The Home of the Muse:
Oblates and the Northern Life Museum
Benjamin Lyle Berger, Research Associate, Provincial Museum of Alberta
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.
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.3
Fr. 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.
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 to
be 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,