Ben Fast

Culture - Community - Museums - Travel

Category: Books

Mercator’s Atlas and the BC Archives Open House

While most people at the Royal BC Museum know me as “the new guy working on the Families exhibit” (officially the “Families Digital Intern”), or perhaps “that guy who tweets a lot,” one of my actual roles is to work with public programming for the BC Archives.  My unique internship situation – being shared between the Learning, Digital and Archives departments – means I spend approximately two days a week working on digital projects for the archives that are connected to the new exhibition or relating to genealogy, with a bit of general public programming on the side.

On Wednesday, all hands were on deck for the BC Archives Open House, an event for local archives, records management, and library staff to come see the BC Archives collection and learn what’s new with the provincial archives.  There were lots of interesting records and items on display (a huge hit), as well as an update on the archives’ role in the upcoming Family: Bonds & Belonging exhibition.  People could take tours of the stacks (always busy), there were holiday snacks (in the lobby, of course), and plenty of networking opportunities with the BC Archives archivists and staff.

My role was to answer questions about the archives’ role in the new exhibit, a unique situation where the archives were involved from the beginning of the planning process to provide materials and visual content for the museum exhibition, as well as to keep the video slideshows going (harder than it sounds) and answering basic questions as needed.  Thankfully nobody asked me too many hard questions, and I was able to talk a bit about my projects.

The poster for Family: Bonds & Belonging

The poster for Family: Bonds & Belonging

It was great to see some old colleagues and meet some archivists from around town.  The open house was a great success and people really seemed to enjoy their visit!  This was a great step forward for the BC Archives: engaging other institutions through fun, welcoming, and educational programming, and showing large-scale events are manageable (and good!) in the often quiet and reserved reference room.

The biggest highlight for me, however, was getting to spend some time at the end of the open house looking through the Historia mundi or Mercator’s Atlas, a volume from 1635 currently housed in the BC Archives special collections (reference number: NWs 912 M553).  I love old maps (though I admit to knowing very little about them) and had just purchased a book on maps, which featured Mercator’s atlas.


The title page of a 1635 edition of Mercator’s Atlas, the original of which was the first collection of maps in book form to be called an Atlas! NWs 912 M553


The frontispiece of the atlas, including a picture of Atlas holding up the world (though Mercator first published it with Atlas as king) and a poetic explanation of the image. NWs 912 M553

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was a Flemish cartographer and geographer who is famous for being the first to project sailing routes on maps as straight lines (see Mercator projection) and was the first to describe a collection of maps as an atlas (his 1595 atlas, published posthumously).


There are actually more pages of text in Mercator’s Atlas than maps themselves. These small chapters explain the history of the region and its name. NWs 912 M553


Them maps themselves are quite detailed, showing towns and some topographical features in an attempt to create as accurate as possible a map for navigation. Mercator’s use of straight lines for shipping routes (not seen as much in his maps of land) and stretching the globe into a cylinder (though distorting the northern reaches of the map) were useful for creating mathematically accurate maps. In this map of Ireland, you can see Dublin (Dublyn) in the bottom right though Belfast (Belfaft) is a bit harder to find. Take a look at it compared to a modern map of the northern half of the island. NWs 912 M553

Put anything old in front of me and I’ll usually be interested, if not impressed, but having the chance to look through this atlas that I had just read about was a lot of fun.  With my former colleague, Delaney, we turned the pages looking at the old maps and type fonts, laughing about the way things were written and marveling over the detailed maps from around Europe.

Having just talked about family history, we both turned to pages where parts of our family hail from (the Netherlands for me, Hungary for Delaney) and took the obligatory photo of the maps.


This closeup of the “Lordship of Groninga” is for my grandma Angie. Can you see where you were born? I really loved the history Mercator wrote about Groninga (today’s Groningen). He said (with original 1630s spelling “Englished” by Wye Santonstall): “Groninga is the head Cittie of the Province of Groninga, and the faireft Cittie in Friefland. Some thinke it to bee that which Ptolemie calls Phileum. They derive the name from Grano a certaine Trojan or Friefland Prince, but Vbbo [Ubbo] Emmius, rejecting other opinions which are grounded on fabulous reports, fuppofeth that it was fo called from the greene Meddowes, and tufts of trees therein.” NWs 912 M553

A special thanks to Genevieve for her work on the Open House, and to Claire for letting me explore (and share) Mercator’s Atlas!

Help Me Win Some Books!

I could start this shameless (or shameful) plea for help by typing ‘FREE BEER — now that I have your attention…’ but I hate it when people do that.  So…


Now that I have your attention, I need your help!

Museum Hack, an amazing team of contract tour guides working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of History (both in New York), is holding a book giveaway that I’d desperately like to win.  They hack museums, make them interesting for the rest of you who might not like museums.  As their about page says: “Our un-highlights tour puts an alternative spin on the museum, featuring other sides to the highlights we love, as well as some of the strangest, wildest, sexiest stories hidden throughout the museum.”

They are giving away five books that they claim “have influenced the way we approach museum engagement.”  These books would be amazing resources for a budding museum professional like me.  Having these in my library right from the outset would be a huge boost.  The problem is, Museum Hack is only giving away one copy of each…

And YOU can help me win them!  Click this link: and submit your own entry.  By doing so, I get three more chances to win!

Not a museum professional or even a museum fan (gasp!) no worries, I can take the books off your hand if you win.  Are you a museum fan?  Then you too can have a chance to win and we can swap the books around if one of us wins.

The contest ends March 11, 2015, at 4pm Pacific Time, so you’ve got plenty of time to help out.

Thanks everyone, now go buy yourselves a beer :)

PS: The books are…

  1. Creativity in Museum Practice, by Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale, 2013
  2. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift (2nd edition), by Gail Anderson, 2012  (this is a GREAT series!)
  3. Museum Experience Revisited, by John H Falk, 2012
  4. The Participatory Museum, by Nina Simon, 2010
  5. ​Museum Legs: Fatigue and Hope in the Face of Art, by Amy Whitaker, 2009

Turning a New Page

This is a quick update since I haven’t been able to post consistently over the past few months.  But that could all change soon.  Here’s why (through the medium of a desperate metaphor about turning pages and various paper things):

  • Late last night, or rather early this morning, I finished my final paper for a Royal Roads University course.  I still have some school things left to do – small internship assignments and my thesis (date yet to be specified) at RRU, and the remaining 6 weeks of an online UVic course – but the final paper submission is a significant milestone for me.
  • I am really enjoying the UVic course (Social Engagement in Museums) and have really learned a lot from the readings.
  • I’ve managed to compile a good bunch of museums-related articles and reports that will help in my future papers or professional work.
  • I talked with the site manager (the head boss) at my internship today and presented him with some of the early research I’ve done.  He was quite happy with what I’ve done so far!
  • My resume (2 pages, get it?) has been flying around with some potential work opportunities out there for me to work towards.  It’s an exciting time, but also nerve-wracking.
  • I’ve managed to keep myself sane at the end of my degree by getting back into reading.  Seems strange to say that, since I’ve been doing nothing but reading for school most of my life, but it’s been a while since I’ve read novels or books consistently for fun.  I’ve completed three books since Christmas, well on my way towards my goal of 10 books in 2015.
  • Part of my turning a new page was to sort through my books and try to cut them down in number.  I managed to pick 70 books that I sold to Beacon Books in Sidney (Victoria friends, go to them, they have amazing rates!) that made me over $120 in store credit!  I bought two books as early motivation to get my course done.
  • I’ll be writing more blog posts, specifically book reviews and co-op posts, which I’m excited to get back into.  I’ve also not written a postcard for a few months, so I’m excited to reconnect with my penpals!
  • I’ve managed to enjoy one of my hobbies even in the midst of academic work: watching (with the help of a PVR) a few select draws from the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.  I’ve really enjoyed the competition and keeping up with my favourite teams, but watching curling one end at a time makes it an even longer game…  (The tournament goes through a “page playoff”, so I can count it in this list, right?)
  • I had a great time tonight watching some classic Victor Borge routines with my mom, a great way to unwind after a long day.  For your enjoyment, and to celebrate me turning pages in my life, enjoy Victor Borge: Page Turner.

Book Review: Lazarus is Dead (2012)

Lazarus is Dead.  Richard Beard.  2012.  Europa Editions.  228 pages.

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard. [Source]

Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead is an ingenious novel about Jesus’ one friend, Lazarus.  We know one version of the story: Lazarus died and after four days Jesus brought him back to life.  We know “Jesus wept” (the easiest scripture to memorize as a kid).  But what’s Lazarus’ version of events?  What was the point of this miracle?  Was it simply that Jesus missed his best friend and gave him a second chance?  Beard thinks it was something more: Lazarus teaches Jesus how to die.

Lazarus doesn’t read like a regular novel.  The chapters are organized as a palindrome, going from 7 to 0 and back to 7.  The first half follows the seven miracles chosen by gospel writer John to shape his writing, which Beard relates to today’s “creative nonfiction.”  Beard’s narrative takes these seven miracles as long-distance incremental causes of Lazarus’ death.

Each chapter has a corresponding number of sections contained within.  The palindromic effect works wonders for the story as it picks up speed and races towards the fateful climax: Lazarus’ death (only halfway through the book – The Guardian‘s review explains this much better).  The next seven chapters, however, don’t feel like they’re getting longer, but follow Lazarus’ second life up to Jesus’ crucifixion and reincarnation, an exciting mix of murder, espionage, and even sex (what is this, Song of Songs?!).  Beard also explores what happened to Lazarus after Jesus one-upped him.  As the first page of the book hints, “[Lazarus] died, he came back to life, but then he died again.  If he were alive today, we would know.  I think.”  So how did Lazarus die…again?

As a novel, Beard has an excellent cast of characters to work with.  There’s Lazarus, eye-witness to Jesus’ childhood and a playboy merchant with incurable diseases.  There’s also Lazarus’ love, a prostitute named Lydia, and Lazarus’ betrothed, a Sanhedrin’s sickly daughter.  We have the Romans, led by the intelligent and meddling Cassius, and Lazarus’ two sisters, the devout Mary and the practical Martha.  There’s also Yanev, Lazarus’ hopeless healer (Lazarus refuses to call his estranged friend Jesus).  And there’s Jesus.  Can’t forget about him.

I wanted to learn more about Cassius.  In Beard’s story, Cassius plays an important and surprisingly dynamic role.  I even rooted for Cassius over Jesus at times!  But in the end Cassius falls flat, a character who seems a pawn, underdeveloped and unfinished as some other characters also do.  Jesus, while well written, is a strange character, more omniscient otherworldly puppeteer than Messiah or god incarnate as Beard sometimes frames him.  I haven’t yet decided if I liked his character or not.

The Raising of Lazarus by Vincent van Gogh (1890), one of the works of art referenced by Beard. This is one of the few works showing Lazarus with a beard, something art historians claim as van Gogh adding a touch of self portraiture.  [Source]

The Raising of Lazarus (1890) by Vincent van Gogh, one of the works of art referenced by Beard.  This is one of the few works showing Lazarus with a beard, something art historians claim as van Gogh adding a touch of self portraiture. [Source]

This is a novel, but Lazarus is a strange one.  The cover says “a novel” but the subtitle on the title page states “a biography.”  The book is what Maria Semple calls a “meta-novel” and what the inside flap describes as a “novel that disguises itself as a biography.”  Beard shapes the story through ‘evidence’ that he finds in art, literature, and the Bible itself.  It appears true enough to be possible, and possible enough to be true, an excellent blending of argument, wit, history, and sensationalism.  Beard is the director of the National Academy of Writing in London, England, so it is not surprising that he effortlessly creates this “genre bending retelling and subversion” of this story (Sara Keeting).

An entertaining take on a classic Bible story, Lazarus is Dead kept me intrigued and engaged throughout.  The biographic novel format, pace of the chapters, historical examination and fresh version of a well-known story all add to the book’s appeal.  A good read for those interested in alternative histories, biographies and humour.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

[This was another find from the clearance shelf of one of my favourite book stores, Coho Books.  Next time you’re around Campbell River, pay them a visit!]

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