The Harbinsons: A Collecting Passion

November 25, 2015
Heather and John Harbinson

Heather and John Harbinson, furniture collectors and donors.

At a time when most Canadians considered second-hand furniture junk, a young couple from Southern Ontario saw their future. Newlyweds John and Heather Harbinson fell into collecting just before Canadiana became popular following Canada’s 1967 centennial. “If Canadians had developed an interest [in Canadian antiques] earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to assemble a collection like ours,” John Harbinson explains. “When we were younger, we didn’t have a lot to spend. We thought antiques had character.”

The Harbinsons’ dedication to acquiring early Canadian furnishings, along with their meticulous recordkeeping and research, has made the collection a Canadian treasure. In 2007, by donation and purchase, the Canadian Museum of History acquired the collection — one of the finest of its kind. Thanks to the Harbinsons’ generous support, this rich legacy is now available to Canadians and people around the world in a new virtual exhibition, The Harbinson Collection – A Passion for Canadian Furniture and Decorative Arts.

The Harbinsons were interested in early Canadians — where they came from, what traditions they brought with them and how cultural influences were maintained within communities. Spanning the 1700s to the early 1900s, their collection represents significant French, English, Scottish, Irish, German and American settlements in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec.

As well, the Harbinsons were part of a new generation of collectors that actively sought to discover the provenance of the items they were collecting and to expand the knowledge base about Canada’s domestic furnishings. Their objective was to build a collection of items that helped explain Canada’s roots. Each piece they acquired had to meet three criteria: quality of design, excellent physical condition, and a traceable “provenance” through the record of makers and owners, as well as its social context and use.

Dedication like that is what makes the collection so valuable to historians. When retirement beckoned and downsizing became a reality, the Harbinsons didn’t hesitate. “We are very pleased to have the collection used in a way Canadians will appreciate, and we hope the collection will help us all take more pride in our shared culture.”