Hundreds of thousands of artifacts packed away as New Brunswick Museum faces uncertain future

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

For 30 years, Delilah the right whale has occupied pride of place in the exhibition center of the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, suspended above the heads of amazed spectators in Market Square.

Today, the whale is reduced to a pile of earthbound bones, every vertebra and long rib wrapped in bubbles as neatly as fine china. Its strikingly hand-like fins remain intact but still unpacked, as does its golf cart-sized skull.

More than 100 precious Delilah pieces rest on wooden pallets, each bundle marked with a series of numbers to aid in the reassembly of this New Brunswick Museum star attraction.

The whale is heading for storage and an uncertain future, along with the other members of the museum’s marine mammal exhibit.

His bones are just a small part of a collection of more than 400,000 artifacts held by Canada’s oldest operating museum, all ordered packed and prepared for a move.

More than 100 precious pieces of Delilah’s skeleton lie on wooden pallets, each parcel marked with a series of numbers to aid in the reassembly of this star museum attraction. (Harry Forestell Radio-Canada)

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

The museum is spread over two problematic buildings – an exhibition space and shop in Market Square in downtown Saint John and a collection and research center in a much older building on Douglas Avenue in the north end.

Collections threatened by leaks, mold

For years, staff at the museum, which began in 1842, struggled with a lack of storage and a dearth of suitable exhibition space. An abundance of roof leaks and mold persisted in both locations.

“We had a major leak about a month ago, like a major leak of a thousand gallons of water,” said acting board chair Kathy Hamer.

“That’s when your collections are potentially at risk, when you have to close rooms. Then there’s an exhibition space that’s not fully accessible to the public.”

Packaging is a colossal undertaking, but one that curator Donald McAlpine says staff are long overdue.

Conservation staff have spent the past few months wrapping and numbering everything from sea mammals to precious paintings to fine furniture transported by Loyalist refugees. (Harry Forestell Radio-Canada)

“There were issues with Douglas Avenue that required staff to constantly move things from one part of the building to another,” said McAlpine, head of the natural history department.

Today, tons of fossils, shelves full of potted and pickled remains, drawers full of carefully preserved bats, butterflies and iridescent beetles are neatly packed up for removal.

The museum’s board of trustees and a parade of well-meaning presidents have tried to secure the institution’s future.

Money for a new location revoked by Higgs

A proposed expansion of the museum’s Douglas Avenue center was dropped in 2015 amid objections from neighbors concerned about the integrity of nearby Riverview Park.

A project to build a $100 million structure on the site of the former Coast Guard wharf seemed a certainty with a $50 million pledge from Brian Gallant’s Liberal government in 2018.

That promise was revoked later that year by Prime Minister Blaine Higgs, a move described by then-museum CEO Bill Hicks as a “punch in the gut”.

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

Curators wrap up New Brunswick Museum artifacts for the foreseeable future

The beloved right whale joins other artifacts at the Saint John Museum in extended storage until new homes are found. 4:37

“You know the old adage – ‘He who pays the piper,'” said Hamer, the acting president. “But we just hope we can inflect the melody.”

She said decisions now focus on where the museum will go, both short and long term.

“There are several possibilities, but nothing has been confirmed,” she said. “These announcements should come once we know the province is on board, once we know the federal government is on board. … It’s an extremely slow and frustrating process.”

During this time, the Market Square space will no longer be rented and the entire collection is in storage until more suitable quarters are designated.

“A huge undertaking”

Conservation staff have spent the past few months wrapping and numbering everything from sea mammals to precious paintings to fine furniture transported by Loyalist refugees.

It’s a huge undertaking, McAlpine said.

“Moving all of this will be difficult,” he said. “There are large rock slabs with fossils in them that are quite heavy, yet fragile. So you know there’s [are] challenges of moving all these things.

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

Don McAlpine, head of the natural history department 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 museum’s operations and oversee the launch of a $50 million national fundraising campaign.

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

Last May, the province hired the former director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Bernie Riordon, to stabilize the operation of the New Brunswick Museum, but he quickly disappeared. He fears that the museum will be “mothballed”. (New Brunswick Museum)

“I think I made it very clear that in order to be successful in a national fundraising campaign, the museum had to be run properly, with integrity and due diligence,” Riordon said.

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

The key to the campaign’s success, according to Riordon, was keeping the exhibition center running. It turned out that the province’s Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture had different plans. The department ordered the museum to repack the Market Square site.

Riordon called it “the straw that broke the camel’s back in trying to maintain stability and maintain a public presence, to ensure public accessibility, to continue our programs, to continue to disseminate the collections , all the normal basic functions that a museum performs to preserve and celebrate our heritage.”

Museum hires CEO but not for long

Barely three months after being hired, Riordon’s role was reconsidered by the museum’s board of directors. He proposed that he focus solely on fundraising and leave day-to-day management of the museum to another CEO. Riordon declined the offer, and in January his job was laid off.

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

“Some fundraisers have comparable networks, comparable experience, comparable ability to understand how to connect donors to the project for which funding is sought. And that will be our next big step.”

Riordon is less optimistic about the future of the New Brunswick Museum.

The New Brunswick Museum has a collection of over 400,000 artifacts. (Harry Forestell Radio-Canada)

“The Market Square is being packed, Douglas Avenue is being packed,” he said. “And basically it seems to me that the museum is mothballed, which I think is very unfortunate, because there’s such talent, such great collections, and such a great role to play in … sharing the stories New Brunswickers with Canadians and with the world.”

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

Requests to interview Scott-Wallace have been denied, but a department statement says, in part, that he’s “working with the New Brunswick Museum board, staff and management to identify a location permanent in Saint John for a revitalized museum New Brunswick Museum.”

The museum’s board also decided to reopen the Market Square shop this week to maintain a public presence.