Lost Ottawa: A Fish Museum

Of the capital’s lost landmarks none is more curious than an old federal museum that exhibited oil paintings, whale bones and lobster. It was the Dominion Fisheries Museum, opened at the corner of Queen and O’Connor streets in 1884.

The original curator was an eccentric Scot, Andrew Halkett. He made the museum one of the first of its kind in Canada, a must-see for visitors just two blocks from Parliament Hill.

It was a beautiful Second Empire structure with rows of double-hooded windows and a mansard roof. Two floors displayed a fish hatchery, a full whale skeleton, a rare 8-foot green sturgeon and other ichthyology exhibits. The top floor from 1888 to 1911 was home to the National Gallery of Canada, the first federal collection of paintings and sculpture.

Halkett, the curator, was the main attraction. He joined the Department of Fisheries in 1879 as a resident naturalist and served 52 years. Halkett devoted his life to the study of fish and lobster, oysters and scallops.

“He was ever on the lookout for means of conserving our sea food and he lectured frequently to fishermen explaining to them better methods of making a livelihood,” a newspaperman wrote.

His books are rare and valuable: Sea Life In The Pribilof Islands, a study of creatures off the coast of Alaska, and The Moulting Of The Lobster. One 1913 title, the encyclopedic Check List Of The Fishes Of The Dominion Of Canada And Newfoundland, remains in print.

Halkett was “slightly built, studious and particular of speech,” wrote a contemporary, but had “vim and verve not in keeping with his studious appearance.” He joined the first Canadian scientific expedition to the High Arctic, the 1903 Neptune expedition, and nearly perished in a blizzard while studying habits of the fur seal in the Bering Sea.

At home, Halkett was a Greek scholar and lifelong member of the Bible Society and boasted his fisheries museum was so popular it opened on the Lord’s Day, 2 to 5 pm. Yet in a flash Halkett and the museum were gone.

In 1917 the exhibits were closed and the building demolished to make way for a federal office complex, the Hunter Building. It in turn was sold by the government in 1982 and bulldozed to make way for an insurance tower.

And Halkett? He moved to Nova Scotia to spend the twilight of his career studying lobsters, and retired in 1929 at age 75. The old naturalist died in 1937. The Department of Fisheries sent a wreath.

By Andrew Elliott

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