New Brunswick

Hundreds of thousands of artifacts packed up as N.B. Museum faces uncertain future

The New Brunswick Museum is spread over two problematic buildings — an exhibit space and shop at Market Square in uptown Saint John and a collections and research centre in a much older building in the north end.

Douglas Avenue and Market Square locations moving into storage, museum in limbo for new home

A scale model of North Atlantic right whale Delilah, part of the New Brunswick Museum's exhibit centre in Saint John. (Harry Forestell CBC)

In life, Delilah roamed the cold, blue waters of the North Atlantic, queen of all she surveyed. In death, she has been no less majestic. 

For 30 years, Delilah the right whale has held pride of place at the New Brunswick Museum's exhibit centre in Saint John, suspended above the heads of marvelling spectators in Market Square.

Today, the whale is reduced to a pile of earthbound bones, each vertebra and lengthy rib bubble-wrapped as carefully as fine china. Her strikingly hand-like flippers remain intact but still unpacked, as is her golf-cart-size skull. 

More than 100 precious pieces of Delilah are resting on wooden pallets, each package marked with a series of numbers meant to make it easier when reassembling this star attraction of the New Brunswick Museum.

The whale is heading into storage and an uncertain future, along with the other members of the museum's marine mammal display. 

Her bones are one small part of a collection of more than 400,000 artifacts held by Canada's oldest continuing museum, all ordered packed up and made ready for a move.

More than 100 precious pieces of Delilah's skeleton are resting on wooden pallets, each package marked with a series of numbers meant to make it easier when reassembling this star attraction of the museum. (Harry Forestell CBC)

But even as curators carefully disassemble and pack up the museum, no permanent home, or satisfactory storage space, has yet been identified for this jewel of New Brunswick history. 

The museum is spread over two problematic buildings — an exhibit space and shop at Market Square in uptown Saint John and a collections and research centre in a much older building on Douglas Avenue in the north end.

Collections threatened by leaks, mould

For years, staff at the museum, which got its start in 1842, have had to cope with a lack of storage and a shortage of suitable exhibit space. An abundance of roof leaks and mould have dogged both locations. 

"We had a major leak about a month ago, like a-thousand-litres-of-water major leak," said acting board chair Kathy Hamer.

"That's when you get your collections potentially threatened, when you have to close rooms. Then there's an exhibition space that isn't fully available to the public."

The packing up is a massive undertaking, but one that curator Donald McAlpine says staff have long anticipated. 

Curatorial staff have spent the past few months wrapping and numbering everything from marine mammals to precious paintings, to pieces of fine furniture carried by Loyalist refugees. (Harry Forestell CBC)

"There have been issues with Douglas Avenue that have meant staff have constantly been moving things from one part of the building to the other," said McAlpine, head of the department of natural history.

Now, tonnes of fossils, shelf loads of jarred, pickled remains, drawers filled with painstakingly preserved bats, butterflies and iridescent beetles are being carefully wrapped for removal.

The museum board and a parade of well-meaning chairs have tried to secure the institution's future. 

Money for new location revoked by Higgs

A proposal to expand the museum's Douglas Avenue centre was abandoned in 2015 amid objections from neighbours concerned for the integrity of nearby Riverview Park. 

A plan to build a $100 million structure on the site of the old coast guard wharf seemed a certainty with a promise of $50 million from the Liberal government of Brian Gallant in 2018. 

That promise was revoked later that year by Premier Blaine Higgs, a move described by the museum's then-CEO Bill Hicks as a "punch in the gut." 

Since then, there has been no formal indication of what the province has planned for the museum. 

WATCH | New Brunswick museum faces uncertain future: 

Uncertain future for hundreds of thousands of artifacts in N.B. museum

8 months ago
Duration 2:37
Staff at the New Brunswick Museum have been preparing hundreds of thousands of artifacts for storage after a plan to build a new museum was nixed by Premier Blaine Higgs in 2018. It could be years before these artifacts see the light of day again because it’s still unclear what the province has planned.

"You know the old saying — 'He who pays the piper,'" said Hamer, the acting chair. "But we're just hoping we can inflect the tune."

She said decisions now are focused on where the museum will go — in the short as well as the long term.

"There are several possibilities, but nothing has been confirmed," she said. "Those announcements should be coming once we know that the province is on board, once we know that the federal government is on board. ... It's a very frustratingly slow process."

Meanwhile, the Market Square space will no longer be leased, and the whole collection is being consigned to storage until more suitable quarters are designated.

'An enormous undertaking'

Curatorial staff have spent the past few months wrapping and numbering everything from marine mammals to precious paintings, to pieces of fine furniture carried by Loyalist refugees. 

It is an enormous undertaking, said McAlpine.

"Moving all this will be challenging," he said. "There are some large rock slabs with fossils in them that are quite heavy so, nonetheless fragile. So you know there [are] challenges of moving all of these things. 

"The other big issue is keeping it all in some semblance of order, because we've got hundreds of thousands of specimens … If you lose something in the process, it might be decades before you find it again."

Don McAlpine, head of the department of natural history at the New Brunswick Museum.

So far, the only thing lost has been momentum.

Last May, the province hired former Beaverbrook Art Gallery director Bernie Riordon to stabilize the running of the museum and oversee the launch of a $50-million national fundraising campaign.

With his experience in the culture sector and his skill as a fundraiser, Riordon seemed a natural fit. 

Last May, the province hired former Beaverbrook Art Gallery director Bernie Riordon to stabilize the running of the New Brunswick Museum but he was soon gone. He fears the museum is being 'mothballed.' (New Brunswick Museum)

"I think I made it very clear that basically, in order to have a successful national capital campaign, the museum needed to be run proper and with integrity and due diligence," said Riordon. 

"It became apparent to me after, say, three months that basically there were many dysfunctionalities with the museum and that basically, the vision that the department had in many ways was a bit of a nightmare."

Key to the campaign's success, according to Riordon, was keeping the exhibit centre running. It turned out the province's Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture had different plans. The department ordered the museum to pack up the Market Square site.

Riordon called this "the last straw in terms of trying to maintain stability and to maintain a public presence, provide the accessibility of the public, continue our programs, continue to disseminate the collections, all the normal core functions that a museum does to preserve and celebrate our heritage."

Museum hires CEO but not for long

Barely three months after he was hired, Riordon's role was reconsidered by the museum board. It proposed he focus on fundraising only and leave the day-to-day running of the museum to another CEO. Riordon declined the offer, and by January his job was terminated. 

Hamer declined to discuss the details of Riordon's departure, but is confident of finding a replacement. 

"There are fundraisers who have comparable networks, comparable experience, comparable in ability to understand how to make the connection between donors and the project for which funding is being sought. And that's going to be our next big step."

Riordon is less sanguine about the New Brunswick Museum's future. 

Peskotomuhkati Ocean Canoe, 1927. Peter Larocque, New Brunswick Museum head of humanities department and art curator, said it's made of birchbark and cedar with cotton. It was on display in the museum’s marine mammals gallery beginning in April 1996.​ (Harry Forestell CBC)

"Market Square is being packed up, Douglas Avenue is being packed up," he said. "And basically it appears to me that the museum is being mothballed, which I think is very unfortunate because there's such talent, such great collections and such a great role to play to … share the stories of New Brunswickers to Canadians and to the world."

Last week, the board said it had submitted an action plan for the museum's future to Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace. 

Requests for an interview with Scott-Wallace were turned down, but a statement from the department says, in part, that it's"working with the board, staff and management of the New Brunswick Museum to identify a permanent location in Saint John for a revitalized New Brunswick Museum."

The museum board has also decided to reopen the boutique in Market Square this week to maintain a public presence. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Harry Forestell

Host CBC News New Brunswick at 6

Harry Forestell is the host of CBC News New Brunswick at 6. He worked in London as journalist from 1995 to 2000 and from 2005 to 2008 as CBC's European correspondent for Newsworld.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now