Catacomb.—An underground cemetery consisting of a subterranean gallery with recesses for tombs, as constructed by the ancient Romans. (Oxford Dictionary)
Like sedimentary strata that record long-gone events, the past itself is layered. Within a single place you may encounter many pasts, each resting on top of another: fragments of your own memory, evidence of the passage of other people and creatures, and vestiges of the Earth’s deep history. Unlike strata, these layers of time may not be visible and you may not be able to touch them. They may nonetheless be quite tangible.
I spent the first part of last week contemplating a many-layered place as I worked on collections at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. Visitors to Saint John are encouraged to visit the museum’s exhibits, located at Market Square in the tourist centre of the city. But those of us who examine the museum’s diverse and historic collections have the pleasure of doing so at the old museum building; collections are stored within a grand stone pile on Douglas Avenue, which also housed the exhibits from 1934 to 1996.
Simply entering the building on Monday morning was enough to transport me into the uppermost layer of past time. For a New Brunswick school child of the 1960s this was the New Brunswick Museum, a beloved and much-anticipated stop on our special tour of Saint John. To me it is still the only genuine museum building in that town; constructed partly as a make-work capital project in the 1930s, it is a classically-influenced centre hall edifice, a compact sandstone-clad structure modelled on the grand museums of Europe and America.
Climbing the tall steps and stepping through the front door, I could still see it just as it had been. Past the reception desk and the various archive and collection offices, I could envision the gallery that had housed lovely examples of New Brunswick furniture, and the rather incongruous displays of Oriental porcelain. Up the black slate stairs would be the splendid exhibits about Saint John shipbuilding and the settlement of New Brunswick, and downstairs would be . . . well, we will get to that.
I was graciously met by Dr. Randy Miller, the Curator of Geology and Palaeontology, who escorted me down to the basement and oriented me with what I would need to know for my work there. Many of the collections are in an area that was “back of house” way back in the 60s, but as is the case in all museums the collections have inflated and expanded over time, so that what used to be exhibit space in the rest of the basement is now filled with zoological and paleontological items.
Between my work station and the men’s room, I walked first past rows of cabinets labelled “Type Fossil Collection”, then through a maze of boxes, stuffed creatures, and racks of whale vertebrae. These were marvellous things, but in my mind’s eye I could also see what had been here long ago. Here were the cabinets of taxidermied mammals; we were always particularly entertained that the French label for the moose had been mis-translated as “l’Original”! Over there was the exhibit of the Hillsborough Mastodon, and I seem to recall some Carboniferous fossil fish from the Albert Mines area. And somewhere up high (I cannot recollect where but it was either hanging from the ceiling or resting on top of a cabinet), was the most remarkable item: an immense preserved sturgeon pulled out of the St. John River a century ago.
But now this reverie had passed. I was back at the data entry computer and had to return to the digital age. I was in Saint John to add data to the records of specimens I had donated there about 20 years ago, specimens of Silurian fossil corals that had formed part of the suite for my Ph.D. thesis at the University of New Brunswick. Randy had been patiently waiting for years for me to live up to my promise to get this collection in order,since museum collections that lack data are almost worthless. And now I was finally digging in and sorting them out.
I would scroll to the next record in the database, read it to see what information was lacking, then wander down the row of cabinets to see if I could locate the specimen in its drawer. After looking through almost all of the seventy-something specimens I had donated, I would eventually discover the one I sought. I would then carry the fossil in its cardboard tray back to the computer desk, where it could be contemplated as I checked through the identification and locality data fields.
Most of the corals are pieces I had collected some 30 years ago, in fieldwork along the New Brunswick and Gaspé shores of Chaleur Bay. Holding a fossil and chasing down a satellite image of its locality on Google Earth, I again found myself time travelling.
Grasping one specimen of Cystihalysites encrustans, I saw us hunkered at Quinn Point as rising storm waves made it impossible to continue working at outcrops spread across the tidal flat. Placing a thin section of Heliolites interstinctus under the microscope, I could see my field assistant dropping an expensive chisel into the icy sea as we traversed a narrow ledge along cliffs by the Anse McInnis. And I’m sure this specimen of Syringopora minuta was in my heavy pack as we clambered up from the beach on one of the few sweltering days of a Gaspésien summer, disturbing topless sunbathers hiding among crevices near the Pointe aux Bouleaux.
With so many layers of time to contemplate, it is little wonder that two days in the collections passed quickly. The time ghosts did not slow me down; if anything, they helped me approach the tedious database work with enthusiasm and energy. But with so much to be done, there was no time to examine any of the wonderful and historic collections that also “live” in that basement (as Canada’s oldest continuing museum, the New Brunswick Museum has scientific specimens dating back to the mid nineteenth century!).
In fact, I was not able even to finish getting my own data into order. But that is a good thing, really, because it means that there will have to be another opportunity to visit those layers of time, and to take in all the details that I neglected to notice on this visit. I am really looking forward to that.
Many thanks to the New Brunswick Museum for permitting and encouraging my visit there. The museum has just launched a capital plan that will allow them to build an addition to the old building, and to retrofit that fabulous structure so that it meets modern collections standards. A news video explaining this plan can be found here; those with sharp eyes may notice that I make a brief cameo appearance, staring down a microscope at about the 1:38 mark.
© Graham Young, 2014