Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Search for a Provincial Museum

Catherine G. Hennessey - January 2006

One might say that the battle to preserve this Island’s heritage has arrived at its 125 year anniversary date. In September 1881 an historical society was formed in Charlottetown and before that year ended “suitable apartments in the provincial building” were made available for holding meetings and storing their collection. By the next year discussions were being held to consider a permanent exhibition with thoughts of a provincial museum; however little seemed to have happened except the odd lecture and a few letters of support to the editor. In 1890 when a Natural History Society was formed, the editorials saw a connection and began, once again, to support the idea of a museum. Although they, too, collected some materials, the museum idea petered out.

In 1905 Mayor of Charlottetown, F.F .Kelly and his council had granted the Natural History and Antiquarian Society a room in the Market House for the establishment of a museum “such as is found in the capitals of all the other Provinces ...”. History is a little vague on just how it developed or was supported because the movement suffered another media gap. It likely had something to do with World War I.

It took a visitor from British Guiana to start the ball a rolling again in 1922. The community picked up the idea and the suggestion was made that Government House be converted into a museum. About this time Historic Sites and Monuments Board had been established and were about to launch into their plaquing program and the National Archives arrived in town to put on an exhibition of “interesting documents, maps and sketches pertaining to the Island” at Old Home Week. These activities obviously created some embarrassment to the Islanders. During the winter of 1927, Chester McLure, MLA addressed the St. James Literary Society on The Influence of Art, Literature and Historic Associations. That evening he elaborated on the idea of a Provincial Library, Museum and Art Gallery. There was another flurry of support in the local newspapers. One writer noted that what was needed was a “good central site and a building to hold a good large library and museum .... “

It is hard to judge how much of all this splash was a set up for the announcement that came in April 1928. Almost a decade after the death of Robert Harris and fifteen years after the death of Willie, the Harris family made a proposal to the city. They were prepared to present over $60,000 worth of paintings to the City of Charlottetown and $20,000 toward a building that would house a Art Gallery, a Library, an archives and a museum if the city would allow it to be built on Queen Square on the comer of Queen and Grafton Streets and IF the city and the province would contribute an equal amount. The Harris’s also would establish a $20,000 endowment for the care of the gallery and the paintings. The meeting at City Hall was large and enthusiastic. The project moved ahead and The Harris Memorial Library opened on Queen Square on March the 10th 1930 and the Art Gallery on August the 4th 1930. The newspaper noted “Charlottetown will for generations to come, cherish, in this building the memory of its gifted son. The new art gallery will become the Mecca and the shrine of lovers of art the world over and our people for all years to come will point with pride to the building ...” The museum section had more difficulty and the extended role of a provincial archives was still unclear. It took a decade before it was clearly recognized that the museum and the archives were not going to materialize in this building.

An effort was made to revive the Prince Edward Island Historical Society to address the problem, and pushed somewhat by former Islander Rev. Edwin Simpson who was living in Wisconsin, a group of prominent Islanders under the auspices of His Honour Lieut-Governor B. W.LePage formed a committee to look into the establishment of a Provincial Museum. Simpson had noted in a letter to the editor that “dumb forgetfulness of the past has had too long a hold on Prince Edward Island” and he did not give up on that either. Soon after the war was over he was back visiting the Island with all his missionary zeal. There is nothing like outside criticism to start the fuses of Islanders. With the end of the war more thought was given to enriching the lives of Islanders. A Childrens’ Art Centre and an Arts and Crafts Guild were under discussion. A field worker from the National Art Gallery spent the good part of a year encouraging the formation of the guild. With the city providing space in the Market House and some dollars and along with the Kinsmen giving financial support, an art centre was formed under the direction of Frances Johnston of London Ontario. It was a big success and operated successfully for over eight years. The Art Society worked with renewed vigour as well and the Little Theatre Guild had a membership of over 400 members.

Out of the blue, a lobby to build a museum in Cavendish brought out this wonderful letter from
Carrie E. Holman in Summerside: [1948]

In November 1949 the lODE held an exhibition of “Articles of Historic Interest” in the Clover Club at the Canadian Legion on Grafton Street.. It was termed a magnificent exhibition and certainly helped to encourage government support for a museum. It turned out to the first of what would become an annual effort for a number of years.

The Massey Commission, a Royal Commission on the Development of Arts, Sciences and Letters was established in August 1949. Government had directed them to look into “activities generally which are designed to enrich our national life and our own consciousness of our national heritage ...” They held hearings at City Hall in January 1950. A number of significant papers had been sent in advance and discussions were held on their content. The one of most interest was the one presented by the Prince Edward Island Adult Education Council. That body represented The Little Theatre, the libraries, the Arts and Crafts Guild, Drama Festival, Music Festival and the Art Society. One point that was made clear was that we needed help to train persons to work in the museum fields. With the usual optimism the reported noted “We anticipate the building of Prince Edward Island's first art centre and provincial museum within the next few years, and this will raise the problem of procuring additional trained persons to carry out its programs. Individuals who have both the technical training and the leadership qualities necessary to work successfully with community groups are not readily found ....”

The Prince of Wales paper advocated a new building for the campus that would be a headquarters for local cultural activities and include everything. “The most cultural building for Prince Edward Island would be a combination archives, museum, library and art centre ... the happiness and progress of a people depend so much on its cultural heritage.”

The final report of the Massey Commission was presented in June 1951. “The report was a strange mixture of mourning for an age that was rapidly passing and of excitement at the era of professional mass culture that lay ahead.” The outcome was the founding of the Canada Council, the creation of a National Library, etc., but most importantly it led to more funding for the arts across the country.

The exposure to the arts with the visit of the Massey Commission brought about a finny of activity. Summerside began to lobby to have the provincial museum in their town and Bramwell Chandler, Preston Ellis, the IODE and the newly-organized Historical Society continued a search for historic material and treasures that might well be presented to a museum. Alas, alack, Premier Jones made firm that a Provincial Museum was simply not in the cards - unless government heard more interest from the people.

At this point Prince Edward Island was on the threshold of our “centennialitis”. In 1955 Charlottetown celebrated its one hundred years of incorporation. In 1964 we celebrated the one hundred year anniversary of the Fathers of Confederation Meeting in Charlottetown. In 1967 Canada celebrated its one hundred years of Confederation and in 1973 Prince Edward Island celebrated its centennial of entry into Confederation. The celebration of such events built pride and recognition among Canadians. We were coming into our own and Prince Edward Island was right there with the rest.

Charlottetown’ s centennial focussed in many ways on our history but more seriously showed just how little we had actually done to preserve and share what it was that was distinctive about us. Mayor David Stewart and his centennial committee in an effort to correct the situation created a small museum at Fort Edward while the Historical Society published their first volume of “Historic Highlights” and set their sights on acquiring the soon to be vacated Post Office on Queen Square for a museum. They went as far as announcing that they would be opening in the spring of 1957. By this time A.W. Matheson was Premier and Mayor Stewart had a couple more years to serve as a very supportive mayor.

The Historical Society was on a high. They brought over Austin Squires, curator of the New Brunswick Museum to speak on “Why Have Museums”. He began by saying how delighted museum people across the land would be to have a museum established on PEI. We were still the only province without a provincial museum and that has not changed to this day. The many points that he stressed are still vital today; exhibits that are unique to our regent should be the focus size is not important - quality and treatment of the display items are the important matters, preserving the relics and passing them on to those who follow, the successful museum is a very effective instrument of mass education etc. etc .. He repeated the goals that are still repeated today that museums are to preserve knowledge, to create new knowledge and to disseminate knowledge. AND they are icebergs, in other words not everything shows.

Sadly not all things worked out as planned. The old Post Office became the interim home of the Royal Bank while they built their new building - now the Arts Guild. They would not move to their new building until January 1958. To add fat to the fire, the Montague Board of Trade with Gilbert Clements in the lead, opened a museum in their old post office and pushed to have it declared the PEl Provincial Museum. An interesting battle took pace in the press between Gilbert and the Historical Society who I think considered the Montague group as upstarts.

In some what of a response to the cultural push Mayor David Stewart procured the support of City Council to hire architect Jimmie Toombs to review and then prepared preliminary plans to turn the top floor of the market building into a civic auditorium with the possibility that substantial financial funding could be secured from outside the province ... likely they thought, from the newly founded Canada Council. Stewart had already seem to it that the Arts and Crafts Guild had space in the building.

The year 1958 was a significant one, directly and indirectly, for the cultural causes. Edwin Johnstone took over as mayor in January 1958. That was good. He was a strong supporter of the arts and would play a significant role during his term of office. [1958-1960]. Frank MacKinnon was appointed to the first board of the Canada Council and gave a significant talk to the Canadian Club on the importance of the arts in our lives and a number of Hungarian Refugees arrived in Charlottetown adding greatly to the cultural scene. The Royal Bank moved into their new building and other in-house uses were found for the old post office and while the cultural groups in the city continued to work together for a fire-proof gallery, museum etc .. The final act was played out with the burning to the ground of the Old Market House in April. That fire brought to an end the small art gallery space and the Arts and Crafts Centre and the plans for a civic auditorium!

The Art Society members high tailed it to City Hall and the province even before the coals were cold.

His worship Mayor Johnstone and Members of the City Council.
We, the members of the Art Society of Prince Edward Island extend our sympathy to the City in the great loss by fire of the Market Building.

We wish to thank the City Council of the past four years for the use of a room in the aforesaid building, in which to work and hold our meetings.

We also wish to thank the former City Council for giving us, in our dire need, the privilege of using Civic Centre tor the purpose of showing exhibitions of paintings and the present Council for continuing the courtesy. Especially do we wish to thank Messrs. Foster, Gaudet, Fullerton, and Commissionaire Llewellyn for their very direct assistance and cooperation at all times.

Whereas, in the light of these past public spirited acts, and whereas, the Prince Edward Island Art Society and the Historical Society are praying our Government to recommend to the Federal Government that Prince Edward Island be granted a Public Art Gallery and Museum as a Centennial Memorial,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that our City Council be humbly requested to hold the Market Building for the anticipated fire-proof Art Gallery and Museum Building.
Prince Edward Island April 30th 1958
Mrs W. Banfield Ellis, President Prince Edward Island Art Society

Mrs D.R. George, President Prince Edward Island Historical Society

One of the other serious affects of the market fire was the fact that the Library and Harris Gallery was heated from that building. That problem brought into focus a number of other issues. The library was suffering from its success and needed more space, the legislative library and archival material in the basement were not meeting the needs of those departments and the Harris Gallery was in a serious state of neglect. An article in an August issue of the Montreal Star by prominent art critic Robert Ayre stated clearly and embarrassingly the conditions, “O God, O Charlottetown.”

The volunteer groups never gave up working for the arts in Charlottetown and by June 1958 they brought forth a plan for a $300,000 building on the old market building site. It would provide market space, an auditorium and an art gallery. The library would remain where it was and there was no mention of a museum at that point. A committee was struck and Dr. Frank MacKinnon and Mrs. Bayfield Ellis were appointed the chairs. It is at this time we see the nucleus of the Confederation Centre beginning to appear. Every effort was made to get community support speeches were made to every group, editorials and letters to the editor filled the papers. [well almost] Dr. Frank as the Island member on Canada Council and president of APEC was perfectly situated to glean outside support.

In October 1959 Mayor Edwin Johnstone tied the idea of the “new civic auditorium with smaller rooms for Little Theatre groups, a museum, archives, library, art gallery, tourist bureau, bus terminal, offices for the railway, steamships and airlines and should have sufficient underground space to solve the parking problem in the downtown” with a Confederation Memorial concept. Many say he was the first to do so. [That argument goes on, but I know that Adrien Arsenault and Edwin were good friends and when Edwin asked Adrien how we should celebrate 1964, they
talked about that memorial]. He went on to suggests that the building could be constructed from plans submitted by the leading architects of the world. Those words sounded as if they had come directly from his good friend Father Adrien. If only Frank Gehry was active then. The Mayor also had other dreams of celebrating the 1964 Centennial; “the provisions of such a structure along with a complete facelifting of Victoria Park, Government Pond and Government Buildings was necessary if there were to be a proper celebration here in 1964 of Confederation”.

By the time we reached the 60's the '64 Centennial committee had been established and the Confederation Memorial planning had moved behind closed doors - the closed doors of the '64 Centennial committee board room. The story of the Confederation Centre of the Arts hardly needs repeating except to say that when the scope of the project was announced in February 1961 it appeared to be the answer to all the cultural needs of the community. The speakers’ circuit continued - more and more by one person - Dr. Frank MacKinnon who continued to promise all desires in the field of culture were about to be fulfilled.

After the Confederation Centre opened in May 1964 with extra-ordinary support from the volunteer sector of the community - who after all had been convinced that everything they had worked for was about to be realized - it took awhile for realization to sink in. The important point to be made was that the Centre was a National Complex directed by a National Board. At least that was the line because that line would help finance a complex that was beyond the means of the Island community. That line still exists today. Yes it should be a National Complex and it should be funded accordingly. It is a memorial to the founding fathers of our country and they should expect national responsibility. It is big question as to how the community can expect it to solve the provincial cultural and heritage needs or if it should. Is there not enough to say on that National Mandate to leave us out looking after our provincial needs ourselves or must we consolidate. It is important to point out that the library, complicated by the Harris gift and the demolition of the Harris Memorial Library and Art Gallery, fitted into the Confederation Centre complex with a mandate of its own and not under the national board - somewhat just a tenant.

The size of the theatre at the Confederation Centre, the mandate it choose and later the impact of a union house made it impossible to answer the needs of the amateur theatrical community. It has however provide fine professional entertainment and given wonderful opportunities to many to learn the theatre arts. It has without doubt opened up theatre as a career for many Island young people. To answer the local needs a number of venues have since been developed across the island and in the last year we have seen the much improved Arts Guild, in Charlottetown added to the list.

The Harris Library and Art Gallery as I have said was demolished to shape the site for the Confederation Centre after an agreement was entered into with the Harris family. The Art Gallery took over the professional care of the Harris Collection and it also introduced us to many other artists. It has clearly provided a program that has enriched the lives of Islanders. There are those in the community; however that still believe that we need a Provincial Art Gallery, a place that would specialize in exhibiting our own artist’s work and develop a collection of their work. The Province did begin about twenty years ago an Island Collection that they use in their offices etc .. It has usually been chosen by a jury and it has developed considerable merit. I am unsure of its care and cataloguing.

The PEl Art Society who play a major role in the lobbying for better facilities were not even invited to the Gallery opening by Governor General Vincent Massey. Some of the members, however took the high road and were the very pulse of the Women’s Committee of the Gallery. They held monthly meeting, educational sessions, established the Art in the Schools program and the Art Rental to name just a few of their activities. They were truly the link with the community that the centre needed.

The Library and the Archives moved into the space at Confederation Centre in late 1964, but eventually the archives expanded its role and moved into the third floor of the Coles Building after it was refurbished after the 1976 fire and when the court house moved to the waterfront. The archives today is close to outgrowing its space and has already sought storage in a building in Hazelbrook. In addition, rumours continue as to how the library would be better of in a more accessible space . It is a very well used library and the numbers are astounding.

The museum never did develop and really there was little space in the complex for one. That is not to say that the art gallery has not held exhibitions on Island history matters and the Historical Society and later the Heritage Foundation did help [and continues to help]. An exhibition that they shaped when CMA came to town still stands out as a worthy effort. The Camera Club’s exhibition on Historical subjects still is made use of today. But back in the 60's it became clear that the Confederation Centre of the Arts was not going to accept the mandate to collect, preserve and exhibit Island history. The Historical Society was tired and divided. The moaning was so tiresome. It was exasperating to say the least to attend the meetings and debate what was to be done about the situation. It became more evident that if we wished to do something to preserve our past it was up to ourselves. Some decided to role up their sleeves and work on their own. Montague Museum continued, Eileen Oulton opened her museum in her barn in Alberton, St. Antoinette, with the help of Acadian Historical Society, opened the Miscouche Museum and some of us just did research.

The change of government in 1966 provided a new broom and in the government were a number of ministers who had more sympathy for Island history that had been experienced in the past. We were also on the threshold of Canada’s 1967 Centennial. Canadians matured a lot that year. In November 1969 the premier called a meeting of heritage minded people from all over the Island. There was much talk of things lost and bemoaning of nothing being done. The second meeting Ruth MacKenize, Irene Rogers and myself were asked to make a presentation. At that meeting we spoke and showed slides of the many treasures we still had around us and how the sites of importance were spread out all over the Island. That was in the face of the country being in the midst of village building - Upper Canada Village in Ontario, Kings Landing in New Brunswick etc. At another ta1k later we elaborated on how we should take the tack of leaving buildings where they were and create a net work of heritage site with a good strong headquarters to help support them.

Those meetings led to establishment of the Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation. The act was dated June 1970 and gave responsibility to that organization to develop a policy to conserve and preserve, encourage and guide the Island’s historical resources. The board created was a geographical, political and religious mix that immediately began the long awaited tasks of addressing heritage matter. They opened an office in January 1972 in the Burke Building on Kent Street and I was the first Executive Director. Our main task was to set about connecting with Islanders and building pride in their heritage.

We were just getting our breath when the ‘73 Centennial Committee called for proposals for Capital Projects that would create a legacy. Proposals came in from all over the Island - rinks, ice making equipment, a swimming pool and, yes, even some museums. We, of course, put in proposals. It was a huge decision for the Centennial Committee and they suffered much lobbying. Finally Irwin Jenkins, Fred Hyndman and Jack McAndrew, all members of the Centennial Committee, were appointed to bring a decision to the board. The decision was made in favour of heritage matters and that net work of sites that we talked about a few years before really did get shaped. The Foundation itself, was giving money to acquire a headquarters and just as important, an Endowment Fund was established to help preserve our heritage. Although the decisions divided the Island Community, we proceeded to role up our sleeves and go to work. It was a very busy ten months. We acquired Beaconsfield and refurnished it in time for Queen Elizabeth to official open it on July 2, 1973.

Beaconsfield was not ideal for our needs, but it had a strong provincial presence since it was the Nurses’ Residence for the PEI Hospital for many years before. It had good office spaces and we made good use of the double drawing rooms for exhibitions. We held some pretty good exhibitions there. A few years later the need for storage area had become ridiculous and so the push came to acquire a storage area. The Artifactory in West Royalty Industrial Park was acquired after much planning and filled that need although its weaknesses were clear almost from the start. Our dream to make it a visual storage space never really materialized.

Today almost thirty six years since the Heritage Foundation Act was proclaimed we are again at another threshold. The Foundation Act has been changed to be now known as the Museum and Heritage Foundation the staff are civil servants Beaconsfield has been converted into a house museum with the office space moved into the third floor the Artifactory is over crowded and leaking the network of sites all need upgrading the genealogical activities have moved into the Provincial Archives the Community Museums Assoc. is operating as a separate entity there is no newsletter and the matter of membership is unclear. It is under the direction of an acting director and the professional staff that one might expect to find in a museum is sparse. We can hardly hold our heads high over what we might refer to as our provincial museum.

Other matters have been added to the mix. Founder’s Hall was built with more dollars than the Museum and Heritage has collectively over the years ever put together for programming new museum dreams are rampant and the need for more storage at the archives and at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery are necessary and the preservation of our natural landscapes and buildings especially our churches are all in need of thoughtful leadership. One might say we are a problem developed by our success.

Needless to say, having been involved in the preservation of our culture and heritage for over about 40 years I find myself reviewing our past decisions and wondering. I do believe we have many of the bones in place to build on and we should not let them disappear or let go of the ideas expressed by caring people over the years. I brought many of them out in this paper. I cannot let go of the idea that this Island is worthy of having a strong central body that will as the Heritage Foundation intended to preserve, research and interpret our culture for ourselves and then to share that richness with our visitors. I have come to believe that this can only happen with a centrally located “museum” - whatever that means in 2006. What it means to me is a staff with some professional training who have the ability to multitask. It might mean being taken into the fold by others or by taking others into the fold. It should not mean that there would not be exhibitions held in other venues across the province or even the city. What it should mean is that historic artifacts would be catalogued, studied and preserved and often exhibited, by people trained to do so. It should mean too, that dedicated people who will give time and energy to the cause will be assisted in their efforts by trained persons. It would be a partnership in the best possible way.

Yes, there might be permanent exhibition spaces but more likely there would be changing exhibitions that could travel to different parts of the island and if interest was shown to places like Calgary, Hamilton etc. where Islanders are hungry for home ties. The subjects that could be tackled are endless.

The opening of The Rooms in St. John’s Newfoundland has made me envious.

To move this matter forward will require the combined efforts of the City of Charlottetown, the Province, the Museum & Heritage Foundation and other dedicated believers. Our neighbours have been very helpful in the past - the Nova Scotia Museum, the New Brunswick Museum as has the Canadian Museum Association, and the Museum Assistance Program. Lack of dollars is not the issue at the moment - the shaping of the dream is. We are still the only province in the country without a provincial museum - it seems to me there is a moral responsibility on all levels of government to correct this matter in this our Capital City.

In the words of the Newfoundlanders advertizing The Rooms - they call it the Portal to the Heritage and Culture of their province - WE NEED A PORTAL.

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