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Brian Wolfe



As time passes I find things that were considered common place have changed while I was distracted by life in general.  At one time I would question why I was here and what my purpose for being was.  In other words, I was questioning my existence and place in the universe.  This, of course, was a deep philosophical question. Today as I age I find the question remains the same but seems to arise every time I enter another room.  Now no longer a deep philosophical question it has become a matter of, “I know that I was looking for something when I entered the office, but I’ll be dammed if I can remember what it was.”  The other day I returned from picking up some groceries and said something regarding the cashier to the effect that “the girl at the store was checking me out and...” In the early part of my life this beginning of the statement might have raised an eyebrow by my wife as to why a girl was checking me out.  Now days such accidental double meaning statements go unnoticed as she knows no “girl” in her right mind would bother to “check me out”.  In a way today is a lot less stressful albeit much harder on my male ego.  On Family Day (a holiday here in Ontario in February) I walked into the living room and simply inquired as to what the day’s weather was like.  A conversation starter; nothing more.  Four of the six daughters and sons-in-law took out their

I-phones and announced the state of the present weather even though a glance out of the front window would have given them the same information; how things have changed. I am definitely not a big fan of change, finding comfort in the familiar, and the linear.


When I was a youth I liked to visit the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) as often as possible.  There I could lose myself in row upon row of displayed items from Archaeopteryx to Zacanthoides, Archeology to Zoology.  Fossils and dinosaurs displayed row upon row all ever so neat and carefully labeled.  The Ancient Roman section had tables in two rows on which was displayed hundreds if not thousands of coins mounted on slanted bases and covered with what would best be described as  long glass tent-shaped panes of glass in frames which resembled table mounted green houses.  Again row after row all neatly labeled.  I used to like the section with animals all prepared to the highest level of the art of taxidermy and the Indigenous Peoples exhibit displayed with their tools and in a setting that looked like their camp sites.  I’m sure these were artistically made mannequins though I told my brother that they were indeed real stuffed people. To this I added that I saw a sign stating that they were looking for an example of a “little brother” to stuff and I had entered his name as a candidate.  I recall this led to several sleepless nights for him and my mother, and no end of satisfaction for me.  My poor mother; I must have been an intolerable child.


This was my world, at least when I could arrange to be there as it was several hours from the town where I was doomed to reside.  It’s located in a cultural wasteland where academia was routed out and burned at the stake for the witchcraft it was.  Of course this was simply the observations of a child to his surroundings.  As an adult, looking back through the haze of time, I realize that no one actually routed out academia to burn at the stake; they would have much more likely thrown the concept into a burlap bag and drowned it in the river followed by crazed dancing around a huge bonfire. 


However I do digress; a privilege claimed by and reserved for the elderly. 


A number of years had passed from my last visit to the ROM caused by marriage and raising a family and other less worthwhile activities.  When I once again paid a visit to my former sanctuary the place had undergone a transformation.  I suppose that I should have not been surprised as I too have not remained the same person I had been decades before.  In place of the neat rows placed in displays one room adjoining another in a manner not unlike some series of above ground catacombs was something I was not prepared to see.  It now looked like a department store-front with displays akin to the talents of a window dresser.  In one large case there was exhibited medieval armour alongside an example of textiles from the Ming Dynasty, on the floor of the display rested a large skull of a carnivore from the Cretaceous Period and to add insult to injury a pair of muskets rested against the skull. If Father Time had cleaned out his basement then this could very well be the dumpster into which he was depositing his junk.


It was evident that what has happened is that they are now catering to a different target audience.  Being situated on the campus of the University of Toronto they most likely were geared in the past to the academia of the University both staff and students.  Now they are aiming at a wider market and with that new direction they need to entertain as much and possibly more than just educate.  I don’t have a real problem with this except at times I think the museums have gone from the idea of the grey haired old professor haunting the galleries to Sponge Bob Square Pants leading the children in a song about passing wind. 


I suppose this had to come to pass considering the government cut backs in every facet of society where they used to fund these organizations.  The bottom line is now foremost, through necessity; accountants and bean counters before curators.  Are these organizations really turning into profit mongers I pondered and if so, what effect do they have on today’s youth.


My last visit to the ROM, after my initial shock, didn’t seem as much like an alien environment as it had initially.  Perhaps it was change itself that was bothering me, clouding my perception and rational.  While in the paleontology section my wife and I witnessed something that nearly brought me to tears of elation.  There a little girl with her parents was looking at a display of trilobites when she said, “Look, a Greenops boothi and there’s a Phacops rana.  Did you know that in Latin rana means frog?”  I wanted to ask if this kid might be up for adoption!  Perhaps things hadn’t changed all that much after all.  There were still little nerds in attendance and the old geezers haunting the galleries were still there, except now that old geezer it was me.  So the need to pay attention to the bottom line has caused museums to be profit mongers through necessity but still educators through desire.  While the asymmetrical displays of specimens and the seeming helter skelter of topics made more sense this time, when I got home I went straight to the study, made some more labels and realigned my medals into even straighter lines than before.  Museums may still be places of education and surrounded by chaos but my world remains regimented and linear. 


Somehow there is comfort in that.







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Brian, I understand completely and sympathise with you. I too was confused by the 'new' approach at museums and thought too that the experts there had some greater knowledge about what holds the younger generation's attention. What with their apps and twitter continually having to be entertained by their little boxes on buses that were much too boring to even think about looking out of the window. I'd convinced myself that I was old and needed to put up with it.

It was a fairly new concept for me - I was standing in the queue at our local shop behind about 6 or 7 grey haired old guys. I actually thought to myself "come along you old gits sharpen up, I'm in a rush" - then I realised I look exactly the same. A grey haired old git. Not quite with high hitched wastelined trousers and a walking stick yet but not far. Damn.

Old and with an old mind set, that is until I visited the WW1 museum in Ypres. That place really opened my eyes as to how a museum in the new mould could be. Specially created music as a background, wonderfully created moving maps that take the watchers through the shifting front, highly definition recorded commentaries from actors in several languages all wearing accurate uniforms, a truely super and educating journey through the times. I found the experience very moving.

It can be done differently, it can be done well and I was proved wrong about having to do things with bright lights and flashy just to attract those who are thought to have short attention spans. 

But I admit, I do like things in straight lines and in an understandable order. 


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Brian, I always love to read what you write. You have such a wonderful way of putting things. Change, in any form, has always been very difficult for me. If it was up to me America would always be as it was in the 1920's, but for that to happen the rest of the world would have to be in the same time period. Would that be a good thing? Most likely not. Change at times is progress and at other times digression.

You mentioned your six daughter, you are a fortunate man, but understand this come form a man who has no children. If things did not change you would have six teenage daughters fighting to use the bathroom for eternity.

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Thanks for the comments and support fellows.

Actually, Paul, I have 5 kids though I was talking about my three youngest daughters and their husbands.  Believe me 5 was plenty, especially when the four girls were all in their teens at the same time; and they say war is Hell.  :D 

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I was spared that - two boys - who still have had their challenges.

I grew up at the ROM (we were about four blocks away) - I remember when I wan't tall enough to see into those table displays, and had to stop for a rest before the next set of galleries.  I also remember studying Classics at the University of Toronto - and all the classical galleries were closed.

I'm coming to terms, barely, with the fact that I'm now a senior - albeit a working one.


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This is the first time I have ventured onto a blog.   Blogs have hitherto been something of a mystery to me, much as 'Blackberry' and 'Blue Tooth" were until my aged brain worked out their identity and function.  (I did not what to ask anyone.  The youngsters  already think I should be euthanased and I did not want to add to their case.)

I was tempted to join in by Michael's comments on the ROM.  I grew up in South Africa, a nerdy kid who collected things.  As a teenager I even had a 'museum' in my bedroom.  It was more or less inevitable that, after university and a brief spell as a field geologist, I should end up working in a museum.  Forty years later I retired, a lot older and, hopefully, a little wiser.  For the first 20 years of my museum career I was happy with the status quo.  I was a palaeontologist content to do fieldwork and research, mainly on a particularly rich and interesting fossil site, which also attracted the interest of palaeontologists from elsewhere in the world.  Most of my colleagues then did in fact live in other countries, and, depending on funding, only visited South Africa from time to time.  Otherwise we corresponded by what is now known as snail mail.  It was my foreign colleagues who first alerted me to the fact that, in a changing world, museums too had to change.  One of these colleagues was from the University of Toronto and he arranged a free subscription of the ROM's magazine, Rotunda, for our library.  It was an eye-opener for me, and made me realise that our museum was in danger of becoming irrelevant in what was then a rapidly changing South Africa.

Although I was still employed as a research scientist, I spent less time in the field and studying fossils back at the museum, and more time with staff of the museum's then antiquated education service.  The museum's administration probably disapproved of my interfering in matters not covered in my job description, so, to avoid impending conflict, I moved to another city to become Director of a much smaller museum.  Being the boss of the whole operation at last, I could make the changes in museum affairs that I thought were necessary.  Fortunately, the Board of Trustees were understanding and helpful.  I hope that I did make a positive difference to the museum in the 15 years I spent there.  It had certainly changed.

Since I retired, I have applied some of the experience I gained over the years to indulge in a childhood interest, the military history of the province where I was born and raised, and to which I returned in my later years.  I have been fortunate in my life.  Firstly, there were diamond-bearing deposits to explore, then fossils to collect and study, followed by a museum to change, and finally a province with a fairly blood-soaked history to keep my aging brain active.

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