Nova Scotia

Where to store a million artifacts? Nova Scotia's past poses present problem

A law devoted to the protection and study of historical sites in the province has created a dilemma for the Nova Scotia Museum: once an artifact has been unearthed, where on earth can it go?

Hundreds of thousands of artifacts make up the Nova Scotia Museum's growing collection

Fishermen found this ulu, Inuktituk for "woman’s knife", near Digby Neck. A metal version of this stone tool is still used in the Arctic to butcher sea mammals and prepare hides. (Nova Scotia Museum)

A law devoted to the protection and study of historical sites in the province has created a dilemma for the Nova Scotia Museum: once an artifact has been unearthed, where on earth can it go? 

Nova Scotia's Special Places Protection Act, introduced in 1989, makes it illegal for anyone to go hunting for archeological artifacts without a heritage research permit. The same legislation also requires archeologists to hand over whatever they find to the province once an area has been excavated and the items cannot be rejected. 

That's left the Nova Scotia Museum — one of the oldest provincial museums in the country — with a lot of history and little place to store it.

"We've got well over 500,000 [artifacts] and I think we will be nearing a million before too long," said Catherine Cottreau-Robins, the curator of archaeology for the museum, which consists of 28 sites across Nova Scotia.

Growing pains

Archeological artifacts are any item, object or remains from human history or prehistory found buried in the earth. Many of the museum's artifacts include tools, dishes and jewelry.   

Catherine Cottreau-Robins is the archaeology curator for the Nova Scotia Museum. (Nova Scotia Museum)

Storage problems aren't unique to the museum's archeology department. The museum's department of cultural history routinely refuses donations that are similar to items it already has, including clothes, jewelry and antique tools.

However, the archeology department cannot reject artifacts recovered through a heritage research permit, even if it already has multiples of the same object in its collection, said Cottreau-Robins. The exception is donations from the general public that are not deemed significant.

This earthenware pot was found in Birchtown at what the museum believes are the remains of the home of Black Loyalist leader Col. Stephen Blucke. (Nova Scotia Museum)

The number of permits to do archeological work in the province has doubled in the last decade, meaning artifacts have been pouring in looking for a new home.

Digger's discretion

"We're always thinking about space we're filling up," said Cottreau-Robins.

Sean Weseloh-McKeane, the special places co-ordinator with the provincial Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, said archeologists at a dig site use their own discretion in deciding which artifacts should be removed. 

"In some sites there may be large numbers of nails from the early 1900s. Do we need every single nail to come into the provincial collection? Probably not," he said. 

"The archeologists are selecting the items that should be coming in to the provincial collection."

According to the museum, non-alcoholic ginger beer was hugely popular in Nova Scotia from the last half of the 19th century right up until the 1920s. There were many brewers of this fermented, low-alcohol beer, including John Dixon, who operated on Quinpool Road in Halifax from 1899 to 1918. (Nova Scotia Museum)

Working on creative solutions

Many artifacts are housed at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax but the Nova Scotia Museum also stores items in facilities in Mount Uniacke and Stellarton. Many community museums also have artifacts on long-term loans. 

Most items need to be stored in climate-controlled environments. Cottreau-Robins couldn't say how much it costs the museum to store artifacts because she doesn't handle budgeting.

CBC News asked the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage for an estimate of that cost, but did not receive a response.

This biface, a stone tool flaked on both sides, was donated to the museum after it was found along the shores of the Mira River in Cape Breton. Made from a single piece of rhyolite roughly 4,000 years ago, it would have been useful for hunting and other activities that required a hefty blade. (Nova Scotia Museum)

Cottreau-Robins said she and her team are trying to come up with creative solutions for their growing storage problems. 

"There are challenges to it," she said. "But that's my job as a public servant to work on those challenges and come up with solutions … and find out what Nova Scotians want us to do about collections."