By: Nathalie Batres, Marketing Officer
When the new museum opens in 2018, Albertans and visitors to our province will get a chance to go back in time to the Ice Age (about 30,000 years ago) when American lions, camels, and mastodons roamed areas we now call home.
“Most people are very acquainted with dinosaurs, but I don’t think they are very familiar with Ice Age animals,” says Peter Milot, who is charged with assembling casts of eight different Ice Age fauna that will be displayed at the new museum. Milot, who is RAM’s palaeontology exhibition specialist, has worked at the museum for 36 years (of which he worked for 27 years as assistant curator of Quaternary palaeontology). When he first joined the museum in 1987, the museum only had a few hundred Ice Age specimens. That number has now grown to over 37,000 specimens. Today, RAM has one of the largest and best preserved collections of Ice Age fauna in North America.
Peter Milot stands beside a prehistoric horse cast
As plans for the new museum took shape, the Quaternary palaeontology team knew this would be a great opportunity to talk about the Ice Age, a lesser known and fascinating aspect of Alberta’s natural history. Milot jumped at the opportunity to build the Ice Age mounts, which include: a mammoth, a mastodon, an American lion, two prehistoric horses (based on fossils found at St. Mary reservoir in southern Alberta), a giant ground sloth, a giant beaver, and a camel.
The mount-building process is labour-intensive and has taken over six years to complete. Becoming a palaeo-preparator, as Milot calls himself, requires a combination of knowledge, skill, artistry, and, most importantly, opportunity. As such, he considers himself fortunate to be a part of the new museum’s development. In addition to his mechanical skills, Milot’s long curatorial stint with Quaternary palaeontology allowed him to better understand the animal’s mechanics, which is essential when putting together anatomically correct casts.
The cast-assembly process starts with the acquisition of a skeleton. The skeleton then goes through a casting process; full skeletons on display are rarely made of actual bones. Depending on the animal and the material used for casting, Milot will then start selecting the type of metal, adhesives, and/or fillers to be used during the construction of the mount. The most important step after all the materials have been collected is the planning, because the process is unforgiving. Milot only has one set of casts for each animal, so it is essential that he map the process out before welding anything or sticking anything together. After the casts have been assembled, they are spray painted then hand-painted with finer details. Members of the palaeontology team have input at several stages to ensure the accuracy of the mounts.
Milot stresses that while people can learn about the Ice Age at lectures or online standing in front of an assembled skeleton cast is a much more impactful way to experience the past. These mounts are an opportunity for RAM to give Albertans a peek into their relatively unknown fossil history.
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