A passion for bones

Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Becky Wigen, curator of the bone lab in UVic's Department of Anthropology, shows a dog skeleton to Brownies Julia Webber and Sereia Felipe-Alves. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

UVic's "bone lady" retires after more than 30 years of student and community engagement

They keep us upright, we feed them to our dogs and we use them for instruments and tools. But for Becky Wigen, bones are so much more. They’re a life’s work.

“The shapes bones make are beautiful,” she says. “It’s very satisfying to figure out what they belonged to and what they represent. It’s like solving a puzzle.”

Affectionately known as “the bone lady,” Wigen is curator of the bone lab in UVic’s Department of Anthropology where, for more than 30 years, she’s built one of the largest and most extensive collections of animal skeletons in the Pacific Northwest.

“There are now more than 2,500 fish, bird and mammal skeletons in the collection,” says Wigen, who retires from UVic this spring and will be sorely missed by the many students and community groups who have benefited from her infectious passion for bones.

“Scholars, paleontologists, archaeologists, police, consultants, authors and countless graduate and undergraduate students use the collection,” says Wigen. “It’s a massive collection with a large variety of different species all in one space.”

Wigen was hired as a part-time lab instructor in 1980, and soon took on the role of collection manager for the lab. As more people visited the lab, she discovered that she loved talking to small groups about the bones, the teeth and the biology of the animals.

It's very rewarding sharing my interest and enthusiasm about the bones. People, especially children, get so excited that they're allowed to touch the skulls and teeth.
Becky Wigen, curator of UVic's bone lab

In 1999, Wigen saw an opportunity with the UVic Speakers Bureau to share her knowledge with an even wider community. She created a small travel-friendly collection called “Bones, Beaks and Teeth: A Comparative Look at Animal Skeletons” that she took on her many visits to schools and community groups.

“Working with Becky for nearly 20 years has been a rewarding experience,” says Mandy Crocker, coordinator of the Speakers Bureau in University Communications + Marketing. “I can’t begin to express how much I’ve appreciated all of Becky’s volunteering with the program for so many years. She always made herself available to the community.”

In addition to her community outreach work, Wigen got to know most of the anthropology students as the department’s lab instructor and undergrad advisor. “Since I taught two required labs, I saw all the undergrad anthropology majors,” she says. When she started at UVic she saw 60 students a term. Now she sees nearly 150 students.

One of them was Justin Kimball. “Becky helped me to achieve my aspiration to become an archaeologist,” he says. “Her guidance and enthusiasm has nurtured similar qualities in myself. I hope one day to have the opportunity to do for others what Becky has done for me.”

“Becky has guided thousands of students with her patient and engaging hands-on lab instruction on the archaeology of animal bones,” says department chair Ann Stahl. “She’s been an ambassador for the department and the university, thanks to her tireless engagement with other scholars, local police, the broader community and especially thousands of elementary school students.”

Wigen plans to use the collection herself as a private researcher and hopes her colleagues and graduate students will continue to share its treasures with school groups and community organizations. As for the collection itself, she's writing lab manuals and instructions for whoever takes it over.

“The handing over of any collection can be hazardous,” she says. “Any change, any shift to the next generation can threaten its future. Someone has to love it and be its steward.”


In this story

Keywords: anthropology, community, staff, speakers bureau

People: Becky Wigen

Publication: The Ring

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