History Lost and Found

Anyone who has spent time shuffling through old photos knows the truth of the maxim, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Archive photo of the Dominion Fisheries Museum.

The only known image inside the Dominion Fisheries Museum shows the diversity of material that was on display. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

This photo is a good example. It’s about 100 years old and is the only remaining image of a long forgotten attraction in Ottawa—the Dominion Fisheries Museum. The document resides in the archives of the Canadian Museum of Nature. It has been used to good effect in presentations by William Knight, a history Ph.D. student at Carleton University who is researching the significance of natural history museums.

Now, I’ve had the pleasure of working in communications and media relations at the Canadian Museum of Nature for 10 years. Over that time, I’ve absorbed many stories about the museum’s 150-year history and its role in collecting, studying and educating the public about Canada’s animals, plants, geology and life in the present and the past.

But I was surprised to hear that at one time, there was a significant museum devoted to all things “fishy” in the nation’s capital. So it was with an ear for a good story that I sat in on a lunch hour presentation by Knight about this historic oddity.

The Dominion Fisheries Museum was short-lived—about 30 years—and existed at a time when Canada as a country was barely out of adolescence. It was the brainchild of Samuel Wilmot, a 19th-century federal bureaucrat who supervised a network of fish hatcheries. He wanted to show off the commercial, industrial and scientific wealth of Canada’s fisheries. Eventually, he set up shop in the Fisheries Building at Queen and O’Connor Streets in Ottawa.

The museum, which got its first official curator in 1903, was comprehensive—it had aquariums, a working fish hatchery, models of ships, and specimens of not only fish, but also water birds and other wildlife—in short, collections of all things aquatic that travelled to international shows in London, Chicago and Paris. It even got a 50-foot whale specimen around 1913. Although whales are mammals and not fish, they were a commercial sea product in the beginning of the 20th century and, of course, a spectacular attraction.

Arctic sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpioides).

This Arctic sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpioides) was collected by Andrew Halkett when he was curator of the Dominion Fisheries Museum. It’s now in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collections. Image: William Knight © William Knight

It is reported that the Dominion Fisheries Museum got 30 000 annual visitors at some time.

But by 1918, word came that the museum building was slated to be demolished in favour of a larger government building. With no future home in sight, curator Andrew Halkett faced the difficult task of dispersing the museum’s collections. Some specimens went to the new “kid on the block”—the Victoria Memorial Museum, now the public face of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Very little remains of the Dominion Fisheries Museum. A handful of specimens from its collections are now among the thousands of fish in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s national collections. Thanks to William Knight, the story of this little known museum will not be forgotten.

William Knight can be reached at wknight@connect.carleton.ca.

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