When I was asked a couple of months ago to write a piece for the 2015 edition of Circa, I remember thinking that the timing was perfect as I was just finalizing the details of our most recent (large-scale) acquisition, and it was something I would be thrilled to write about and to share. The acquisition consists of several items from the Thomas Barnett collection and his Niagara Falls Museum. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his story I hope you’ll enjoy learning a little bit about him, and for those of you who are, I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting Barnett’s saga and discovering how these objects found their way to us.
Thomas Barnett opened his museum of curiosities and natural history to the viewing public in Niagara Falls in 1831. The Niagara Falls Museum, considered to be Canada’s oldest museum, was one of the first substantial buildings along “The Front” (the road that ran alongside the brink of the Horseshoe Falls). A guidebook printed in 1835 declared that the museum rooms were “…calculated to delight the eye, improve the understanding and mend the heart.” By the end of that decade Barnett had moved to his second location, also along The Front, where his attractions included a zoological annex and a winding stairway that descended to the floor of the gorge near the base of the Horseshoe Falls. The world-famous tourist mecca of Niagara Falls had begun and Mr. Barnett was at the heart of it, giving people what they wanted in those early days. Mentioned in Niagara’s earliest publications and actually marked by some of the first mapmakers, Thomas Barnett’s museum was billed second only to the Falls themselves. Barnett would enjoy growth and success along with the industry of tourism for many years, and in 1858 he notified the public that there was a new museum soon to adorn their streets. This was a grand building, one of the grandest on either side of the River and is said to have cost $150,000.
His museum was the quintessential cabinet of curiosities and by the mid-nineteenth century he was displaying thousands of specimens, both foreign and domestic. As a trained taxidermist, he collected and displayed everything he could. He was known to mount the creatures that the local people brought him, including their beloved pets and other beastly oddities they might encounter. All who visited Barnett’s museum will forever remember both the three-eyed pig and the two-headed calf. Mr. Barnett even stuffed and displayed his own cherished companion, Skipper, a small dog born with only two hind legs. Mr. Barnett had built Skipper a wheeled contraption that allowed the dog his own freedom and mobility and it was a common sight to see Mr. Barnett and Skipper out for their daily walk.
The Front continued to gain notoriety in this early incarnation of Niagara Falls tourism. It was only a quarter of a mile long and three hundred yards wide but here on the banks of the great cataract every type of huckster and cheat could be found. During this time, when The Front resembled Canada’s own Wild West, Barnett was certainly not an innocent. Always a businessman needing to turn a profit, he shared in the growing, and often disheartening, spectacle that the people came to see. However, Thomas Barnett was thought of as a respectable man whose intentions were largely good. Known to often offer half-price admission to his visitors and even to let teachers and students in for free, he was a genuine collector who took pride in the products he created. Barnett was committed to preserving a record of the visitors who passed through his doors by keeping a series of guest registers that included the signatures of not only the everyday tourist but also famous names like Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).
In 1852 the Boston Journal printed that “few people visit Niagara Falls without calling at Barnett’s Museum and few are disappointed.” Like the great Falls themselves Mr. Barnett’s museum was a place where people could marvel and learn and never forget their experience. At a time when literacy rates were low and access to resources limited, he was a man seeking to provide truth and understanding to his visitors. His specimens were proof that these marvels did exist and that they were not just something learned about through lore or stories. His desire seemed simply to provide his audience with a twinkling of wonder, moments that would illuminate a truth or provide a flash of new knowledge.
Barnett’s story is remarkable and like so many it ends sadly in poverty and loss. The fierce competition along The Front left Barnett at the mercy of his debtors and he was forced to sell his building and its contents in 1868. His life’s work was given a value of $78,000, and on auction day sold for only $48,000. Even more disheartening was the fact that the lot was sold to Mr. Saul Davis, Barnett’s archenemy and bitter rival for more than twenty-five years.
In 1999 the Niagara Falls Museum collection (more than 700,000 objects) was purchased by a Toronto collector and dealer named Billy Jamieson. At the time of his death in 2011, his estate gained control of the collection and is the current owner. We were contacted in October 2013 to gauge our interest in receiving (by purchase and/or donation) several objects that originated from the collection of Thomas Barnett and the Niagara Falls Museum. Almost sixteen months later, in January of this year, we became the proud new custodians of fifty-nine Museum Guest Ledgers dating back to 1838, a one-of-a-kind piece of Victorian Insect Art and probably the most curious of the group – the taxidermied remains and skeleton of Barnett’s beloved pet dog Skipper.
These objects bear witness to the past and stand not only as examples of this City’s history, but also represent the cabinet of curiosities that was so popular and well attended in the mid-nineteenth century. The fifty-nine ledgers hold the undiscovered stories of those who visited Niagara Falls and Canada’s oldest Museum for a span of one hundred and fifty-nine years. They are irrefutable evidence of something tangible that has helped shape museums as places of culture and knowledge. They represent unique stories of tourism, people and Canadian Museum history.
Article by Suzanne Moase
Interview with Brooke Blackburn
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen
The J4BL Book Club
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen