. Composition choices are far richer – isometrics possible!

I did look around for particular friends that I’d come back and drawn several times, and was glad to see a couple, though they made me a tiny bit sniffly and sentimental (my favourite ostrich and lynx were so very rewarding to me, those many years ago) – but what really struck me was the newer work.

Who woke grandpa?

Taxidermy must have it’s superstars and honours – if the crew at the ROM aren’t bringing home the brass every year, they must at least be getting nominations.

So many of the animals on display had an attitude that felt incredibly alive – and this, we know well, can be no accident. Subtleties of gesture and expression apply everywhere – even when we’re interpreting entirely anthropomorphically!

Happen to have a pic-in-ic basket?

Is it going too far to make this brown bear so cute? Nope – museums are for inspiring curiosity – caring goes a long way there. A more timely warning about actualities can (and probably should) always be issued at camping-time.


Same goes for this beautiful cat. Should we be nervous if we really get that look from such a beast? Well, yes – but the odds being low hereabouts, it’s lovely to relate the wild animals under discussion to the adored familiars at home on the sofa. Why shouldn’t we care? No reason at all – in fact we must learn to care more (more effectively, at very least), if they are to survive – the number of species that have been lost to the wild during our lifetimes should shame all of us profoundly.

That being said – it was heartbreaking to me that there was almost nothing lovely in nature that the kids could learn about, that was not in some way under threat from our own human greed, stupidity, and inability to think responsibly about the world. Between habitat encroachment, climate shift and contamination, we are letting the kids and animals down, just as much as ourselves. There are no secret adults out there in-hiding, who can clean it all up for us, folks!

They’re all talking about me behind my back, I can tell

Getting back to the characters and enchantment – let’s all remember – cuteness is not the whole of narrative appeal – there’s room for a paranoid worrying character in the ensemble also – and I rather love the suspicious quality we see here. Probably pays to be more than usually cautious, when you’re slow. (But can evil and calculating be far behind?)

Yes they are

This small diorama just to the side of the Ontario wildlife exhibit, made me laugh because of it’s absolute perfection – the top of the local urban-wildlife pyramid? – Raccoons, unquestionably!

Toronto has been calling itself variations of Raccoon city for years (and even ‘stood-in’ as such, for a hilarious horror film in the resident evil series). Not only that – but there’s a contest on the subway right now for people to send in six-words that perfectly encapsulate something profound and universal about our city. Only one really memorable entry has been revealed so far – but I completely love it.

“Toronto raccoons are smarter than you.”

Yes they are – and they outnumber us humans too. So please don’t make them mad!

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