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Georges Brossard

Georges Brossard, founder of the Montréal Insectarium, with Lycosa tarentula.
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Michel Tremblay)

Extract from “Notaires d'aujourd'hui”

by Daniel Bouchard, Vol. 2, no. 2, Octobre 1989.

The son of a farmer, Georges Brossard attended rural school No. 4, in the parish of Laprairie, Québec. (The town of Brossard didn’t exist in those days.)

“We lived in a beautiful, unspoiled place,” he recalls. “In a cupboard at school there were two specimens for our science class, a butterfly and a chunk of asbestos. I could gaze at them for hours. I guess that’s when I became attracted to insects, and that’s when I started my first insect collection, all by myself and not really knowing what I was doing.”

Then one day, returning home from college for the holidays, he found his collection ravaged by ants and spiders. “When I saw my collection in ruins like that, it hit me like a bolt of lighting: I knew that eventually I would be a great international collector. I saw my insectarium. I saw myself standing there explaining the world of insects to people. And now that vision has come true.”

After graduating from college, he went on to the University of Ottawa, where he studied law. He was thinking about doing a PhD thesis on bees, and becoming a professor. Did you know that bees are not native to Québec? They were brought here by French colonists. But bees and the law, as a doctoral thesis, was a rather unusual mix. His professors naturally brought him back to Earth, and he dutifully settled down to study and become a notary. At age 25, he opened his office. “I practised for 13 years, almost day and night, 6 days a week. I did thousands of minutes, incorporations and wills. I had 4 or 5 notaries and 15 secretaries working for me, and many, many clients.”

A shared passion

“I have to tell my fellow notaries that we ought to be proud of our profession. It allows us to be kind and charitable. I’ve hugged some clients, I’ve helped them, and at the same time I made a fortune. Being a notary really set me up.” But even as he was toiling away at such a frantic pace, Georges remained obsessed by his first vision, his insectarium. Finally, one New Year’s Day, at age 38, he retired. Now he would devote himself to natural science and the environment. His wife, Suzanne, also left her job as a dental assistant.

“We had decided to work like mad fools,” says Suzanne, “so that we could take early retirement and do what we wanted—to travel and have a family! On January 2 of that year, we boarded a plane and left on an eight-month world tour. It was like a dream. It took us a while to leave the stress behind; it had become such a habit. We had never taken a vacation, in 13 years of hard work. I remember one day, we were alone on a beach in Thailand, and all of a sudden I heard Georges exclaim ‘The telephone!’ He was still hearing telephones ringing in his head.”

Travel with a passion: Entomology

“I would take off for six months at a stretch, and I had plenty of time alone. I would spend my time reflecting, taking notes, writing, studying. I began thinking about going back to school, especially to study science. I told myself that of all the animals on Earth, insects must certainly be the ones that do the most for humans. They produce honey, silk, wax, shellac and dyes. They pollinate plants. And yet they are the most hated animals, the most misunderstood. We hunt them down with insecticides and fungicides. That’s why I decided to stick up for them. At first, I wanted a huge collection with all the insects in the world.”

So like any good entomologist, he took his net and set to work collecting insects. Georges has never purchased or been given any specimens. He has collected them himself, one by one, by day and by night, in 91 different countries. That was his life for 11 years. He has been to Thailand 11 times, Singapore 10 times, Africa 7 or 8 times, and South America 5 times. He pursues his passion on every continent. All by himself, he has catalogued over 200,000 specimens representing some 100,000 species. Imagine the energy he has poured into his quest, the insect bites and the illnesses, and the sheer willpower involved. But he was getting closer to his dream all the time, his insectarium. He saw it as a temple dedicated to insects, with modern museological facilities, serving educational, scientific, cultural and tourism goals.

From notary to entomologist… and museologist

How did he make the transition from notary to entomologist? For Georges, there was nothing complicated about it — you always remain a notary, whatever you do. “The first quality that a notary must possess,” he says, “is a sense of order. You have to be able to bring order to a complex system. Secondly, you need a good memory, and reason, obviously. And all those things are what make a good entomologist!”

As he travelled, he had to be able to exactly classify every animal on Earth, instantly. This science is known as systematics, and is one dimension of biology. He studied it thoroughly, not only in books but in the field, with a method acquired during his years as a notary. Once he had a satisfactory collection, he began showing it around Québec. Every time he exhibited his work, it met with astounding success. These presentations were the first steps toward his insectarium. He very quickly saw that the museology of insects was poorly designed.

“People set insects in uninspiring immobile poses, with no texts, no explanations, no links with their surroundings. I created huge thematic displays. I showed them to people and watched how they reacted. It didn’t take me long to understand that everything was too high up, too small. They had to lift their children up to show them the insects. I told myself that the whole museological approach had to be changed.” Rather than modelling his approach on other peoples’ ideas, Georges invented a new kind of museology.

Founding an Insectarium with public support

Once Georges had enough specimens to stock an insectarium, he made an appointment with Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau. He donated his fabulous collection of nearly 250,000 specimens from over 100 countries to the city. The city suddenly found itself with all the basic insects it needed to create an insectarium. Mayor Drapeau gave the project his blessing and introduced Georges to Pierre Bourque, director of the Botanical Garden. Mr. Bourque instantly subscribed to the idea. The director of the Botanical Garden couldn’t believe it: Notary Georges Brossard was putting on exhibitions that attracted 75,000 visitors. He jumped at the opportunity.

Things just snowballed from there. The municipality granted him one of the choicest properties in the city, across from the Olympic Stadium and next to the Botanical Garden. It gave him all the architects, planners and technical support he needed. Funding flooded in from the different government departments involved. Donations, too. In one year, he raised $5 million.

“But I wanted the Insectarium to be financed by regular Montrealers,” he says. “That’s when I got the idea of a fund-raising campaign, through the Montréal Botanical Garden.”

“It’s such a source of pride to be able to say that the Insectarium was the brainchild of one man, that it was also born of the interest shown by a city, the Botanical Garden and government departments, but especially thanks to the interest shown by ordinary people.” Along with this permanent exhibition, the new Insectarium will offer an insect identification service for the public. You can turn up at the Insectarium with an insect, and they’ll identify it for you. We will bring together the world’s most beautiful insects and present them in a special, beautiful, interesting and often artistic way, with explanations in French and English. Instead of hanging on the walls, they will be shown in glass cubes, at children’s eye level. The museological approach is designed to appeal to everyone.”

“They knew they were dealing with a notary”

Georges Brossard is a great entomologist. But he is also a notary, and that side of his character shone through in his meetings with politicians and administrators.

“I have ideas. I know how to formulate them and write them down. I can write a speech. I can put together very good briefs. They knew very well that they were dealing with a notary. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s an acquired skill.”

The educational dimension

“I started doing this for my own personal enjoyment, but now I have developed a wider conscience. The coming decades will be devoted to the environment. We have done more damage to our environment in the past 60 years than in the previous 6,000. Our children are going to tell us ‘Dad, Mom, it’s horrible! The world has become barely viable. You’ve emptied all the mines and stripped the forests, and what’s more, you’ve left us billions of dollars in debt!’

“But take a school-age child, the adult of tomorrow, and ask him about natural science. Everything is just a ‘bug’ these days. They can’t identify orders or classes. And this is the kind of person who is supposed to fix the environment? He’s going to solve the all the problems? He’s going to have to do a lot of guesswork, then, because he doesn’t have the basic knowledge.

"School is where you learn the basics. I figure that a big institution that will make young people and adults aware of the insect world will have an ecological and environmental impact. We’ll make them better citizens, interested in reducing pollution, less ready to use insecticides and herbicides to keep their lawns nice. At some point we have to put a stop to all these destructive, polluting habits. And this is what my Insectarium will teach them.”

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