23 December 2015

New Brunswick Museum: Past, Present, and Future

By Jeri Knopp

The Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce

The New Brunswick Museum is a something of a cultural icon in Saint John.  As the oldest continuing museum in Canada, you’d be hard pressed to find a Saint Johner who hasn’t at least heard of it, even if they’ve never been there. It’s intricately interwoven into our identity, and adds value to the city in the form of knowledge and cultural understanding.

The museum has been through numerous revisions and rebirths over its 173-year history, and now occupies two spaces in the city. Its exhibition center, the face of the museum, is located inside Market Square, and the museum’s collections and research centre is on Douglas Avenue. The Douglas Ave. location reflects the architecture of the era, reminding us of a time when the building was the city’s pride and joy.

“Museums are about collecting, preserving the past and sharing it with the present and the future,” says Jane Fullerton, the New Brunswick Museum’s CEO.  “What's here today is something we need to collect for the future, so we really just continue to grow.”

There is plenty of past to collect and preserve. Started in 1842 as Dr. Abraham Gesner’s Museum of Natural History, the museum initially housed a large number of geological artefacts collected by Gesner before and during his appointment as New Brunswick’s Provincial Geologist, as well as donated by a number of people who shared his passion.

“They were sailing, they were whalers, they were fishing, military people, so we have this great mix that really speaks to what New Brunswick is,” Fullerton says.  “New Brunswick is a place full of natural resources here, but also a place where people have always gone away and come back, and they've brought things back with them.”

The curating of this longstanding collection from New Brunswickers who have travelled the world helped Saint John to lead the country in the curation of artefacts that helped us to understand the world. As it has grown and expanded, the museum has become of value for New Brunswickers both to understand our history and our past, as well as learn about the rest of the world and the impact it has had on our province.

The building and the collections within it changed hands many times, until 1929, when the museum, now owned by the New Brunswick Natural History Society, was designated as the New Brunswick Provincial Museum. Timed to coincide with this, in 1934 it moved over to the building on Douglas Avenue and stayed there until 1996 when it moved the exhibition centre over to its current location in Market Square.

It’s there where it held one of the Chamber’s first meet and greet events, and they credit the organization for helping to connect them to people around the city. The firm ties between the two organizations have remained strong over more than 170 years.

Over the years, the museum’s mission statement, “to preserve, research and interpret the natural human and cultural history of the province and related regions”, has remained relatively consistent, but the collections it has organized under this mission have broadened in scope.

“We have the broadest collecting mandate in Canada because we include everything from geological specimens to botany, zoology, all aspects of human history, cultural history, fine and decorative art, contemporary art, and our archives,” Fullerton says.

In addition, the museum has been a consistently active member of the Chamber, hosting events in their new centre in Market Square and using the Chamber’s many services to their benefit.

With the collection consistently expanding, there are challenges in the museum’s operation. They, like all other organizations, operate on a strict budget, so it is difficult to do all the work they want to do on their limited budget. In addition, the building at Douglas Ave is nearing the end of its lifespan, so there are ongoing talks as to what will happen to the building and the lot, whether they build something new in the same location or move elsewhere. However, the future looks bright for the museum, as it is a reflection of the strength of the province as a whole.

“The really strong expertise as well as really significant collections in the quality of the work is certainly something that we're very proud of, and I think that all of New Brunswick can be proud of, because that's really speaking to the quality of the work we do and the quality of the stories that are here in the province.”

The museum has three free days during the Christmas season: on the 27th, 29th, and 30th of December, the museum is free to the public from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. In addition, they are hosting a number of holiday events, so it is a good time to visit and explore the collections, learn about New Brunswick’s history, and see the value the museum adds to our province.

For more information about the New Brunswick Museum, please click here: http://www.nbm-mnb.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=121&Itemid=316