Friday, 28 March 2014



Happy Museum Week! As this week we have reviewed a sampling of several lesser-known museums, exhibitions, and museum professionals, I thought I would tackle an object from a genre of museums that we have not yet covered this year on the Musings blog: the university museum.

While many university museums are internationally renowned institutions, nevertheless it still can be easy to forget what wonderful exhibition spaces and objects we have right in our own university backyards. Here at U of T, among many gems to find extraordinary exhibitions on campus include (but are certainly not limited to) the Thomas Fisher Rare Book library, the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC), the Justina M. Barnicke Collection at Hart House, and -- of course -- the upcoming museum studies student exhibitions at U of T and around the city.

The Redpath Museum at McGill University.
Source: Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada
Though there are many fascinating objects all across the U of T campus, this week’s featured object comes from another Canadian university with excellent objects: “Sara” the Triceratops at McGill University’s Redpath Museum. I thought this object would interest our Musings readers not only because it is just an all-around cool object (who doesn’t love dinosaurs?), but also because the Redpath’s online exhibition about “Sara” wonderfully details the process of excavating, caring for, and presenting this fossil of a triceratops skull.

Triceratops cranium. Source: Redpath Museum

According the Redpath’s exhibition, “Sara” the Triceratops was unearthed during two different expeditions in 2006 and 2007 in Saskatchewan. The 275 kilogram fossil that McGill palaeontology professor Dr. Hans Larsson and a group of McGill students uncovered is roughly 65 million years old. The virtual exhibition on the Redpath Museum’s website shares a concise textual and visual snapshot of how “Sara” was uncovered and of the basic information of the triceratops’ body composition, lifespan, residence, and more. Inside the museum -- right in the middle of McGill’s campus -- students, faculty, or any passersby can walk in and see a cast of “Sara” on display in a classic nineteenth-century museum. (The museum itself is a historical object worth examining. Fun fact about the Redpath Museum: completed in 1882, it is the oldest building in Canada built as a museum. A must-see for the next MMSt field trip?)

The historic Redpath Museum. Source: Redpath Museum

The interior of the Redpath Museum. Source: Redpath Museum

Regarding “Sara”’s status as a replica, the Redpath’s online exhibition is very transparent about the fact that the “Sara” skull in the museum is not the actual fossil (the original is at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for further study). What I enjoy about the exhibition’s mention of the Triceratops fossil as a replica is that it becomes a teachable moment for readers and visitors. The exhibit poses and answers important questions about collections generally, such as: what are some of the many reasons that objects are withheld from museum displays? How are moulds and casts made? Addressing these questions about one object enables the museum to discuss practices and processes in museums generally.

"Sara"'s teeth. Source: Redpath Museum
Another reason why I appreciate this object (and its presentation) is because of the personal stories and everyday engagement that resulted from “Sara” coming to McGill. For example, one of the lead palaeontologists on the team discusses her son’s role in naming the Triceratops fossil (did anyone get the reference to The Land Before Time?). And as the site mentions, when “Sara” came to McGill in 2008, she was welcomed by a fan following, complete with “Sara” t-shirts. I love it when museum artifacts join the ranks of other celebrity dinosaurs!

While you might not be in the neighbourhood of the Redpath Museum anytime soon, do make a point to check out all of the great happenings and exhibitions happening at U of T. (But if you do happen to be in the McGill area, also ask the library about their amazing collection of Abraham Lincoln books, manuscripts, prints, and ephemera.)


  1. Great post Katherine! Very true about university museums...people (myself included) often don't even realize what they have right on their own campus! Most of my museum work experience and I think most of my childhood museum experiences have actually been in University galleries. Primarily the U of Saskatchewan.

    I remember going to the U of S geology building to see all the dinosaur bones (they have an awesome T-rex skeleton) with my aunt while she was a student whenever i could get the chance...even as a university student myself, I loved walking through that building. I didn't even know the U of S had an antiquities museum until my 4th year of university. A lucky find, as it inspired my museum career ;)
    One thing I learned working in a university museum is that it is so crucial to incorporate the museum into the university's academic programs as much as possible (and in off campus communities if possible as well) - both for the sheer elevated experience of hands-on learning of a topic, but also, the more active an institution is with its community (campus and beyond), the better chance it has of sticking around. This seems fairly common sense to us as museum folk, perhaps, but as you point out in your article, these amazing university collections often get overlooked. These collections, since there is often not proper staffing to facilitate them, are also great opportunities for student positions as well - whether it is to gain experience in museum fields, gain experience in whatever field the collection deals with, or just for a really cool volunteer opportunity.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brittney! You brought up a concept that I had in mind while writing but didn't address in the post explicitly -- the many ways that students can contribute to or be involved in the projects of a university museum. In this case, I thought it was fantastic that a group of McGill students were on the dig that uncovered "Sara"'s cranium. And in your case, it's wonderful to hear the story of the U of S museum, because it shows how influential university museums can be for a student's career path. Very cool!

  2. I am so glad to see stories about universities museums and galleries! There are so many hidden gens in universities, especially for us, museums and objects lovers! As great such institutions are, you are right to state that better integration must be achieved between museums on campuses (and their objects) and students. What could be some ways in which such museums can engage students better? (ex: Friday Night events?)