If you stroll down the Main Mall of the University of British Columbia, you’ll pass by an enormous whale skeleton on display in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. It’s the biggest one on display in Canada. Cameron had walked past it over the summer with his camps, transferring from wherever he started on campus to the pool. So when I suggested on Sunday that we go to the Biodiversity Museum, Cameron got excited.
The one with the whale skeleton, Mama? Can we go in? Can we see it? Please?
I’d heard from other sciency parents that this was the best museum to take kids to. That it’s exciting, they love it, they learn so much! And certainly the lovely woman at the admissions desk knew her stuff with kids, she knew just how to talk to them. In a few moments she had Cameron answering his own questions (he does that a lot, asks ‘how come’ when he knows the answer), and then had him excited about a scavenger hunt. Follow the hints to collect letters (and, incidentally, learn stuff), and then unscramble them to make two words. So excited that he barely batted an eyelash at the enormous skeleton hanging overhead as we descended to the museum level.
By the end of the Atrium entranceway, Cameron had learned about how baleen whales eat, with a jar of krill, a chunk of baleen, and a reminder about what a strainer does. A little humour involving miming spitting helped. And he learned about migration – how far some creatures migrate, why, and when. Will he remember that the harp seals migrate from the high arctic to the pack ice of the maritimes to rear their young? No, probably not. But he will remember the basic idea of migration, with the help of specimens of animals, a magnet board map with yarn migration routes on it, and a matching game. At both of those displays Cameron was interested enough to ask questions that showed he was listening. Yay! Oh, and with that exercise came his first success – a letter for the scavenger hunt!
Ohdear, I thought, as we left the Atrium for the main exhibits. Stark black walls. Hallway after narrow hallway of collections. Nothing ‘kiddie’. Small printing, displays of creatures preserved in various ways, half the displays were too high up for Cameron to see, were my friends just imagining that their kids enjoyed this? I imagined leaving with one upset, bored, fussy kid.
I was so wrong.
Cameron was amazed and entranced. He looked at everything. Between rows of displays there were more in the floor, so that even small kids could sit and gaze at animals, shells, fossils, plants. Counter-height displays were in many of the long hallways, each looking like one of those “look and find” book pages. Magnifying glasses drew Cameron’s interest, and he exclaimed, look, a bug! Mama, what’s this? What’s coral? All the way through. Halfway through, we discovered that (much like the nearby Museum of Anthropology) drawers in these cabinets could be opened. So many things to discover! What’s in that one? Mama, tell me about evolution? Mama, this says Red Panda, it’s a panda skull!
The scavenger hunt was cleverly designed to draw people through the exhibit, one letter per major organization area. Each had a little nugget of information to learn about how the animals or plants or fungus had adapted to its environment.
At the back of the museum was first the family area, which looked just wonderful. By this point we were running out of time, so I didn’t get a good look, but I did see lots of activities, playful seating for kids, comfortable seating for grownups. There was a craft area, with a helpful and kind young woman who sent Cameron home with all he needed to do the craft.
Lastly was the jaw-dropping part. As a biologist myself, I got excited. Cameron’s eyes just about dropped out of his head. The Discovery Lab had preserved animals, bones, microscopes, wasp nests, all sorts of things for hands-on discovery. Cameron got to hold a bear’s skull, exciting for him especially as his kindergarten class is doing a unit on bears this month. A wonderful young woman showed us through this area, and I’m so thankful, as it was really time for the museum to close by this point. She talked with Cameron about hibernation, and how different animals do it – bears, marmots (I think it was), and bats, with examples right there in front of him. She showed him the wasp nest, and told him about how they’re made. By this point he was hitting overload, but still was enthusiastic.
He did a marvelous job of finding all the letters in the scavenger hunt – but unscrambling them was a little more challenging for him. Hard to do when you can barely read. So I helped.
We’ll go back, I’m sure. Hopefully with Kate too, and hopefully with more than just an hour and a half to spend there!
If you go, don’t be intimidated. There’s not a lot of explanation along with the displays, but don’t worry. The kids, and maybe you too, will be amazed by the incredible diversity of life. There are also lots of employees (or volunteers?) scattered throughout, who you can ask for explanation. Everyone we spoke with was kind and helpful. If you or the kids hit overload, call it ‘enough’, and head to the Diversity Lab at the back for some hands-on exploration, or take a break at the Niche cafe (which has the best name I’ve ever heard of for a coffee place).