A Little Canadian History - Canadian Heritage

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or record keeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you may request alternative formats by contacting the Department of Canadian Heritage.

A Little Canadian History

Although documentation of the early history of museum development in Canada is scarce, it is known that religious institutions in Quebec and the Maritimes had collections — mostly of natural history specimens as well as religious relics, curiosities and early paintings. These were largely used by the priests for educational purposes. The Laval University had a mineralogical collection as early as the 1790s. The early traders of the Hudson's Bay Company acquired many valued objects, largely from Canada's Aboriginal peoples, which the Company kept as a collection.

Nevertheless, museums per se were unknown as formally organized institutions. Another movement that led to the development of many museums was that of the Mechanics' Institutes in the Maritime provinces. In the early 1890s, many had accumulated collections for teaching purposes. Also during this period, various collections were assembled in libraries or other public facilities for demonstration purposes. Many private collections or cabinets of curiosities were also developed.

In 1824, Pierre Chasseur founded a small museum of natural history in Quebec City that opened its doors to the public two years later. Thomas Barnett advertised his personal museum of local and foreign specimens at Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1827. Soon after, Dr. Abraham Gesner founded his museum in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1842. This eventually became the New Brunswick Museum. Another less commercial museum was established in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Also in 1842, William Logan became the geologist for the Province of Canada, and by 1845 had amassed and catalogued a large comparative collection of specimens. After the collection was exhibited in London, Ontario, in 1851, he and the government were encouraged to found a permanent geological museum in Ontario. In 1853, Logan sought and received what is possibly the first government grant for the maintenance of the collection and for publications. The amount: $28,000. This museum eventually became part of the Geological Survey of Canada. These collections formed the basis for some of the national museums. The National Gallery of Canada originated in a exhibition held in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1880.

In 1852, museums were formally established at Laval University and at the Canadian Institute in Toronto. In 1856, McGill University in Montreal established the Redpath Museum. Nova Scotia opened the first provincial museum in 1868 in Halifax, based on collections assembled in a local Mechanics' Institute, and British Columbia and Ontario sponsored formal museums in 1886 and 1887, respectively.

At the beginning of the 20th century, many provincial and local museums were created in Canada, particularly in Eastern Canada. Around 1910, the Western Provinces established collections in their legislative assemblies that would later enrich various museums. The number of museums rose from some 150 in 1919 to approximately 400 in 1950. This was also the period during which museums began to focus more on the visitors' experience and to adopt more pedagogical approaches to their presentations.

Canada's Centennial celebrations inspired a tremendous explosion in the population of museums. Coupled with the popularity of the Montreal World's Fair in 1967 and growing national pride, communities all across Canada established formal museums. Many major provincial institutions were established or received new buildings thanks to Centennial funds, including the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, the Ontario Science Centre and the Provincial Museum of Alberta.

In the late 1980s, the federal government gave the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canada Aviation Museum impressive new buildings. In Quebec, the Musée de la civilisationopened, with an original approach. In British Columbia, Science World, an interactive science centre, opened its doors.

In the early 1990s, the Montréal Museum of History and Archaeology celebrated the 350th anniversary of the founding of Montreal. The federal government invested in the Canadian Museum of Nature, providing it with a building for its collections and research.

The community of Canadian museums is dynamic, creating thousands of exhibits each year on a host of subjects, offering tens of thousands of programs, acquiring and preserving items from all cultures and all periods in the history of the Earth.

From the fascinating history of the Nuu-chah-nulth people of British Columbia to the longlines of the fishers of Newfoundland, from the forensic laboratory to the construction of the pyramids, from the Group of Seven to the restoring of an Arctic shoreline, from the history of Canada in space to virtual exhibitions — the museums of today have found a thousand new, fascinating and diverse ways to attract people.

Today, there are over 2,000 museums in Canada welcoming almost 54 million visitors a year. Whether they are local, regional or national, museums help build their community.

Part of this text is based on the work on the history of museums by Professor Lynne Teather, University of Toronto.