Many people know that Saint John is Canada’s oldest incorporated city, but fewer realize it is also home to Canada’s longest-running museum. The New Brunswick Museum was officially incorporated as the “Provincial Museum” in 1929 and renamed in 1930. However, its roots go back another 87 years to 1842 when Gesner’s Museum of Natural History opened to the public in Saint John.
Dr. Abraham Gesner (1797-1864), the museum’s founder, was born in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. His childhood fascination with scientific experiments led him to study in London, England, where he became a physician. After practicing for a few years in Nova Scotia, Gesner moved to New Brunswick in 1837 to work as a full-time geologist. In 1838, he became the first Provincial Geologist of New Brunswick, a pioneering role in Canada. However, his position ended in 1842 when the provincial legislature ceased funding his geological survey. During this time, Gesner’s collection of natural history specimens and “curiosities” grew, and he unsuccessfully tried to convince the government to purchase it for the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute. Instead, he opened his museum to the public. Gesner’s Museum, the original precursor to the New Brunswick Museum, launched on April 5, 1842, in Robertson’s Brick Building on Prince William Street, Saint John. Gesner continued his geological survey of the province independently, but his museum’s income was insufficient to resolve his financial issues. In 1843, his collection was handed over to his creditors, who eventually donated it to the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute in 1846.
The Saint John Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1838, evolving from the New Brunswick Philosophical Society, founded two years earlier. From the start, the Mechanics’ Institute intended to house a museum, which began taking shape once their building was completed in 1841. In 1842, they showcased a Bird and Curiosity Room, featuring “Curiosities of every description,” and a room dedicated to “Arms, Implements, etc. of the Aborigines of all Countries,” among other exhibits. For many years, the Mechanics’ Institute maintained Gesner’s Museum and their collection separately, with some portions eventually merging. In 1890, the Mechanics’ Institute was dissolved, and their museum, along with Gesner’s, was transferred to the Natural History Society of New Brunswick.
The Natural History Society, founded in 1862 by a small group of geologists called the Steinhammer Club, immediately decided to establish a museum. Collections of natural history specimens and a library were swiftly acquired through purchase and donation and continued to grow over the years. Initially, the Mechanics’ Institute provided space for the Natural History Society’s collection in their museum. After several moves, including one that saved the museum from Saint John’s Great Fire of 1877, the Society secured their own building on Union Street in 1906. Under the guidance of its curator and later director, Dr. William MacIntosh, the Society’s collections and activities expanded, ultimately necessitating a new building.
At the same time in the Province, there were a number of individuals who recognized the need for a provincial museum. In 1929, their goal was realized, founded on the collections of the Natural History Society. In 1934, timed to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the founding of New Brunswick in 1784, a new facility was opened on Douglas Avenue by Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett (1870-1947).
Today, the New Brunswick Museum, a provincial institution funded in part by the Province of New Brunswick, continues to collect, preserve, research and interpret our natural and cultural heritage. As well as its remarkable natural sciences collection, the museum has diverse and extensive collections of artifacts from New Brunswick and all over the world.
By 1992, the museum had outgrown its Douglas Avenue location and plans were made to develop new exhibition galleries in a central Saint John location. In April 1996, the New Brunswick Museum officially opened its Exhibition Centre in leased space in uptown Saint John. The museum now offers three floors and 60,000 square feet of exhibition spaces and a wide range of public programs. The Collections Centre and Archives and Research Library continue to be situated at the Douglas Avenue location.
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