Chapter 17

I stretched what a museum was about.

Victoria 1935–1936

Kermode Bear

Kermode Bear

Ursus americanus kermodei, Princess Royal Island, 1939 Photograph by Cowan. Image Cowan_PH_006 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Wood Duck

Wood Duck

Aix sponsa, Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, 1939. Image Cowan_PH_326 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
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In July of 1935, Cowan received his notice of temporary appointment at the Provincial Museum with a salary of $125/month – to which he had annotated WOW! in red ink. His youthful enthusiasm to get working was spawned by more than professional interest. He was getting closer to a reliable income in order to marry Joyce. He had one year to get himself scrutinized, a permanent position secured and $700 in savings banked. It was probably this motivation that cushioned his entrance into an institution that had accumulated more than dust: rumours about dodgy accounts, a controversial firing of his predecessor, a public exposé of fraudulent specimens, poor science and a general malaise due to what many pointed to as the increasingly lacklustre direction of Francis Kermode, the ill-chosen namesake of the cream-coloured race of the American Black Bear of the central and northern coast of British Columbia, also called, more fittingly, the Spirit Bear…

What Kermode did provide as boss, when managed sensitively by his employee, was a relatively free rein for Cowan to do his job. Much of his first year was spent rescuing the poorly conserved collection, cataloguing it and finding out what he could about the specimens – 1,560 mammals and 5,247 birds. He started a Saturday morning children’s lecture series under a Carnegie Corporation grant, using specimens and lantern slides. He prepared a special study, Bats of British Columbia, which led to the discovery of bat specimens in the collection that hadn’t been documented in Canada before.45

He was also free to pursue fieldwork, not only to increase the collection for taxonomic purposes but to do the first provincial park baselines “with a view to recording the flora and fauna peculiar to the regions and to publish the results in the annual reports so as to be available for tourists and others visiting the parks” 46 This took Cowan all over the region. It also involved a daily walk to the museum via Beacon Hill Park, an inner city park with extensive but rare Garry oak wildflower meadows and a duck pond where he conducted the Beacon Hill Park duck census. 


45 Report of the Provincial Museum of Natural History for the Year 1935 (Victoria: King’s Printer, 1935).

46 Report of the Provincial Museum of Natural History for the Year 1935, H8.


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