Vignette 1: The Museums

© 2001 Michael Deal


In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, large collections of prehistoric materials were gradually amassed by provincial museums, though the acquisition of smaller private collections. These collections helped to sustain an interest in aboriginal prehistory and are now an important resource for the development of local and regional chronologies. The Gesner Museum of Natural History, established in 1842 in Saint John, New Brunswick, was the first officially sanctioned museum in Canada (Webster 1945:5). The original museum was housed in the Mechanics' Institute building on Carlton Street and consisted of six glazed cases containing marine animals and plants, fishes, reptiles, birds, mammals, rocks, minerals, fossils, and Indian relics (Key 1973:105-107; Squires 1945:7-9). An admission fee was requested and Gesner provided a catalogue listing the 2173 specimens on display (GMNH 1842), of which specimens #2156-2169 were listed as Indian relics. Specimens #2156-2157 were materials from a burial in the Oromocto River area, and included beads, fur clothing, and French axes. Specimen #2158 was a copper kettle of French manufacture (listed as originally containing two skulls!). The beads, clothing and axes were donated by Henry T. Partlow. The position of the kettle on the list suggests that it was also donated by Mr. Partlow. Taken together, these items appear to represent a collection from a Protohistoric copper kettle burial. Specimen #2159 was a nearly complete soapstone bowl from Maquapit Lake, which was donated by Moses H. Perley. Specimens #2160-2161 were stone axes donated by a Dr. McCulloch and M. H. Perley. Specimens #2162-2163 were stone gouges donated by William Jack and a Mr. Jones. The remainder of the specimens include groups of spearheads, arrowheads, a pipe, and "relics" found in burials.

The Gesner Museum was a short-lived enterprise and eventually the collection was given up to pay off debts. In 1846 Gesner's creditors donated the collection to the Mechanics' Institute. Hence, they were established as the Mechanics' Institute Museum, which operated until 1890. At that time the collection was sold to the New Brunswick Natural History Society for the sum of $200. The Natural History Society was inaugurated in 1862 by a group of dedicated and enthusiastic professionals (Connolly 1977). One of the contributors to the original Gesner Museum, Moses Perley, was the first Vice-President of the Society, while another contributor, William Jack, was a later President (1869-1880). The Society built up a comprehensive collection of aboriginal artifacts and handicrafts, chiefly through the efforts of G. F. Matthew, W. F. Ganong, S. Kain, and W. McIntosh. Between 1882 and 1914, the Society published a bulletin, which contained several articles on archaeology contributed by these researchers. William McIntosh became the first curator of the Natural History Society in 1907 when the combined collections were moved to the Finn Building on 72 Union Street, Saint John.

When plans were being made to establish a Provincial Museum in New Brunswick, the Natural History Society offered their collections and library, which were transferred to the new museum in 1932 (Squires 1945:17-19). These collections included the original archaeological specimens from the Gesner collection and those collected by members of the Society. The New Brunswick Museum opened on August 16th, 1934. T. C. Currelly, Director of the Royal Ontario Musuem of Archaeology, gave one of the opening speeches, and Chief William Polchies, of the Saint John Maliseet, attended in full regalia, including a silver medal given to his people by Queen Victoria (Squires 1945:22).

In 1935, Mrs. J. C. Webster had 12 cases installed in the grand gallery for oriental and archaeological materials (see figure v1.1). This exhibit included materials transferred from the Natural History Society, which were augmented by a bequest in 1943 of more than 2500 artifacts found in New Brunswick by the late William Hale. A collection of models of wigwams, canoes, toboggans, and deadfalls by E. T. Adney were added to the ethnological exhibits. Some materials were also set aside as visual learning aids in the museum's education program.

Prominent members of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science were instrumental in the founding of the Nova Scotia Provincial Museum. The museum was established in 1868 and situated in a room of slightly less than 200 m2 in the newly built Provincial Post Office (Piers 1915:lxxix). The original exhibit consisted of natural history collections moved from the defunct Halifax Mechanics' Institute and other collections that were prepared for the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. Reverend David Honeyman was appointed the first curator. The Provincial Museum became a repository of a wide variety of natural history collections, including prehistoric materials. For example, in 1910 the museum received 352 anthropological specimens, which included many stone tools, a set of 331 impressions of native petroglyphs from Queen's County, made by George Creed, and articles of Mi'kmaq clothing (Piers 1911:205-210).

Today, only the Nova Scotia Museum has its own archaeological program. The Department of History is responsible for issuing permits, and the recording and storage of prehistoric materials. The Museum also offers an annual research grant aimed at projects that focus on threatened sites, the restudy of collections, or community outreach programs. Information on the province's prehistory is disseminated via the internet, and ongoing research is published in annual curatorial reports. Work began on a new archaeological gallery in 1991, which was opened in 1997. The New Brunswick Museum eventually passed over it's prehistoric collection to the Archaeology Branch in the Old Soldiers Barracks in Fredericton, where it remains today as a research collection. The Archaeology Branch, now called Archaeological Services, issues permits for New Brunswick and has an active research program. It produces a manuscript series that includes reports on major projects conducted within the province.

Nova Scotia also has several small local museums with their own collections of prehistoric materials. L. E. Baker founded the small Yarmouth County Museum in 1872. The original museum collection included artifacts excavated from a mound at Kempt in 1863, donated by Joseph B. Bond, and others collected by Charles E. Brown at his property at Milton (Campbell 1876:18-19). The Sunrise Trail Museum, Tatamagouche, has an extensive display of artifacts from a nearby site on Steele's Island (Deal 1996).

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