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Biomedical visualization: LIVE at the ROM

Image of a pliosaur sketch by Ruth Chang. Photo credit: R. Chang

Pliosaur sketch by Ruth Chang. Photo credit: R. Chang

From May to June, and again from October to November, the 103-year-old Royal Ontario Museum hosts “Friday Night Live.” ROM Friday Night Live transforms the museum from a venue for art, culture and natural history into one of the most desirable social destinations in Toronto. Patrons dressed in cocktail attire form a line outside and along Bloor Street to purchase one of the small number of tickets available at the door for the sold-out event. The venerable old institution lowers the lights and fills with the beat of dance music played by DJs. Guests enjoy drinks and explore offerings from pop-up food vendors while experiencing live performances and special demonstrations in the ROM’s gallery exhibits.

The ROM’s festival programs organizers invited four students from the Master of Science in Biomedical Communications to give a live demonstration of scientific visualization at the November 18, 2016 production of ROM Friday Night Live.

The volunteers, first year students Nancy Ji, Ryan Park and Lisa Qiu, and second year student Ruth Chang, attended an orientation at the museum the Tuesday before the event. They were shown the galleries where they would draw and each student received a pair of event tickets to share with friends.

On the night of the event, the students were stationed in the James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of the Dinosaurs and the Reed Gallery of the Age of Mammals but they were free to move between and within the galleries.

“At least one student migrated into the Gallery of the Birds,” says Jessica Hawthorn, one of the festival coordinators and former UTM biology graduate student.

At first, party-goers were hesitant to interrupt the students as they sat or stood to sketch. Ryan Park swung his name tag around and wore it on his back while he drew the skeleton of the ROM’s giant ground sloth. “Then people were comfortable addressing me by name,” he says. Park estimates that he spoke to about 20 small groups of two or three people throughout the night.

Ruth Chang wrote “ask me questions” on her sketchpad above her sketch of a pliosaur. “People stopped hovering and started approaching me freely after that,” she says.

Festival coordinator Hawthorn says that including biomedical communications students in ROM Friday Night Live highlights how illustration is a medium for communicating scientific concepts and how the museum is a library of objects. The museum is a repository of specimens that hold information on evolution and ecological change and these specimens can be accessed by researchers and illustrators.

Biomedical communications students regularly access the museum’s collections for their research. In one instance, Chi-Chun Liu, who worked with UTM biologist Sanja Hinić-Frlog and biomedical communications professor David Mazierski, was exploring the biomechanics of an extinct flightless bird for a scientific animation. ROM curators took a specimen off exhibit and gave Liu exclusive access for his direct observation and measurement.

“That is the great value of our collection,” says Hawthorn.

Now finished its fifth year and tenth full season, the motivation behind ROM Friday Night Live was to engage that twenty-something demographic. “We created a night that takes everything we do from exhibitions to galleries to research and wove it through a program where food and entertainment are factored in,” says Chris Kennedy, the ROM’s senior manager of festival programs.

ROM Friday Night Live typically sells out two to three weekends in advance and has an average attendance of 3,000 people. The night the biomedical communications students gave their live demonstration a remarkable 3,400 guests attended. ROM Friday Night Live has become an important source for revenue that supports the ROM’s operations, collections and research, says Kennedy. “But most importantly, it encourages people to get in and explore all our gallery exhibitions.”

To brighten and warm the cold, bleak month of February, ROM festival organizers offer a one-off Friday Night Live. This year on February 3, 2017, “Afro Fête” kicks of the ROM’s Black History Month programming. ROM Friday Night Live’s all-new spring programming premieres May 5.

by Maeve Doyle

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