Today, the Nova Scotia Museum, consisting of 28 museum sites, is the most decentralized museum in Canada. It is also one of the oldest provincial museums in the country.
The museum’s roots are found in two citizens’ groups: the Halifax Mechanics Institute, founded in 1831; and the Nova Scotian Institute of Science, founded in1862. Both societies were concerned with public education and "cultural improvement" and collected books, artifacts and specimens, and scientific equipment. Collections also included materials for several international exhibitions, including those held in London in 1862, and Paris in 1867. In 1864 citizens approached government to use the Mechanics’ Institute collections as the basis of a public museum.
The provincial museum was established in October 1868 as a general museum of science and history. The Reverend Dr. David Honeyman (a geologist, who had supervised the province’s displays for three international exhibitions) was appointed as the first curator.
In 1947, a Museum Act was passed, changing the name to the Nova Scotia Museum of Science, and narrowing the mandate to the natural sciences.
In the early years, the museum was housed in numerous locations in downtown Halifax. The museum began to change again when a History Branch was established in 1955 and housed in the Halifax Citadel.
A new Nova Scotia Museum Act in 1960 broadened the scope to "the natural and applied sciences" and "human activities in Nova Scotia", and provided grants to museums, organizations and individuals. As a result, the family of museums began to form in 1960 when governing authority for three historic houses--Haliburton House in Windsor, Uniacke House in Mount Uniacke, and Perkins House in Liverpool-- was transferred to the Nova Scotia Museum.
When the Nova Scotia Museum moved into the new Summer Street location new programs were developed to oversee: exhibits, education programs, and the operations of the growing number of museum sites across the province. A new program also nurtured the growth of community museums. Today, the Community Museum Assistance program has grown to include the current network of 67 autonomous museums.
In 1980, the NSM was given responsibility for significant natural, paleontological and archaeological sites (including shipwrecks) through the Special Places Protection Act.
The Nova Scotia Museum continues to be responsible for the provincial collection of over one million artifacts and specimens. As well, it oversees the maintenance of more than 210 buildings, four floating vessels and nine locomotives. The collection continues to develop through donations, exchanges, purchases and field collecting providing Nova Scotians with a rich resource for many purposes: research, education program, exhibits, publications, interpretive programs and special events.
Currently,the museums in the Nova Scotia Museum family are managed either directly or through a unique system of co-operative agreements with societies and their boards in local communities.