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Victorian Insect Art

Public Submission
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Circa 1850
Materials & techniques
Walnut Shadowbox, insects
Niagara Falls History Museum, 2015.030.064
In 1831, Thomas Barnett opened his museum of curiosities and natural history to the viewing public in Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls Museum, considered to be Canada’s oldest museum, was one of the first substantial buildings along The Front (the road that faces Niagara Falls). A guidebook printed in 1835 declared that the Museum rooms were …calculated to delight the eye, improve the understanding and mend the heart.

Barnett’s Museum was the quintessential cabinet of curiosities displaying thousands of specimens, both foreign and domestic, by the mid-nineteenth century. As a trained taxidermist, Thomas was known to mount the creatures that local people brought him, including their beloved pets and animal oddities they encountered. Like the great Falls themselves, the Museum was a place where people could marvel and learn about the world around them.

In 1999 the Niagara Falls Museum was closed and its collection (more than 700,000 objects) was sold to a Toronto collector and dealer. In January 2015, The Niagara Falls History Museum became the steward of several pieces from Barnett’s collection, including this one-of-a-kind example of Victorian Insect Art.

Dating from circa 1850, the walnut corner block frame (sometimes known as a Hicks style frame, after the American artist Edward Hicks) displays almost 900 beetles. The specimens themselves are arranged in a decorative fashion to include the name of the Museum and its owner alongside a famous quote. Reminiscent of Victorian hair wreaths or other framed entomology collections, this beautifully assembled piece of natural history is earmarked for conservation and display in the Community Gallery at the Niagara Falls History Museum.
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