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The Home of the Muse: Oblates and the Northern Life Museum

Benjamin Lyle Berger
Research Associate, Provincial Museum of Alberta

Pas disponible in Francais.

Our modern English word 'museum' can be traced back to an adaptation of the Greek mouseion, the seat of the muses. In this sense, the museum was previously understood as "a building or apartment dedicated to the pursuit of learning or the arts."1 It was a place in which knowledge and culture resided - the soil out of which the seed of learning would grow when touched by the caring attention of the human mind. Filling out this position, "it is worth remembering that…collections in themselves were not thought of as museums in the original Greek times."2 Rather, it was the individual's cognitive process - the existential journey through the encounter with the museum - that was understood as the defining characteristic of the institution. Viewed from this vantage point, the museum is much more than the home for a collection of artifacts; rather, it is a vital institution in which culture is not merely preserved, but lives through the experiences and memories of those that engage it.

The Northern Life Museum began as a small collection of mineral samples assembled by Fr. Francis Ebner, O.M.I., and displayed in St. Patrick's Roman Catholic school in Yellowknife.3Fr. Ebner decided that the samples gathered locally should be used to teach the children about mining and the mining country in which they lived.4 As the collection drew increasing interest from the children, they began to bring in items that their fathers would find while hunting or prospecting. These items were displayed in one of the schoolrooms for the enrichment of the students' environment. Owing to his visits to several of the mines in the North, Fr. Ebner had a considerable curiosity and studied interest in mines and minerals. He had also cared for many of the mining families as priest, baptising, marrying, and burying - experiences that molded his interpretation of the mineral collections into an avenue into the life of the community. When Fr. Ebner moved to Hay River, the collection - now filling over 21 boxes, kegs, and barrels - moved with him. Fr. Ebner displayed these specimens in St. Paul's school in Hay River and was soon guiding interested visitors through classrooms increasingly filled with artifacts reflecting the life of the community.

Brother SareaultWhen the collection outgrew St. Paul's school, Bishop Paul Piche5 expressed concern that this important collection should be properly cared for and protected. To this end, in 1967, he donated half of a fireproof basement in Grandin College's boy's residence in Fort Smith tobe dedicated as a museum under the direction of Fr. Ebner and his new partner, Brother Henri Sareault. Ebner began to arrange exhibit cases and displays while Br. Sareault did most of the collecting from various areas of the Northwest Territories. Yet collecting was not Br. Sareault's primary gift to the museums and the people that came to learn. Rather, it was Br. Sareault's knowledge of the people from all parts of the Northwest Territories and their stories that constituted his finest contribution. Indeed, Fr. Ebner affectionately and sincerely reflects that "he was my brain," and that, "I would never have been able to do it without Brother Sareault…because he knew the people."6 Many came to see Brother Sareault for his knowledge and understanding of the worlds reflected in the artifacts rather than simply to see the artifacts. He would chat with these friends, visitors and donors alike, from all over the North, go fishing and hunting with them, and fix their things in the museum garage for free. To Fr. Ebner, Br. Sareault was "our prize specimen."7 This mouseion was a place of friendship, history, and learning.


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            For more on Missionary Oblates in Western Canada, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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