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Scientific discovery is helping museums tackle 21st century challenges
By Debbie Lawes

It's well known that universities in Canada conduct world-leading research. The same goes for research hospitals, colleges and thousands of innovators in the private sector.

But when it comes to museums, a few stubborn stereotypes still persist, from the tweedy octogenarian curator puttering among dusty collections to the whip-cracking action hero with a rakish fedora battling snakes and giant ants for rare artifacts.

Modern museum curators are more likely to be PhD-wielding scientists who work with international partners to conduct research that helps us to better understand the past, and to address today's global challenges.

"Our scientists are the Indiana Jones who do the field work, make the principal discoveries, bring the specimens back, identify and name new species and then share that information with universities and other research institutes for further study," says Meg Beckel, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature, home to some 14.6 million individual specimens, representing Canada's largest museum collection.

For example, field work near Ellesmere Island in Nunavut is studying camel and other mammal fossils from 3.5 million years ago, when global temperatures were two-to-three degrees warmer than they are today.

"That collaborative research with universities and other museums could give us a sense of what our climate future could be and how our ecosystems could change when global temperatures rise two degrees as predicted," said Beckel.

The Canadian Museum of Nature spends more than 12% of its $36-million annual budget on research and discovery. Museums with researchers who hold cross-appointments at a university are the lucky ones. They can apply for funding through federal agencies like the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Dr. Donald McAlpine, Head of Natural History at the New Brunswick Museum, said scientists in Canadian research museums should be eligible to apply for federal research funding independent of university cross-appointments, like in the U.S. with the National Science Foundation.

"I think the funding need in Canada would be relatively quite small, yet the impact made on Canadian research could be quite significant," he said.

Bringing artifacts and specimens to life

The Canadian Museum of History has roots in research stretching back to the Geological Survey of Canada in the mid-1800s.

"Research makes up the core of almost everything we do here, and almost every public product everyone would encounter in the museum would be based on the research of the museum," explains Dr. Dean Oliver, Director of Research. "That research helps us to tell stories about who we are and were in the past, but also who we may be in the future."

Without research, museums would just be warehouses for "dead storage", said Dr. Mark Engstrom, Deputy Director of Collections and Research at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). "The objects and specimens in the collection are silent unless somebody is working on them and bringing them to life."

The ROM is the largest international field research museum in Canada, with collaborative projects ongoing in more than 25 countries. Many ROM scientists are also professors at the University of Toronto and up to 90% of its research is externally funded.

For example, mineralogist Dr. Kim Tait is working with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and York University to study samples taken from a mysterious asteroid named Bennu. The research will help scientists understand how planets formed and how life began, while improving our knowledge of asteroids that could collide with Earth.

Where museums excel is in sharing research results with the public. Whereas academics tend to rely on peer-reviewed journals read primarily by other academics, museums are masters at translating research into public exhibits that excite and engage people of all ages. It's resulting in more universities wanting to partner with museums, like the ROM which attracts 1.3 million visitors each year, said Engstrom.

Cutting across scientific disciplines

Collaborations happen across disciplines. Sandra Webster-Cook, Senior Conservator of Paintings (retired) at Art Gallery of Ontario, and Associate Curator of Modern Art, Kenneth Brummel, teamed up with scientists based in American institutions to use sophisticated imaging and micro-analysis to confirm that two Picasso paintings - La Soupe (1903) and La Miséreuse accroupie (1902) - were painted atop other compositions. It has shed new light into the creative process behind Picasso's Blue Period (1901-1904).

Dr. John Delaney at the National Gallery of Art in Washington contributed hyperspectral infrared reflectography to uncover hidden changes in the paintings. Access to a portable x-ray fluorescence scanner at Northwestern University revealed chemical elements which detailed the distribution of paint pigments - without the paintings ever having to leave the AGO.

"Not many institutions have been able to engage with such advanced imaging technologies," said Webster-Cook, "and the beauty of these techniques is that they are non-destructive," which is critical when handling priceless works of art.
The Canadian Museum of Nature spends more than 12% of its $36-million annual budget on research and discovery
The research will be highlighted at a special Blue Period exhibition co-organized by the AGO and The Phillips Collection, Washington, that will open in Toronto in June 2020. "This science is enabling us to make Picasso fresh and new again for audiences," said Brummel.

Tackling 21st Century Challenges

Floating plastic and other debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami is continuing to bring hundreds of alien hitchhikers to Canada's west coast, potentially threatening native ecosystems. With funding from the Canadian and Japanese governments, Dr. Henry Choong at the Royal British Columbia Museum is studying these tiny species and their ability to survive in Canada.

The museum's Head of Knowledge, Leah Best, said this is "an unprecedented opportunity to study a biological invasion". "We want to know what species are out there, where are they found and how are they changing. It's our responsibility to make that relevant to today's audiences."

Research at the New Brunswick Museum also highlights the importance of regional collections, particularly in a country as large as Canada. BiotaNB, for example, is a 20-year project that is taking a biological inventory of the province's 10 largest protected natural areas (PNAs).

"We are discovering species that are new to New Brunswick, Canada, North America, and even to science," McAlpine said of a project that involves professional researchers, local naturalists and students.

BiotaNB will help the province develop PNA management plans, as well as support biodiversity conservation and monitoring in the face of changing climate.

Working with local communities, including indigenous communities, is what makes museums more locally relevant, said Best.

"Community-engaged research is the future of museum research," she explained. "The more we can diversify, the richer and more relevant the research will be - not only to the museum but to the communities that are living on the land and facing challenges like climate change."

Debbie Lawes,, is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.