When I was an undergrad I volunteered the natural history museum on campus. Now at the time, calling it a museum was a bit of a stretch. It was an amazing collection of specimens, no one would deny that, but they were all housed in locked cupboards in the recesses of the old biology building. Worse, they were not even housed on the same floor or even the same wing. There were fish specimens in the basement, birds and bugs on the top floor… No one knew about them!
I was introduced to the museum during a class on biodiversity, from Dr. Wayne Maddison. He introduced the class to Dr. Rex Kenner, who ran the vertebrate museum. Rex showed the class examples of endangered species, extinct species, beautiful animal pelts, exotic insects… It only took one visit to the museum, and I signed up to be a volunteer.
To be accurate, UBC has more than one natural history museum collection – there’s a vertebrate collection, a bug collection, a fossil collection… and so on and so forth. Rex was in charge of the vertebrate collection. He was a bit of a bird hobbyist, so my role in the museum was to help prepare bird specimens. Taxidermy!
From Rex, I learned how to take a dead, bird – usually one who met an unfortunate fate, like flying into a window – and create a specimen which could be used indefinitely for research and for teaching. Until I became a volunteer, I had no idea that museum archives could be used for research. But over the course of my time in the museum, I would often see grad students taking measurements, photos, and sometimes samples.
Taxidermy isn’t for the faint of heart, certainly, and I won’t go into the details here. But I was fortunate enough to work with many beautiful species of birds – everything from Stellar’s Jays to owls to little thrushes. I was able to hold in my hand a representation of so many species which I never would have seen up close. Without the museum, I never would have been able to pull back the wing to see the iridescence feathers, nor examined an owl to find it’s “ears”. And, thanks to the museum, other students and researchers will be able to see, hold and use these specimens as part of their studies and research.
Most exciting is the upcoming public opening of the new Beaty Biodiversity Museum which will finally house these collections! Gone are the dusty corridors of the old biology building – they are demolishing it even now.
It will be a bittersweet event for me. For several weeks now, I had planned to visit Rex and extend my congratulations on the move to the new museum. But I kept putting it off, thinking that I would have all the time in the world. I received an email a few days ago from his assistant. Dr. Rex Kenner passed away the previous weekend, only weeks before the museum would have opened to the public.
I’d like to thank him, even if it is a bit late, for all his hard work and dedication to maintaining and promoting the collections.