19th Century Irish Marine Botany Specimens Made for Thomas Barnett of the Niagara Falls Museum. Seaweed samples were collected off the West Coast of Ireland in 1871 by Mrs. Maria J.W. Kirkwood and presented to Thomas Barnett Esquire, proprietor of the Niagara Falls Museum. These come as two separately framed pieces with hand embroidered lettering surrounded by seaweed and a poem written by Victoria Hall.
The Niagara Falls Museum was a museum most notable for being the oldest Canadian museum (1827), as well as for having housed the mummy of Ramesses I for 140 years before its return to Egypt in 2003. It was founded by Thomas Barnett of Birmingham, England and underwent a few vocational changes in its history.
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Thomas Barnett was born on December the 4th, 1799 near Birmingham, England. He moved to Canada in the early 1820s and opened the Niagara Falls Museum in 1827 at the base of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Barnett had a passion for collecting oddities. He retrofitted a former brewery house to exhibit his private collection. Although Barnett was aware of the collection patterns of his North American contemporaries, his own approach bore an uncanny similarity to the British tradition, such as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the first traditional museum in Britain.
The Niagara Falls Museum had humble beginnings. In 1827, the first museum contained Thomas Barnett’s own cabinet of taxidermic curiosities. Although the details were not documented, the collection was likely composed of a number of mounted animals of local origin, combined with a smattering of Native American artifacts. Barnett’s collection however rapidly grew. Prior to 1844, an account of the museum’s contents stated that there were over 5000 items, including bipeds, quadrupeds, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, shells, minerals, and Native American curiosities. Through the first fifty years of its existence, the Niagara Falls Museum continued to acquire similar artifacts through the diligent efforts of the Barnett family and their associates.
In 1854, Sydney Barnett (son of Thomas Barnett) made the first of his three trips to Egypt (two by himself and one with Dr. J. Douglas of Montreal) and purchased four mummies as well as a host of other Egyptian antiquities. In 1857, mastodon remains were discovered in St. Thomas, Ontario and later placed in the museum. In 1859 an inventory of the museum’s contents included, in addition to the previously mentioned artifacts, an egg collection, ancient and modern coins, Japanese and Chinese relics. In 1873, the Barnetts purchased the remains of a large whale, the 40-ft magnificent humpback whale skeleton. Barnett and his son Sydney, who assisted with the Museum, were both accomplished taxidermists, preparing specimens for the museum as well as traded and sold to other institutions. Sydney Barnett, an army Colonel, was also a poet, writer, and inventor. With the growing popular fascination with the “Wild West,” Sydney Barnett began organizing a Wild West Show and Grand Buffalo Hunt in 1872. He originally contacted “Buffalo Bill” Cody to feature lasso men and gathered over 100 Pottawatomie Indians for a large buffalo hunt. Problems arose when the US Government would not allow the Indians off the reservation. The show was then changed to feature General Custer’s scout “Wild Bill” Hickock as master of ceremonies, assisted by local Woodland Indians of the Tuscarora and Cayuga Nations.
Following the transfer of ownership in 1878 to the Davis family, after an acrimonious decades-long rivalry with Buffalo’s Saul Davis, the museum nevertheless survived. In 1882, the Niagara Parks Commission was formed to convert the front to the present Queen Victoria Park. This forced the museum to be relocated. In 1888, no suitable location could be found in Canada so it was relocated to Niagara Falls, New York. The Davis family established an Art Gallery in the museum in 1891. During the early years of their proprietorship, five more Egyptian mummies were purchased, along with the entire collection from the celebrated Wood’s Museum of Chicago. While acquiring a few new exhibits, others were lost or disposed of over time. There were documented exchanges also, of artifacts and specimens between the Niagara Falls Museum and P.T. Barnum.
In 1892, the museum’s living display came to an end because of complaints from area residents about the noises and the odors. A number of artifacts displayed in Buffalo at the Pan American Exposition of 1901 had been acquired by the Niagara Falls Museum. A giant Sequoia tree that was reportedly felled on the Eel River, Humboldt County, California, on February 14, 1893, was a highlight in the Forestry Building at the exposition. Its circumference was seventy-seven feet, making it one of the largest trees ever cut down in the world. Also given to the museum was a shell and coral collection gathered by Louis Agassiz of Harvard University. The exposition contained a wealth of artifacts, and although only the above artifacts have been documented there may be items in the museum’s Eskimo, Oriental and South Sea Island display originating from the exposition.
Thomas Barnett, died in 1890 in Niagara Falls, Canada, founder of Canada’s oldest museum, is considered Canada’s first “Museum Man.” The museum collection was owned by the Sherman family until May 1999 when the entire collection was purchased by private collector, William Jamieson of Toronto, whose hope was to revive the tradition Thomas Barnett started.