My Brilliant Career
- 1933 - 1968
Robert Taylor and the ROM
My first contact with the ROM was in 1948 when our grade 4 class from Coleman Avenue School took the Bloor streetcar along the Danforth to Avenue Road and across to the museum. We were in awe of the magnitude of the building itself as we trundled up the concrete steps to the front doors.
Once inside, the two large totem poles surrounded by spiral staircases were impressive as we clustered around their bases gazing infinitely upwards. This was only the gateway to galleries full of intrigue and fascinating artifacts. An afternoon school trip gave hardly enough time to see all of the museum galleries, but it did spark an interest in me that would last a lifetime.
On that first trip to the museum I was told about the Saturday Morning Club. A gentleman, named Frank Smith, was one of the Saturday instructors, teaching kids how to carve birds from Balsa Wood. Frank had been one of the last licensed market hunters in Canada and by the late 1940’s had turned his interests to carving birds full-time so that he could sell the carvings to schools and teach students about the wild birds.
One of Frank’s Saturday morning students, Robert Bateman, went on to become Canada’s best known wildlife artist. His career was almost certainly influenced by the Royal Ontario Museum, through the Saturday Morning Club, later as the mammal group leader at the Toronto Junior Field Naturalists Club, and through his regular contact with the natural history staff and artist at the museum.
In 1951, I joined the Toronto Junior Field Naturalists and gravitated towards the birding group, led by Ilmar Talvila. Other group leaders were Robert Bateman (mammals), Jim Woodford (mammals and birds), Alf Bunker and his two sisters (general natural history), Dr. Walter Tovell (rocks and minerals) and several others whose names I don’t recall. Under the guidance of Ilmar Talvila, we made several birding field trips within the city each year to places like High Park, the Lake Ontario Shoreline, Don Valley, and other parks and valleys. In May of 1953, Ilmar and his friend Arnie Lamsa, took eight of us to Point Pelee in their two automobiles for a long weekend birding trip. That trip opened up a whole new world to us and many of that first Pelee group have become accomplished lifelong birders. I myself have only missed nine spring migration seasons at Pelee in the last sixty years and it all started at the ROM.
My cousin, Elmer Taylor, was in charge of the specimen preparation lab at the museum and in 1954, he recommended me to the hiring staff to work in the lab. Though I was only fourteen years old at the time, my enthusiasm must have played a role in getting me hired and I spent that summer cleaning skeletons and making study skins of birds and small mammals. Though it was at times a “yucky” job, I learned a lot and became quite proficient in the tasks assigned to me. I worked there again for the summer of 1955 and began the summer of 1956.
In June of 1956 William H. (Bill) Carrick came into the lab and asked if I would be interested in working with him on making natural history films. Bill had for a few years done stills photography for the museum and came there on a regular basis. That summer, he had been given contracts to make two half-hour ecology films, one of the freshwater stream and one of the freshwater marsh and he needed an assistant to work with him in the field. By mutual agreement, I reluctantly left the museum job and went to work with Bill.
During my two summers working in the zoology lab a number of memorable experiences occurred. My two co-workers, Steve and Neil, sometimes played little practical jokes like putting waxed paper or cheesecloth into the other guy’s luncheon sandwiches. But one day one of Neil’s escapades went a bit too far. For some reason, we were temporarily keeping a small alligator in a bathtub in the lab. Neil decided that the gator need some exercise, so he purchased a cat harness at a nearby store, put the harness on the alligator and took it for a walk along Bloor Street towards Bay Street. He didn’t get too far before he was stopped by two of Toronto’s finest police officers who luckily had a sense of humour and brought Neil and the gator back to the museum, rather than taking him to the police station.
Another day, I answered the telephone to a rather distraught voice on the other end belonging to a woman who ran the gift shop and entrance booth near the front doors. “Can somebody get up here right away” was the request, so I ran up as quickly as I could only to find a nail keg, a small barrel about two feet high, sitting on the counter with a piece of metal screen held onto the top by a loose fitting piece of string. The keg had been brought to the museum on the streetcar by two young boys and it contained two Massasauga Rattlesnakes.
They had captured the snakes while at a summer camp in Muskoka and brought them home. Their parents were not impressed and sent them right away to the museum to get rid of them. The woman at the front desk was in shock over the whole event, so I quickly thanked the boys for bringing them and then took the nail keg and rattlesnakes downstairs to our lab. We contacted someone at the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests who sent an officer over to retrieve the snakes and return them to Muskoka from whence they came.
Just a few steps down the hall from the zoology lab was the bug room, which was basically a large vault with a very secure and tight fitting door. Within the vault were rows of shelving upon which where placed roughly cleaned skeletons of anything from tiny bats and shrews to large moose. The vault housed hundreds of dermestid beetles, whose purpose was to clean the remaining meaty bits from the skeletons.
Two or three times each month we were required to spend a day in the vault sorting through the bones and checking on the progress of the various projects. It was not pleasant work and the strong smell of decaying flesh permeated our clothing and probably our skin itself. At the end of those days, I had to go home on the streetcar and that in itself was an experience.
Though I had probably gotten accustomed to the foul smell by the end of the day, the same could not be said for the others on the streetcar. I would be sitting there minding my own business when someone would come and sit beside me. Within seconds they would quietly get up and move to the furthest corner of the car, preferably where there was an open window. No one ever said anything to me, but I knew why they were moving away. On those days, it was a long lonely ride along the Danforth to Dawes Road and even when I got home I usually had to take off my clothes in the back porch and leave them outside to “air out”.
As best as I can remember, the natural history staff consisted of the following.
Dr. Lester Snyder was the head of the ornithology department and James L. (Jim) Baillie was the curator in ornithology. Jim Baillie wrote a weekly birding column in the Toronto Telegram newspaper and was a very popular birding walk leader and well-known to the public.
The mammalogy department was headed by Dr. Randolf (Moose) Peterson and ably assisted by Stuart Downing. Another member of that department for a time was (Rufous) Churcher. I think that his real first name was Charles, but he was called Rufous because of his research with Red Foxes.
The ichthyology (fish) department was in the basement, down the hall from our lab. The head of that department was Dr. W.B. (Bev) Scott, ably assisted by Dr. Ed Crossman and Peter Buershaper.
The museum artist was Terrance M. (Terry) Shortt, one of the finest wildlife artists ever in Canada.
The display department was headed for a time by Ario Gatti, a very talented and enthusiastic man of Italian origins. Sadly, Ario and three companions perished in a scuba diving accident at the Bruce Peninsula in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.
Those were the staff members that I got to know best as they were always willing to share their knowledge and experience with me and other young interested people. Their office doors always seemed to be open and welcoming to visitors.
Often Jim Baillie would take time at lunch hours to go through the bird study skin collection to teach me fine points of identification and taxonomy. Terry Shortt often took time to show me how to draw various parts of birds and sometimes mammals. We could spend a whole lunch hour just drawing feathers, or eyes, or beaks, or feet and I learned a lot of valuable information about drawing and painting from Terry.
One of the techniques that I learned from him was that of scratchboard drawing, a fine illustration method using India ink on a plaster-coated board and scratching through parts of the black ink to reveal the white plaster beneath with fine sharp tools. This knowledge allowed me to do illustrations for the Ontario Naturalist magazine and a couple of other local nature publications.
In 1954, two of my lifelong friends and I decided to establish the Toronto Bird Museum in the basement of Ted Warren’s parents home at 77 Dawes Road in Toronto’s east end. Me, Ted and our other pal, Jerry Anderson, collected all kinds of bird related artifacts, pictures, artworks, etc., and assembled them in the basement with the full support of Ted’s parents. Our display cases were mostly made of orange crates, generously donated by a local fruit market.
The museum staff also donated various superfluous items to our little venture and arranged with the Canadian Wildlife Service for us to have permission to salvage and possess stuffed birds and other items. Our Toronto Bird Museum definitely had its origins in my relationship with the Royal Ontario Museum. A couple of the museum people even attended our official opening on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1954. Ted’s mom made cookies and served tea and coffee for the occasion.
Ted, Jerry, and I have maintained enduring interests in natural history, particularly in birds, throughout our lives. Though Jerry and I ended up living in Manitoba since the mid 1960’s and Ted still lives in the Toronto area, we keep in close touch and have done many birding trips together over the decades.
One memorable experience, which I recall from my time working at the ROM, was the day that we were asked to go up to the display preparation area to help make a plaster mold of an Anaconda snake, which I think was about 17 feet long, maybe even a bit longer. The Anaconda, from South America is one of the largest snakes in the world and the latex casting of this specimen was for a new reptile gallery under development for the museum.
The snake was alive, but anesthetized, so the whole operation had to be done quickly and carefully. Ario Gatti and Terry Shortt were in charge of the carefully planned project. Because the snake was so large, and heavy, they needed eight or nine of us to assist in placing it into a bed of quick setting plaster in a large plywood box. In a matter of minutes we had the reptile in position and waited for the base to harden so that we could then pour the top half of the two-piece mold. The plaster was reinforced with lengths of pipe to give strength and to provide handles for lifting. The whole process was very intense and very exciting. The snake survived nicely and was returned to the Riverdale Zoo who had kindly loaned it to the ROM for casting.
As a result of my work experience at the Royal Ontario Museum I developed a small collection of bird skulls with beaks to show the different adaptations to the feeding habits of various types of birds. I was authorized to possess the bird skulls under the same permission that had been given to us for our Toronto Bird Museum. In 1959, I made a display of these skulls and illustrated the birds with paintings of the full head to match the skulls. I also included descriptions to go with each species represented. I entered my display in the first school science fair to be held in Toronto and was awarded a gold medal for my work.