Nova Scotia Archives

Harry Piers: Museum Maker

Who Was Harry Piers?

Harry Piers
"Many called him a 'human book of knowledge'. His tall stately figure was familiar in the community life of Halifax and he played a prominent role in numerous activities in the City and the Province."

So read the front pages of The Halifax Chronicle and The Halifax Herald (now The Chronicle Herald) following the death of Canadian historian Harry Piers on 24 January 1940.

The son of Henry Piers and Janet Harrington, Harry Piers was born on 12 February 1870 at "Stanyan", the Piers' family home on Windsor Street. As a child, he attended public schools in Halifax before enrolling at the Victoria School of Art & Design to study water-colour painting and architectural drawing.

In 1889, he entered the public service as assistant legislative librarian under F. Blake Crofton, and in 1894 he became recording secretary for the Nova Scotia Institute of Science, a position he held until 1934. However, it was in 1899 when Piers truly hit his professional stride, becoming curator of the Provincial Museum.

Known today as the Nova Scotia Museum (NSM), the Provincial Museum was established in 1868 to ensure the long-term sustainability and integrity of the province's heritage resources by developing and maintaining a provincial collection.

During his tenure as the NSM's curator, Piers was practically a one-man-museum. Famous for his precision and diligence, he worked across multiple disciplines to collect a wide variety of artifacts and specimens that represented Nova Scotia's cultural and natural history.

Possessing skills in documenting that were considered ahead of their time, Piers complemented the NSM's physical collection with research and item descriptions done to such high standards that they stand out today as instructive examples of museum work. Parks Canada historian, William Naftel, has described Piers as a "renaissance man of this province's cultural history. It matters not where the modern researcher penetrates – history, archaeology, material culture, geology, botany – it is almost certain that you will find his footprint decades ago. At a time when nobody else cared, he and his museum did, and between them they preserved and recorded much that would otherwise have vanished utterly."

In addition to his curatorial responsibilities, Piers served as librarian of the Provincial Science Library and as Deputy Keeper of the Public Records of Nova Scotia from 1899 until 1931, when the Public Archives of Nova Scotia opened.

He was also a gifted writer with vast research interests ranging from the history of the military fortifications encircling Halifax Harbour, to the habits of the winter wren, a tiny bird found in the forests of Nova Scotia. His last book, "The Evolution of the Halifax Fortress 1749-1928", was published in 1947 just after his death and in the 1950s and 60s played a key role in restoring the Halifax Citadel and York Redoubt.

Over two dozen of Piers' articles published in the Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science are now available online; they provide another opportunity to explore Nova Scotia's natural history through the writings of this remarkable man.