General Articles

Step Up and Meet Minnie the Mummy

Half a million folks a year spin the turnstiles of the Royal Ontario Museum to see the oldest show on earth

C. FRED BODSWORTH August 1 1948
General Articles

Step Up and Meet Minnie the Mummy

Half a million folks a year spin the turnstiles of the Royal Ontario Museum to see the oldest show on earth

C. FRED BODSWORTH August 1 1948

Step Up and Meet Minnie the Mummy


RECENTLY a blanched, trembling man strode into the office of Stuart C. Downing, mammalogist at the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology in Toronto, and tossed a small roll of paper table napkin on Downing’s desk.

“Open it!” he exclaimed. “Cat rib, that’s what it is. In a sausage I just ate.”

The visitor’s voice rose almost to a shout. Downing unwrapped the package.

“I have a lawyer. We’re going to sue the butcher, the meat packers. Let the public know what’s really happening. My lawyer wants you to identify what rib it is.”

The bone was less than an inch long, with a small knob at one end. Downing pulled out a very large flat tray and began comparing it with the numerous small similar bones that the tray contained. A few moments later he glanced up, smiling, at the alarmed diner.

“You’ve been eating legitimate sausage fare,” Downing told him. “It isn’t a cat rib, it’s a piece of hyoid bone from a beef tongue. Probably it was broken off in the chopper and got into the sausage makings by accident.”

The color returned to the stranger’s cheeks. A minute later he was telephoning his lawyer to call off the lawsuit.

Every day is quiz-program day behind the grey limestone façade of the Royal Ontario Museum, on the north edge of Toronto’s Queen’s Park. The queries come by telephone, telegram, letter and word of mouth—a flood of puzzlers on everything from the tonnage of the planet Jupiter to “Why are women afraid of mice?”

One man, after a session of studying his Bible, was all set to predict when the world would end if the museum could provide the final clue with an answer to the query: “How old is a young pigeon?’ This entertaining behind-the-scenes side show is something which springs from the basic character of the Royal Ontario Museum itself. For this museum is no musty repository for tarnished relics of the past. Instead it is planned and laid out to interpret science and the earth’s past history to Mr. Average Man and his school-going youngster, so that through 'knowing the story of our yesterdays they become better-informed citizens of today.

Half a million folks a year spin the turnstiles of the Royal Ontario Museum to see the oldest show on earth

Close to half a million persons a year file through its polished turnstile gates to read there the drama of the earth’s history. Few of them realize that only London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Washington and Chicago boast larger institutions of its class. They may know that it is the largest museum in Canada, but are unaware that it is the only really large museum Canada will ever have.

Explains Robert Fennell, chairman of its board of trustees:

“Countries like Egypt and China are clinging tightly to their archaeological finds today, both for nationalistic reasons and for their tourist value. As a result, it is becoming harder to get exhibits. Large museums are a frozen asset. The world’s museum family will grow no larger.”

Golfer Goes to the Dogs

WHAT does the average visitor learn in an afternoon of browsing around the 84 display galleries on the museum’s four floors? One Sunday recently I squeezed through the crowd (on occasion as high as 10,000 on a single Sunday afternoon) and collared a few to find out.

A short ruddy man with a neck so abbreviated that his chin almost hid his tie from view had evidently spent the whole afternoon studying the exhibits of primitive North American Indian life.

“Savages, my neck!” he exclaimed. “I used to look down my nose at Indians, but you know they were pretty smart ducks. Life wasn’t an easy business for them, yet they found time to develop a pretty fine culture and art. Discoveries like that make you wonder how many other prejudices you have which are based on hearsay.”

Next victim of my one-man Gallup poll was a youngish chap, who said he had come to the museum that day merely because rain had washed out the day’s goif match. What had impressed him most?

“That exhibit of mounted dogs on the third floor, showing all the types produced by selective breeding,” he replied. “I realized suddenly that this is an illustration of evolution. There’s more up there than things to look at—there’s ideas floating around too.”

I approached a short, greying woman, chaperoning a grandson in knee breeches who didn’t want to go home until he had gone back and taken a second look at the dinosaurs. He had forgotten to notice whether they had toenails. So had grandma.

She had overlooked this detail, grandma confessed, because she was too filled with wonder at what she had seen previously in the Chinese collection on the floor above.

1 he bronze and pottery that was being produced in China, 3,000 years ago!” she exclaimed.

Yet today people say the Chinese are a backward nation.”

She showed me two 15-cent booklets on Chinese history which she had purchased at the information desk. She had come to the museum to entertain her grandson. She was going home to study the seeds from which our civilization sprang.

Occasionally visitors carry home more than new ideas. The last few vertebrae of the tail of one of the largest dinosaurs were snapped off some

years ago to become the prize item in some souvenir fiend’s collection. Minnie the Mummy’s left big toe suffered the same fate. After a museum guard noticed her foot sticking toeless through its ancient Egyptian binding, one day, she was given a glass case immediately and is no longer prey for souvenir hunters.

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Step Up and Meet Minnie the Mummy

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Most of the museum’s wares are safely ensconced behind glass and 19 uniformed guards are on the prowl all of the time keeping an eye on things. Yet museum authorities say , that every once in a while a souvenir grabber or a plain everyday thief makes off with something. Last September a guard discovered a hole hacked up through the bottom of a case containing 19th-century jewelry. An antique watch valued at $200 was missing. The guard started trailing two youths who had been seen near the case and police were called. One youth had the watch in his pocket, the other carried a large army knife which had been used to hack a hole through the case.

Beneath its architectural finery of ornately carved stone, the Royal Ontario Museum is actually four museums which have little more than a nodding acquaintance with each other. There is the Museum of Geology and Mineralogy, which tells the story of the stuff of the earth itself; the Museum of Paleontology, with its record of extinct prehistoric life in thousands of forms ranging from minute fossils to dinosaur skeletons 20 feet tall; the Museum of Zoology, with lifelike mounts of birds and animals which live today; and the Museum of Archaeology which traces the development of man’s culture and civilization.

Each museum largely runs its own show but administration of the institution as a whole is tied pretty tightly to the apron strings of the University of Toronto. And the museum’s bread and buttera grant of about a quarter of a million dollars a yearnow comes entirely out of the university’s pocket. With a staff of 111 persons, this grant provides little more than the museum’s annual maintenance expenses. Collecting expeditions and most purchases of new materials have had to depend on the generosity of the museum's friends. Many of its most outstanding collections have been donated by private collectors or purchased by the museum wit h funds provided in gifts.

Some materials arrive unannounced and unexpectedly. In 1939 a New York art dealer sent the museum two 13thcentury European sculptures of the Madonna and the Child. When asked why he desired to present pieces of art worth several thousand dollars to a Canadian museum, he replied that he was a diabetic and that this was the only way he knew of expressing his gratitude to Toronto’s Sir Frederick Banting and I)r. Charles H. Best for the discovery of insulin which saved his life.

Taxing the Dodo

Occasionally the museum obtains articles by trading, schoolboy fashion, with other museums. One of the best deals of this nature came close to being vetoed by Customs men at the border. Toronto paleontologists had traded a 500-pound dinosaur skull to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology for a dodo skeleton. It was a grand bargain. The Royal Ontario Museum had several dinosaur skeletons, but there were only four dodo skeletons on the entire continent, none of them in Canada. The dodo skeleton was too valuable to trust to ordinary methods of shipping and was being brought to Toronto literally in the arms of a Harvard professor. But the Customs men cared not a hoot for science. They thumbed through sheet after sheet of tariff regulations, found none covering the dear dead dodo. Royal Ontario Museum authorities meeting the Harvard professor at the border had visions of the dodo bird being shooed back to the U. S. But finally the baffled Customs men relented. Pay a sales tax and Canada can have its dodo, they agreed. The museum paid the sales tax hastily without asking any questions, but they still can’t figure out how a barter involving only crumbling bones could be interpreted as a sale.

Museum authorities have stressed popular education so strongly that on every school day the museum is virtually turned int o a classroom. Last year about 50,000 school children between eight and 18 visited the museum as part of their regular class studies; about half of them came from Toronto schools, the rest from as much as 150 miles away. Five trained schoolteachers are maintained at the museum to conduct and lecture to the classes.

Gallery talks cover subjects related to those children are studying at school. Most popular topics are those on pioneer life in Ontario, Indian and Eskimo life, Roman Britain, dinosaurs and arms and armor.

No Man Was Minnie

Some of those starry-eyed youngsters, on their first museum adventure, see far more than the teacher points out to them. 1 joined one class for a lecture on the development of clothing. When we reached the costume gallery, resplendent with luxurious 18thand 19th-century gowns, the girls were as excited as they will be on their wedding days, the boys were bored. One freckled, high-booted lad whispered to a chum: “Women used to have

small figures then, eh?” Replied the chum, promptly, “They didn’t used to eat vitamins them days.”

The museum’s school educational program doesn’t end even with the thousands of youngsters who visit it personally. For 10,000 other Ontario pupils, too far distant to come to the museum, the museum goes to them with specially prepared traveling collections. A teacher accompanies the exhibits on tours through northern and eastern Ontario each winter.

Like a stage show, the Royal Ontario Museum has a backstage drama as colorful as that which the audience sees out in front. It is a drama of dinosaur hunts across the sandstone badlands of Alberta, of rafting Indian totem poles down Alaskan rivers and of 500-mile oxcart treks across China’s arid interior to save priceless Buddhist murals from the vandalism of rebel forces. Sometimes it is more bizarre than dramatic —when they X-rayed the mummified remains of an Egyptian “gentleman,” for instance, and discovered that the mummy was no gentleman at all, but had been an Egyptian lady for all her 3.000 years. That’s why she’s known as “Minnie the Mummy” now.

This backstage drama involves also the preservation of materials after they have been obtained. Nature has a bothersome habit of trying to break down everything made by man and convert it back into its original chemical elements. William Todd, known to museum folk as a preparatof, has to guard against the stealthy forces of nature just as closely as against souvenir hunters.

“Carbons and soot in city air unite with moisture and create acid deposits on objects and start them deteriorating in much the same way as rust eats away iron,” says Todd.

Every week Todd examines the thousands of relics in the Museum of Archaeology for these telltale signs of damage. No fastidious housewife hates dust films as much as prepara tor Todd. And when damage of this sort gets started, the object attacked has to be removed from its case and cleaned in a chemical electrolysis bath in a lab downstairs.

The Museum of Archaeology’s most prized jewel is the Chinese collection, covering 35 centuries of Chinese history. It is regarded by scholars to be the most comprehensive and wellbalanced collection of its kind in the world and has been estimated by outside collectors to be worth $10 millions. But Bishop William C. White, keeper of the museum’s East Asiatic collection, says merely: “Its value can’t be


From his desk he picked up a 3,000year-old bronze wine cup, tarnished green by centuries of lying in the earth. “I obtained this in China last summer,” he said. “Last week I showed it to a museum archaeologist from Amsterdam. He told me that it would be worth $8,000 to a European museum today.”

But Bishop White adds quickly that the Toronto museum didn’t pay anything approaching millions for the materials of its Chinese collection. In the past 35 years, since the nucleus of the collection was formed, the value of Chinese antiquities has soared to astronomical heights. About 40 years ago a Buddha head was dug from the mire of a Chinese tomb and bought a few years afterward by Dr. C. T. Currelly, one of the founders of the Koyal Ontario Museum, for $13.50; recently a collector in New York City paid $7,500 for an identical head.

The Chinese collection was first started in 1907 by Dr. Currelly (who retired in 1946 after serving 37 years as the Museum of Archaeology’s director) at a time when other museums were still merely lukewarm toward Oriental antiquities. Then in 1920 Dr. Currelly met Bishop White of the Church of England’s Chinese diocese of Honan, while he was in Toronto on furlough. Doctor Currelly asked if the bishop, on his return to China, would try to find someone there interested in Chinese archaeology who could be trusted to purchase materials for the Royal Ontario Museum.

Forty-foot Fresco

“When I got back to China I could find no one interested in such things, so I got books and studied up the subject myself,” recalls Bishop White. “I had been in China 23 years then and knew China well, but I had had no interest in its archaeology.”

I he interest Bishop White quickly acquired proved to be an increasingly enthusiastic one, and being on the spot in one of China’s richest interior archaeological zones, he was able to acquire numerous treasures for the I oronto museum at very low prices. In 1934 he was appointed professor of Chinese archaeology, his job to establish a school of Chinese studies in Canada, and also became keeper of the museum’s East Asiatic collection. Today Bishop White is one of America’s foremost authorities on ancient China and the author of nine books on Chinese archaeology and history.

Among Bishop White’s rarest finds is a large mural or fresco of the 13th century, which came from the clay walls of a Buddhist temple far in the interior of China. About 40 by 20 feet, it is considered one of the best-preserved pieces of Chinese temple murals j in existence. The story behind it is one of the Royal Ontario Museum’s epic chapters.

During a famine in China, about 20 years ago, Buddhist monks in the Í interior were starving and at the same ¡ time revolutionary forces were pressing upward from the south, destroying temples, looting and killing as they came. The monks, who were guardians of the large fresco, feared it would be destroyed. And they knew it could be sold and food purchased with the j proceeds. With rebel soldiery a few days’ march away, they sold it to a j group of Chinese dealers from Peking, j who cut the entire picture from the wall in 62 separate slabs of clay, each about ; three feet square and two inches thick, j The crumbling blocks were packed in crates of straw and sent off by oxcart to Tientsin, 500 miles away. For three j weeks the oxcart drivers pressed east; ward over rugged trails and they won their race with rebels to Tientsin.

A short time later as Bishop White was leaving China he learned of the rare fresco and arranged for its purchase. The clay pieces were wrapped in cotton batting and shipped in crates.

The Royal Ontario Museum now possessed one of the Far East’s finest examples of ancient art. But what could be done with it? The paint, parched and cracked, was on sheets of clay so fragile that it crumbled at a touch. They called in an expert from the Fogg Art Museum, Boston, and with William Todd assisting commenced a delicate process of restoration.

Missing Inches

The paint was hardened by brushing in numerous applications of liquid plastic until the solution permeated through the paint to the clay behind, and then more plastic was built up in a “Cellophane”-like layer over the paint surface of each block. Next, thin rice paper was pasted over each paint surface and a sheet of cotton over that. The overlapping edges of cotton were j tacked tautly down on a floor with the clay from the monastery walls on its back, facing upward. Then Todd and the expert from Boston had to slice off the clay a shaving at a time, until they got down to the back of the paint.

“It was tedious work,” recounts Todd, “and took six months. When we got down to the last eighth of an inch of clay we had to grind the rest off with a carborundum block, so as not to injure the paint, using a small vacuum cleaner to clear away the dust as we worked. Finally, all of the clay was gone and only the paint surface was i left adhering face downward to the 1 cotton.”

Each block of painting was re1 mounted on new canvas and Masonite board with a plastic glue, then the cotton, rice paper and plastic had to be soaked off the outer surface. Finally, the scene, showing an emperor and empress having their heads shaved in a Buddhist ceremony, had to be pieced j together square by square like a jigsaw 1 puzzle.

“And that was tough,” says Todd, j “because there was a space of about an inch along the edge of every square that had been lost in the saw cut when the monks sawed down the original wall.”

If there is ever a world jigsaw puzzle contest, Royal Ontario Museum authorities say Todd would probably be Canada’s most qualified contender.

China’s 3,000-year-old archaeological relics are mere hand-downs from the day before yesterday compared with the 300-million-year-old fossils of fish and the 75-million-year-old dinosaur skeletons which make the Museum of Paleontology look like the stage setting for a Frankenstein Halloween party. For a peek at the pre-Adam world, the Royal Ontario’s dinosaur collection is excelled only by that of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And practically all of its skeletal giants are, or were, Canadian citizens, having been dug out of the sandstone and clay of Alberta’s Red Deer River badlands, one of the most productive dinosaur cemeteries that scientists have found in any part of the world.

“We prospect rocks looking for outcroppings of bone the same as a prospector looks for outcroppings of ore,” said Levi Sternberg, chief preparator of the museum’s vertebrate section of paleontology. “Then, by using rock drills, light charges of dynamite, pick and shovel, we remove the overburden and cut out big blocks of the rock with the bones still in them. Each block weighs up to a ton and a half. We wrap the block in a thick coating of burlap dipped in plaster of Paris as a protection before we attempt to move them.”

It takes a team of four men about two years to free a dinosaur skeleton from its rock and to fit the bones together with metal braces into a finished mount for the museum’s gallery. Usually a few bones are missing and the museum technicians fill out the missing parts with reproductions of plaster of Paris so that visitors get a true picture of what the animal looked like in life. But museum science condones no fakery. The dummy bones are always painted a lighter color and labeled so that the public understands they are not the real thing.

“We used to set up what parts of a skeleton we had and expect people to visualize what parts were missing and where these missing parts should fit in,” says Sternberg. “A mastodon we set up that way had no leg bones at all. People used to remark, ‘Look at the funny animals. No legs.’”

But the Royal Ontario Museum is not entirely a repository for things ancient and dead. The Museum of Zoology possesses in its public galleries and in its scientific study collections some 90,000 specimens of birds and mammals, most of them Canadian and contemporary.

Numerous expeditions to all parts of Canada, Alaska and the Arctic during the past 20 years, in which museum biologists have fought black flies and muskeg in quest of wild-life lore, have helped to provide government conservationists with a scientific foundation which the game laws and gamepropagation efforts are based on.

But with all their wild-life studies, there’s no one in the Museum of Zoology who is any more prepared than the geologists, paleontologists or archaeologists to foretell the end of the world by explaining what the Bible means when it refers to “the age of a young pigeon.” Nor have they answered the man yet who asked: “Why are women afraid of mice?” ★