The Yarmouth County Museum is arguably the best among all the smaller museums of Nova Scotia. Located in the town of Yarmouth, on the southern coast of the province, this museum is remarkable both for its collections and its structure.
Few museums in Canada have such a wonderful home. The building began as the Tabernacle Congregational Church constructed in 1892 in the Gothic Revival style. The granite exterior which is rather plain gives no hint of the whimsical interior. Inside the ceiling is criss-crossed with white painted colonnaded ribs that create a marvellous visual effect. All the wood detailing is intricately cut reflecting the skill of Yarmouth 19th century shipbuilding craftsmen. The large vessel of the church sanctuary now used to house the treasures of the Yarmouth County Museum makes for a unique museum experience.
Because Yarmouth is a port town and has a long history of marine commerce and fishing, the museum includes in its vast collections some very special relics of life on the Atlantic coast. The largest of these dominates the other exhibits. It is the lens from the lighthouse that directed sailing and steam ships into Yarmouth harbour. Called a Fresnel Lens after its inventor, the faceted glass cost some $38,000 dollars in 1908. It weighs over 3 thousand pounds.
The museum has one of the largest collections of ship portraits in Atlantic Canada. The paintings were commonly commissioned by the owners or captains of sailing vessels to be kept as a kind of souvenir. Painters of ship portraits plied their trade in ports around the world, so, often in the background of depictions of Atlantic Canada ships there are views of the harbours cities such as Hong Kong, Naples and Liverpool. The pictures of 19th century barques, schooners and brigantines bring to life the lucrative and often dangerous commerce conducted by wooden ships many of which were built in Yarmouth.
The costume collection of the Yarmouth County Museum is also extensive. It includes examples of the fashionable dresses worn in 19th century Yarmouth made from fabrics brought from abroad and has examples of exotic costumes bought in ports of call around the world by Yarmouth seafarers.
Of particular interest in the current rush to produce electric vehicles is the museum’s 1921 Automatic Electric Pleasure Vehicle built in Buffalo, New York. The car which was bought by a Yarmouth lawyer in Florida was shipped north in parts, reassembled and driven around town, mostly on the sidewalks rather than the bumpy municipal streets. After a few years attracting the attention of the residents of Yarmouth the car suffered from years of neglect until it was restored to working order. It participated in parades until its acquisition by the museum.
The most mysterious item in the museum is a large stone with an as yet un-deciphered Runic inscription that was discovered on a Yarmouth farm. The possibility that the stone is a relic of a hitherto unknown landing of Viking explorers or Anglo-Saxon seafarers has been a matter of debate. It was once exhibited in Oslo, Norway as evidence of the pre-Columbus discovery of North America by Scandinavians.
The Yarmouth County Museum also has an unusually rich collection of musical instruments. A concert roller organ, pianola and, naturally, a shipboard organ are among the treasures on display in the Music Room.