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Drawn to Nature: Night at the Banff Park Museum

By Keili Bartlett

Although all of the museums in Banff National Park feature interesting exhibits, one of my favourites is the Banff Park Museum. Yes, the one filled with taxidermy. But before you write off the specimen as “creepy,” consider this: the collection housed here offers an invaluable look at the past.

The Banff Park Museum is one of the oldest in Photo by: Ian Holmes @irrationalcarny

The Banff Park Museum is the oldest natural history museum in western Canada. Photo by: Ian Holmes @irrationalcarny

The first time I went to the Banff Park Museum, my sister Allie was visiting and one of our roommates from university had recently moved to Banff to work as an interpretive guide for Parks Canada (small world!). As we caught up, he showed us around the oldest natural history museum in western Canada. We learned about the history of the building, local animal specimen and the evolving relationship between the park’s visitors and wildlife. An art student at the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (the same one the Whytes attended), Allie stared through the antique glass at the birds, bison, bears and other specimen, itching to draw them in her sketchbook. Because of the special nature of the glass, it is particularly difficult to take a good photo of the exhibit, and resorting to more traditional documentation methods is necessary.

Months after that first trip, I was reminded of this moment when I saw a post on Facebook about Drawn to Nature. A series of still-life drawing workshops coordinated by Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Parks Canada, classes are held once a month at different historical locations in town. The next one was at the Banff Park Museum. I checked my phone, and my roommate Molly had already texted me asking if I wanted to register for the class with her.

The day arrived. We were both nervous of the state of our neglected drawing skills when we entered the 1903 log cabin, and took seats in a room off to the side. The group was more diverse than I expected, including visitors from Ontario and the U.K., children, seniors and everyone in between. We all introduced ourselves, and described how much experience with art we had. Experience ranged from professional artists-in-residence to a young girl who “started with scribbling” as a toddler and has been drawing (for the few years) ever since.

Parks Canada’s Amar, a wildlife photographer in his spare time, gave us a brief history of the museum’s collection and special architecture (built for $10,000 at the time). Then, the Banff Centre’s Emma Campbell led us in a few simple drawing exercises before she let us loose to choose a specimen to capture, armed with a provided set of pencils, paper, a drawing board and an eraser.

We started by sketching skulls at the Banff Park Museum.

We started by sketching skulls at the Banff Park Museum.

Our group was joined by Blackfoot elder Dila Houle, who spoke as we practiced drawing the skulls of a bear and a mountain goat. She told us of a type of bear, like a grizzly, that was once native to the plains. Sketching as she spoke, in a room not far from other animals that once roamed the area, it was easy to feel connected to that part of history. Much like drawing from the specimen subjects in front of us, Houle’s story gave us insight into what life – for animals and people – was once like.

Emma then let us choose our own subjects to draw. Picking up Parks Canada stools, each person wandered the museum until they found something that drew them in. I plopped down to capture a Night Hawk Owl as best I could as I chatted with a Banff local in the same section. It had grown dark outside and, despite the large group spread throughout the two-storey museum, was peacefully quiet. I focused on the rhythmic scratching of my pencil, and lost track of time. When Emma patiently waited for us to return our materials, I realized it was late – we’d been there for several hours.

Banff Centre and Parks Canada have paired to lead free art classes throughout Banff's museums and parks.

Banff Centre and Parks Canada have paired to lead free art classes throughout Banff’s museums and parks.

Back home, I sent a picture of my owl drawing to Allie. Despite her own access to museums, art galleries and her classes, she wrote back, “I’m so jealous!” The Whytes were on to something when they moved to Banff to further their art careers in the mountains. (The museum that holds their life work and collection is one of the sites where Drawn to Nature is hosted.)

The night hawk owl sketched during a Drawn to Nature workshop.

The night hawk owl sketched during a Drawn to Nature workshop.

My sketch of an owl now adorns my bedroom wall (although Molly and I joked about hanging our new art on the fridge) to remind me that I can return to the museum, pick up a stool anytime and continue to draw. So can you; the stools are available upon request, so you just need to bring your own materials. Check the schedule to see when (and where!) the next Drawn to Nature class will be.

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