After a month of unpacking, dusting and organizing, the locally famous B.J. Hales collection will be open to the public this weekend — for the first time in more than four years.
The close to 800-piece collection, put together by Brandon naturalist Benjamin Jones Hales in the first half of the 20th century, has been boxed up in the basement of Earl Oxford School since 2009. After more than a year of negotiations, the collection will be loaned to the Brandon General Museum and Archives (BGMA) from the Brandon School Division (BSD) for a five-year display term.
"If you walk into a coffee shop you’ll get people of all ages that remember walking through the gallery, and seeing the polar bear," former curator Ken Jackson said.
Jackson oversaw the collection for nine of the 40-plus years it sat at Brandon University. He now sits on the board for BGMA and said the collection is exactly where it should be, in Brandon.
"Hales’ whole idea was using the collection as a teaching tool," he said. "There are a lot of people in Brandon that don’t know there’s falcons flying over their heads every day in the summer — this collection gives kids that first taste of Manitoba nature and wildlife, to find out what’s out there in our province."
Jackson pointed out a Yellow Rail bird, which is considered a threatened species. He said the Douglas Marsh is one of the few places you can find the bird today.
"In the ’70s or ’80s they wanted to pave the marsh for some new housing developments," he said. "This little guy is the reason that marsh is still there."
BGMA curator Mark Veneziano said he’s excited to create different programs to accompany the collection.
Using education and art, he plans to hold drawing and painting sessions to help kids identify the animals while they learn about them. He also plans birdwatching activities for adults.
"With the rotation of the birds there’s always something new, and hopefully it will become more challenging," Veneziano said.
The collection will be rotated every four months to represent the changing seasons. But some key pieces will be seen all year.
The polar bear, according to Jackson, is one of the big draws.
"We had to take it out of the school’s basement and roll it through the school, during recess," he said. "Seeing kids with this amazed expression on their faces, seeing this bear rolling out of their basement and being able to stand beside it, it’s great."
The gallery is hosting a private showing on Friday night with BSD trustees, city councillors, Mayor Shari Decter Hirst and other museums in Brandon and the Westman area.
The collection will be accessible to the public on Saturday and Sunday as part of Doors Open Brandon.