Mechanics’ Institute

In 1846 Gesner’s Museum of Natural History was taken over by the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute. This organization was formed in 1838 as an outgrowth of the New Brunswick Philosophical Society, established some two years earlier.

From the beginning, the Mechanics’ Institute planned to have a museum. It was named in their Constitution and By-laws of 1839 as one of the means of instruction, along with lectures, apparatus, models of machinery, a library and a school.

These basic functions were all incorporated into the Mechanics’ Institute building, which was completed in the latter part of 1841. On the ground floor, there were “three large apartments for a museum, school and other purposes.”

It is not clear when the Mechanics’ Institute collection began to develop. In April 1839, three years before opening his own museum, Dr. Abraham Gesner pledged to use the fee of £25 for a lecture series he gave at the Mechanics’ Institute to acquire “fossils, minerals, and other objects of natural history for its museum.” [NB Courier, 30 April 1839] At the same time, it was noted in the newspaper that there were promises “from many quarters, of … natural and other curiosities, to be presented as soon as a suitable place can be procured for their deposit.”

Donations to the museum were acknowledged in the 1842 annual report. Unfortunately, they were not itemized as would often be done in future years. An event of that year, however, sheds some light on the nature of the collection, which at this early stage already included artefacts from other parts of the world. The event was a Ladies’ Bazaar and Exhibition, held in the new building. Described in a newspaper report, the displays included a Bird and Curiosity Room, containing “Curiosities of every description,” and a room devoted to “Arms, Implements, &c. of the Aborigines of all Countries.”

Over the next four decades, exotic artefacts continued to come in, but there was a constant desire for more such donations. Indeed, the emphasis repeatedly was on international collections. In 1852 a request went out that, “if the members of the Institute, when abroad, would keep in view, many valuable acquisitions could be made to it, for many of the articles which constitute a Museum are of one value in one place, which in another no importance is attached to them.” Again, in 1856, the Directors stated that “curious articles and specimens of natural objects, which they have in their possession, would find an agreeable welcome on the shelves or presses of the Museum ….” In 1866 it was suggested “that those members who may have friends residing or traveling in other countries, should request them to favour us with any contributions which they can conveniently make.” By 1873, when donations had begun to dwindle, the annual report for that year stated, “the fact of Saint John being a seaport town, would induce the supposition that many curiosities are brought hither from foreign countries, which might readily be presented to this department.”

Records show that artefacts had come in from the far reaches of the world and mariners had been among the most generous donors, their donations being referred to in 1863 as “foreign articles of an attractive description.”

The international scope of the collection is indicated by a catalogue of “Ethnographic Specimens on display at the Mechanics’ Institute,” compiled in 1883. According to this list, there were exhibits of Chinese, Polynesian (i.e., Oceanic), Asiatic, African, European and American artefacts. Although not specified, some of these can be identified as Gesner Museum pieces, showing that, by this time, the line between the two collections had become blurred. Since then, many of the artefacts have lost their identities. Article eleven of the Constitution solicited donations, including “Artificial Curiosities”, with a commitment that the donations and the donors’ names would be registered in their books, but these registers have not survived and many of the identifying labels on artefacts have become detached. An important aspect of this study has been to reconstitute the collection to the degree that is now possible.