Museum of Natural History not ready for March Break

Renovations to the Museum of Natural History won't be finished in time for the king cobra's March Break visit.

The kids were promised king cobras. The sign outside the Museum of Natural History announced an appearance by the snakes for the upcoming March break.

Sadly, the cobras are cancelled, or at least postponed. The museum, which received about 10,000 visitors during last year's school vacation, is closed for renovations until late May or early June, several months later than the planned January re-opening.

The museum announced the closure in mid-September. But the list of fixes kept growing. "It's a bigger project than we thought we were getting into but it's worth it in the long run," says Janet Maltby, manager of the museum, leading a walk-through of the construction zone.

They had to replace the ceiling, found to contain asbestos near the front of the 40-year-old building. The asbestos, which posed no health threat, Maltby says, was discovered during an assessment ordered by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, which owns the building and is paying for its renovations. The museum is the tenant. The two sides decided to do all the work on their to-do lists at once.

The old ceiling tiles were removed, adding several feet of space overhead. "We found there was a whole structure up there that was original to the building," Maltby says, pointing up to steel gridwork that will act as a suspension frame for exhibition elements.

Carpets come up, uncovering brickwork, like cobblestone. A bank of south-facing windows, obstructed by walls, has been revealed again, letting in natural light. Open working spaces and labs will allow the public to observe museum staff caring for live animals, Gus the tortoise, age 87, included.

A worker cuts a length from a row of spools of coloured wire. Electrical infrastructure, including lighting, is getting updated for more precise control, greater visibility and sustainability.

"The new lighting system is not only better for people, but better in terms of light levels on objects," says David Christianson, manager of the collections unit for the Nova Scotia Museum, the network of 27 variously sized sites across the province.

Paradoxically, light helps and harms in a museum. Water and high humidity are intruders to be beat back. Work on the museum's roof and exterior brick walls recently wrapped up. That's part of the defence. A more responsive, energy-efficient climate-control system indoors provides the rest.

Even the freight elevators are being overhauled. "Visitors never see a freight elevator," Christianson says. "But if we're bringing up a two-tonne paleontological specimen, we like a good freight elevator."

What visitors will see, of course, are revamped exhibitions. "It's more about creating an immersive experience, not just things in square cases," says Maltby.

The new approach combines past and present thinking into one display. The now-classic taxidermy, models and dioramas---the moose, bear, the whale---still have a role: artifacts of artifact-keeping. "A lot of the dioramas we have are part of the institution's history," says Maltby. "If you look at exhibit design and development now, they speak to museum history."

That history and knowledge will appear in new contexts, alongside new and varied media.

A new foyer exhibition (to be unveiled in the fall, after the re-opening) will focus on forest ecology, including "life in a log." In the museum's basement workshop, a six-foot tall hollow log form in rough-hewn wood is partway through its fabrication. Visitors will be able to walk around and into the habitat, encountering all creatures calling it home.

If you were counting on the cobras, they'll be here, schedule permitting.