May 3, 2012: Champlain Park Bur Oak Featured in Bytown Museum Exhibit.
Champlain Park Bur Oak Featured in Bytown Museum Exhibit.
By Debra Huron.
Jim Hay is modest about the contribution he made to an exhibit called Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest, on display until September 30 at the Bytown Museum near the locks below Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel.
“I hardly helped at all,” says the art conservator who lives on Sunnymede Avenue with his wife Gail Cariou and their daughter, Elizabeth Hay. “I just gave Joanna some advice.” A resident of Champlain Park for 22 years and an expert on wood conservation at the Canadian Conservation Institute which is part of Canadian Heritage, Hay advised the exhibit’s co-curator, Joanna Dean, about ways to preserve the 116 centimetre cross-section of a bur oak felled a year ago as part of an infill development proposal that did not proceed. After felling the tree, the developer sold the Northwestern Avenue property, which remains as it was, minus the healthy bur oak that once graced the backyard.
The bur oak, estimated in the exhibit to be 150 years old, was one of the Champlain Oaks, a riverside oak forest dating back centuries and not planted by human hands. Hay’s advice to Dean, who is an associate professor in the history department at Carleton University, helped to prevent cracking of the cross-section, which the developer donated to Dean for use in her exhibit. Along with co-curator Will Knight, Dean worked for nine months to gather the artifacts and photographs for an exhibit that highlights six moments in the life of Ottawa’s urban forest. The moments she plucked from history tell the story of the planting, controlling, mapping, celebrating, trimming and felling of trees with the city. Dean plans to write a book about the history of trees in Ottawa.
“The Champlain oak was a wonderful artifact, very dramatic,” says Dean. It fits into the part of the exhibit that describes felling, and is also featured in the foyer of the exhibit hall. “The massive size of that tree section was enormously effective as an opening to the exhibit. You can read the rings; it’s a very tangible artifact.”
As an environmental historian, Dean is excited to have her preliminary research—the result of 10 years of work—on display to the public.
“The real tendency if you’re an historian is not to talk to anybody outside your own circles…. I knew that I had had very little contact with the people who actually care about trees in the city and to those professionally engaged with trees, like arborists and urban foresters. I really thought that was a problem.”
By mounting the exhibit, Dean wanted to invite Ottawans to share their knowledge and memories. Thrilled that the exhibit is providing her with feedback she would not otherwise receive, Dean says that what’s most exciting is to hear “other stories I didn’t know…from retired arborists and from property owners, and from people who have been interested in trees for years.”
Dean says she would “love to have a picture of that Champlain oak when it was growing up, when it was smaller…that would be amazing for my book.”
Due to early and favourable responses to the exhibit, the Bytown Museum’s executive director, Robin Etherington, has extended it until the end of September so that both tourists and residents may view it during the summer. “I think the exhibit is incredibly important because of the partnership with Carleton University,” she said. “And it’s a unique way to see the history of Ottawa, through the eyes of trees.”
Photo Caption: Jim Hay, an art conservator who lives in Champlain Park, helped curators of a Bytown Museum exhibit preserve the wood of a bur oak felled last year on Northwestern Avenue. Photo by Debra Huron.