Suellen Murray often walked through the Halifax Public Gardens on her way to work. During one walk, the lawyer, researcher, and author saw a blue heron sitting on an island in the garden’s pond.
“She took a photo of it so everyone would know she was telling the truth,” says Janet Murray, Suellen’s mother.
Suellen died from a brain tumour in 2014. Her parents, Janet and Jock Murray, created the Suellen Murray Educational Bursary to honour her memory and support projects that would recognize the importance of the gardens.
The Murrays, along with a sub-committee comprised of members of the Friend of the Public Gardens, choose the project each year. In 2017, the bursary was awarded to Claire Halstead, a social and cultural historian. She first discovered the Public Gardens in 2008 when she was visiting her partner, who is from Halifax.
“I always went to the gardens and loved it, of course,” Halstead says. “As a social and cultural historian, I like to hear what people say about the past. Fortunately, I am never short of ideas.”
Halstead’s project is called 150 Years as the Heart of Halifax: A Study on Public Engagement and the Halifax Public Gardens. Halstead completed historical research looking at how the gardens have been used for the past 150 years. “That’s different than a history of the gardens,” she says. “It’s how it’s connected to the people of Halifax.”
Besides archival research on the gardens, the project included a public engagement piece where people could share their stories of the gardens. Halstead strung simple, old-fashioned clothes-lines in Horticultural Hall. Guests wrote their stories of the gardens on pieces of paper and clipped them to the clothesline with wooden pegs.
Like Suellen, many others had stories of the gardens, too. A little girl wrote about how an eagle stole her popcorn. One woman wrote how she parted from her ex-husband for the final time at the garden’s main gate, and walked through the gardens as a calming start to a new life. There were countless stories of proms, wedding celebrations, or even enjoying ice-cream on a summer day.
“We can see the legacy of the gardens, how it was used, and how it’s still used to today,” Halstead says. “I think [the project] really does illustrate that people want to share their stories and want to be heard. I tried to make sure to do Suellen’s memory proud.”
Janet says she hopes the bursary reminds people about the importance of the gardens to Haligonians and others.
“I think we have to understand that this is important to the city,” Janet says. “Building is important, construction is important. Bringing cruise ships to the city is important. But in the heart of Halifax, we have something that is precious to the people of Halifax and our children and their children, but also to the people just passing through.”
That blue heron Suellen spotted years ago now returns to the gardens every year. Janet and Jock have taken photos of it and Jock created an oil painting of the bird, which now hangs in Horticultural Hall. The heron is also on the logo for the bursary. That heron has become a symbol of Suellen’s connection to the gardens.
“I think Suellen would love the project,” Janet says. “The gardens were the heart of Halifax for her, too.”