The Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada showcases human and natural history across Manitoba’s diverse landscapes
(Note: On June 13, 2020, after being closed for three months, the Manitoba Museum reopened for Saturdays and Sundays. All galleries are open, but due to COVID-19 there are some restrictions. High touch/interactive displays are not available and the Nonsuch ship cannot be boarded. You are asked to keep one bison space between you and others. Check the museum website for details and any changes to policies as time goes by.)
A scene at the entrance to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada depicts a Métis hunter on horseback closing in on a herd of bison. The scene introduces the philosophical theme of the museum: the interrelationship of human beings and the natural environment. Museum visitors travel through millions of years as they go north to south across Manitoba’s diverse landscape. The galleries showcase both natural and human history. The Museum tells the Manitoba story through collections of artifacts, written and audio information, dioramas, and interactive displays.
The Museum first opened in 1970. Galleries have been added and exhibits updated in the 50 years since. There are now 10 galleries with such rich and extensive collections that multiple visits are never boring. You’re also likely to notice something different.
The museum is currently in the midst of a multi-year, multi-phase renewal entitled Bringing Our Stories Forward. The renewal began in 2017 and continues through 2020. The museum is open during this renewal. Galleries are updated and exhibits are added and changed on an ongoing basis. I’ve visited the museum several times during the renewal and have been excited to see something new each time.
There are actually three parts to the Manitoba Museum: a planetarium, the Science Gallery which will eventually move to its own stand-alone building as part of the museum’s renewal program, and the Museum Galleries which I am highlighting in this post. You can purchase admission to all three, just one, or any combination of two. The museum is open six days a week during the winter months (closed on Mondays) and open daily the remainder of the year.
The traces of Manitoba’s geological history remain in the fossils of the Ordovician Sea, which covered the province a half-billion years ago. The Earth History Gallery, the first gallery one enters after the Orientation Gallery, focuses on those fossils.
In this gallery you’ll also find information on the geological sediment layers under your feet and an introduction to different biomes found within Manitoba. Four galleries explore the human and natural history within those ecosystems: the Arctic / Sub-Arctic Gallery, the Boreal Forest Gallery, the Parklands Gallery, and the Grasslands Gallery.
The Arctic/Sub-Arctic Gallery focuses on Manitoba’s north. Manitoba is a maritime province with a marine shoreline along Hudson’s Bay of 645 kilometres. Hudson’s Bay is part of the world’s ocean system. The Arctic region of Hudson Bay is the land of northern lights, Beluga whales, and polar bears. Snow, permafrost, and tides are just some of the topics explored in museum exhibits.
In the subarctic transition zone between the Arctic tundra and the coniferous forests to the south, you’ll find white spruce, black spruce, and tamarack trees, all becoming more stunted and widely spaces as you approach the tree-line. Barren-ground Caribou winter here. Several birds breed in this region of countless lakes.
The Boreal Forest Gallery showcases the northerly coniferous forest which covers nearly one-third (164,000 sq km) of Manitoba. This is the land of spruce, pine, willows, birch, moose, black bears, and woodland caribou. Topography varies from level to hilly, with rock outcrops.
The Parklands Gallery showcases the parklands / mixed woods region of Manitoba, the transition zone between the Boreal Forest to the north and the Grassland plains to the south. Here you’ll find trembling aspen, broadleaf woods, mule deer, and sharp-tailed grouse. This area is home to a larger variety of life and landscapes than any other area of the province.
The Grasslands Gallery features the southern part of the province where bison once roamed in an area of tall grass and mixed grass prairie.
The Manitoba Museum is located on Treaty 1 land, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. These lands, occupied for thousands of years, are the traditional territories of the Anishinaabeg, Inniwak, and Nakota Nations. On its website, the museum says it is committed to collaborating with all Indigenous peoples of the province. Indigenous historical and contemporary stories are found throughout the galleries. Bringing these stories forward is a focus within the renewal project. In recent visits I have noticed new exhibits and updates to older exhibits that better represent Indigenous histories and cultures. Exhibits touch on traditional culture and ways of life, techniques for survival, relationships with the land, art, the impact of the fur trade, and interactions with first immigrants.
The fur trade brought Europeans to western Canada. Relationships between native women and European fur traders resulted in a growing number of mixed offspring. As this population established distinct communities separate from those of First Nations and of Europeans and married among themselves, a new people arose with their own culture, traditions, language (Michif), and way of life. The Métis Nation was born. Displays about the Métis can be found in the Parkland Gallery.
Between 1871 and 1910, Canada and Manitoba First Nations leaders agreed to seven treaties, Nos. 1-6 and 10. First Nations people agreed to share their homeland and Canada promised to provide for their well-being. Many promises made to First Nations people by Canada remain unfulfilled. Displays at the museum provide information on the treaties and the unkept promises, the impact of the 1876 Indian Act and the reserve system, and current steps toward reconciliation.
Settlement And Immigration
The fur trade first brought Europeans to Manitoba. Later, agriculture, land, and other opportunities brought more Europeans and people from other parts of the world. Their histories in Manitoba and their interactions with the land and with indigenous peoples are showcased within the various galleries. The unique nature of each ecosystem shaped those histories in different fashions.
In the Arctic/Sub-Arctic Gallery there is a display about the Franklin Expedition, an 1865 Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong. The building of the railway and the creation of dams for hydroelectric power created changes in the north. Fishing industries developed in areas of lakes. Agriculture played an important role in the south. The Grasslands is the area of Manitoba that has been most affected by human activities.
The Hudson’s Bay Company is one of the oldest enterprises in existence. The company was chartered in 1670. It was a fur trading business for most of its history. It had an incredible impact on the history of Canada. The company and its legacy is showcased in the HBC Gallery.
Over the course of the years, the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired a variety of artifacts related to its history as well as art and “curiosities of the country.” In 1994, the Hudson’s Bay Company donated its Museum Collection to the Manitoba Museum. The Hudson’s Bay Gallery opened in 2000.
The Nonsuch was originally built as a merchant ship in 1650 and sailed from England in 1669 to trade in furs for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Nonsuch replica on display in the museum was built in England in 1968 using hand tools of the 17th century and sailed to its new home in Manitoba.
In a small alcove just before the entrance to the Nonsuch Gallery you can listen to an oral history by Elder Louis Bird as he recounts a story of first contact between European settlers and the Cree. The recording can be played in English, French, or Cree.
In the gallery itself the Nonsuch appears moored at a wharf in Deptford, England recently returned from Hudson’s Bay with her cargo unloaded and stacked on the dock.
Winnipeg, located in southern Manitoba just 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the United States border, is Manitoba’s capital. The city with a population of a little over 800,000 people is Manitoba’s largest city and contains more than half of the entire population of Manitoba. The city was incorporated in 1873.
The Urban Gallery recreates Winnipeg in the 1920s. There are “streets” with shops and residences. You can enter shops and restaurants and see how they might have looked at that time. You can watch a Charlie Chaplin film at the cinema. This has always been my favourite gallery at the museum.
(Note: Until January 29, 2021 the clock in the Urban Gallery has been turned back to 1919 for “Strike 1919: Divided City”, a special exhibit about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. You can see some of what that looks like in my post Touring 1919 General Strike History in Winnipeg, Canada.)
The Winnipeg Gallery is the museum’s newest gallery. It opened in 2020 and explores the history of the city. There is a short timeline film presenting key events in that history. A seven-meter long display case explores Winnipeg by themes: Indigenous Homeland, Becoming a City, City of Newcomers, City of Contrasts, Military in Winnipeg, City of Water, and City of Celebration. Touchscreen tables in front of the display allow you to obtain more information about the themes and specific artifacts.
I found the stories of newcomers in the Winnipeg Gallery interesting. Sitting on a sofa I viewed newcomers tell their stories on a screen in front of me. I could select particular individuals and even narrow the viewing to answers to specific questions.
There is a lot to see at the Manitoba Museum. You can spend hours delving into interesting detail or skim through the surface in each gallery to get a general overview on Manitoba. You can make many return visits to learn more, see what’s been updated, or concentrate on one or two galleries.
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