Gesner’s Museum of Natural History

Gesner’s Museum of Natural History opened to the public in Saint John on 5 April 1842. The proprietor was Dr. Abraham Gesner, a medical doctor and geologist, best known for his invention of kerosene. Gesner was a native of Nova Scotia, born in Cornwallis Township on 2 May 1797. After studying medicine in London, England, he practised in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, where he began pursuing an interest in geology and mineralogy, and began collecting geological specimens.

In 1838 he moved with his family to Saint John having been asked by the government of New Brunswick to carry out a geological survey of the province. Over the next four years, Gesner brought his idea of a museum to fruition.

In a catalogue of his collection published on 15 April 1842, Gesner solicits donations. In addition to natural history specimens, he asked for “Relics, Works of Art, Ancient Books and Papers, Models, Inventions, Domestic Manufactures, and Curiosities of all kinds.” In particular, he addressed “masters and supercargoes of vessels,” offering them free admission for their donations, and asking them “to aid in this useful and interesting work.” He adds, “The Museum is daily increasing in the number of its rare and beautiful objects.” In addition to this published appeal, Gesner is said to have gone down to the waterfront in Saint John to exchange with seamen some of his natural history specimens for “curiosities” from around the world (Barkhouse, p. 48).

The catalogue itemizes over 2100 natural history specimens and, toward the end, includes a small section of miscellaneous objects. This section lists approximately 24 items from overseas, most of which originated in the South Pacific.

These accessions certainly suggest that the mariners of New Brunswick were forthcoming in donating artefacts brought back from their voyages. They are also suggestive of the global reach of New Brunswick vessels.

Gesner provided very little documentation about the artefacts. Names of objects and places of origin are generalized and there is no indication of dating. The donor’s names are also perfunctory, probably easily identifiable at the time, but after 165 years, puzzles to be solved.

The following year, in 1843, an appendix was compiled listing additions to Gesner’s collection, the entries just as cryptic as previously.

At about the time the appendix was compiled, Gesner found himself in financial difficulties and was forced to relinquish his Museum to satisfy his creditors, Chief Justice Ward Chipman and Mr. Justice Robert Parker. Both were founding members of the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute, the organization to which they gave Gesner’s Museum in 1846.

For many years the Gesner Museum was maintained as a separate entity, but eventually must have merged with the Mechanic’s Institute collection. At the same time, many of the artefacts lost their identities, probably in part as a result of tags and labels falling off. By 1883, when a list of the Mechanic’s Institute international collection on display was compiled, several of the Gesner Oceanic pieces seem to be included without association with his name. Confusion was compounded after the Natural History Society of New Brunswick took over both collections. Recent endeavours, especially in conjunction with this CURA project, have led to the rediscovery of many of the valuable and fascinating international artefacts that Gesner brought together in Saint John.