Farms, Cities, Animals, and the Museum

Posted: November 8, 2016 - 15:05 , by ROM
A goat is milked in front of the ROM for "The Goat, the Honey, and the Museum" project by Bill Burns. Photo by Teghan Dodds

Guest blog by Environmental Visual Communication student Teghan Dodds

Goats are not something you’d expect to see within the confines of the city, and especially not on Toronto’s Bloor Street with its upscale shops and prestigious historical buildings. Yet, cities depend on agricultural activity, including goats, bees, and farms in general, to thrive and nourish those within them. This is the type of understanding that artist Bill Burns is inspiring with his current project, entitled The Goat, the Honey, and the Museum, which will animate the ROM with a libretto from the largest choir of its kind in the world, while communicating the narratives surrounding nature and civil society that he’s become famous for through past projects, like Safety Gear for Small Animals.

A Goat is milked in front of the ROM. Photo by Teghan Dodds

“The Goat, the Honey, and the Museum” is an art spectacle in two parts happening on site at the ROM.  It began with The Great Goat Milking on Sunday, October 30th in front of the main entrance, and concludes with The Great Choir on December 4th, which involves a performance from the Dogs & Boats & Airplanes children’s choir inside the ROM’s galleries. The first part of the spectacle, the Great Goat Milking, involved goat milking, honey rendering and the mixing of the two, supported by River’s Edge Goat Dairy and the Toronto Beekeepers Collective. 

Photo of artist Bill Burns. Photo by Teghan Dodds

Bill Burns’ unique project, which is funded in part by the Toronto Arts Council, aims to deepen our understanding of the interdependencies between farms, cities, animals, and the Museum. This project follows the themes of his previous work, but encourages viewers to consider specifically the role of the Museum as an institution for learning about nature, art and culture. The choir, directed by Alan Glasser, is also far from what you’d expect, as instead of singing, its members will be using sounds from animals, industry, and culture to share their story. Also collaborating on the project are Krys Verrall (Liberettist) and Carrie Perrault (Associate Producer).

In preparation for the performance, on July 5th, ROM staff Dave Ireland and Jacqueline Miller gave Bill Burns and his team a tour of the mammalogy collection back of house where they were able to discover intriguing specimens, such as bats from around the world preserved in jars and large prepared specimens like lions, bears and zebra, to include in their September tour for the Dogs & Boats & Airplanes choir. They also explored the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity and other areas in the museum to decide where the acoustics would be the most effective, and how different areas would complement the mood of the piece. 

Dave Ireland and Bill Burns considering the acoustics of the totem pole stair case. Photo by Teghan Dodds

Students in the choir were able to see skeletons like this when they toured the ROM to get inspiration for their libretto. Photo by Teghan Dodds

On September 19th, Bill Burns brought the students from Toronto’s Lord Lansdowne Junior Public School and da Vinci Alternative Public School, who make up the Dogs & Boats & Airplanes choir, into the back of house collection spaces to learn about biodiversity and inspire the libretto that they will perform as they travel through the museum on December 4th. Students were able to sketch, photograph, and brainstorm in a special back-of-house tour that included a visit to the mammalogy classroom, a sneak peak of those cool critters preserved in jars, and a hands-on session with furs and skeletons. 

Photo by Teghan Dodds

Photo by Teghan Dodds

Bill Burns’ project challenged the choir members to think about what inspired them about what is being communicated about natural history within the museum’s walls, and to share it through a composition of non-verbal sounds. The result is something unexpected in the context of a museum, and inspires viewers to consider Burns’ ongoing explorations into the themes of nature, art and civil society.

Students from the choir worked alongside Bill Burns in the ROM's collections on September 19th. Photo by Teghan Dodds

The Goat, the Honey, and the Museum highlights the role of the artist in a museum. Artists interrogate their surroundings, and force us to ask tricky questions. They also provide valuable feedback and insight on our work – and make connections between our institutional silos. If you’re still wondering what the connection is between farms, animals, cities, and museums, come to the final instalment of the project at the ROM on Sunday, December 4th and immerse yourself in what Bill Burns and the Dogs & Boats & Airplanes choir have to offer. 

Photo by Teghan Dodds