This article was published 1/6/2018 (1455 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For 44 years, the Nonsuch has been enchanting visitors to the Manitoba Museum, bringing a whiff of adventure and the romance of the sea to our landlocked city.
The jewel in the crown of the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum Collection, the replica of the 17th-century fur-trading ship takes those who board her back in time.
Decades’ worth of schoolchildren have clutched the rails at the side of the rickety gangway that leads you onboard and descended the narrow stairs — backwards, please, for safety! — into the fo’c’sle, where they could marvel at the tiny bunks — how short men were back then — and peer out the round portholes, imagining them being lashed by salt spray as you crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a grand adventure to find a new trade route for England.
Few of us on long-ago field trips ever stopped to think about why this Prairie city was honouring a British ship that never actually visited Manitoba — let alone why we had built an entire museum wing around a replica that, while it sailed more than 14,000 kilometres in European, Canadian and American waters, was hauled into Winnipeg in pieces.
As the first phase of its $17.5-million Bringing Our Stories Forward capital campaign, the museum has spent about three years planning its refurbishment of the Nonsuch exhibit, which has remained largely untouched since it was installed in 1974, in part to better tell that story.
The project, funded in part by the HBC History Foundation and Canadian Heritage: Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, reverses the ship’s journey. Instead of leaving Deptford, England, in 1668, the Nonsuch is now returning to that British port town in 1669, its cargo hold laden with beaver pelts from trading with the northern Cree, its crew full of stories from the New World.
The shift is more than temporal and directional. In a subtle but meaningful way, it changes the narrative from a purely colonial view — European fur traders "discovering" Canada — to one of relationships and mutual influence.
Amelia Fay is the curator of the HBC Museum Collection — the Nonsuch is the largest artifact — and the lead on the renovation project.
"I’m mostly interested in relationships between Indigenous peoples and Europeans who came over for trade and other reasons," says Fay, 36, an archeologist with a BA in anthropology. "My interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company kind of grew out of that — thinking about those connections between people, especially early on, and what it meant before Canada was even Canada."
Under her guidance, a team of curators and conservators has widened the exhibition’s focus considerably.
"We’re able to bring in more stories about what it meant to these early fur traders to interact with these people that they’d never heard of before or seen or met and some of the experiences they had," Fay explains. "And we’re able to also bring in the Cree perspective, so we have a Cree oral history that starts the gallery, talking about the first contact with Europeans."
Telling more stories requires much more than new information panels and some fresh artifacts. The Nonsuch project involves a huge team of contributors from both in and outside the museum to provide everything from props and lighting to audio components, interpretation and construction.
New installations were envisioned and created, custom display cases ordered, video clips assembled, descriptions researched, written and translated into French.
Interpretive planning and exhibit design was provided by Vancouver firm AldrichPears. There is a beautiful new backdrop by local mural artists Charlie Johnston and Pat Lazo.
As the Manitoba Museum readies to unveil the new Nonsuch on Friday, the Free Press takes you behind the scenes with a look at just a fraction of what went into bringing a 17th-century replica up to 21st-century museum standards.
In the mid-17th century, the fur trade was complicated and indirect. Northern Cree were the source of most of the beaver pelts prized by Europeans (the underfur of the beaver, with tiny barbs that makes the hair mat together, made excellent felt for hats), but getting those pelts involved Indigenous middlemen, who would bring them from the Cree via canoe, along a wandering route of lakes and rivers to the established trade depots along the St. Lawrence in what was then New France.
Two French fur traders, Médard Chouart, Sieur de Grosseilliers, and his brother-in-law, Pierre Esprit Radisson, had explored inland and made connections with various First Nations. They realized there was an easier, or at least more direct, way: find a sea route to Hudson Bay, establish depots there, trade directly with the Cree, and load the ships for England.
When France showed no interest in the idea because it threatened their dominance along the St. Lawrence, Grosseilliers and Radisson took their plan to the British in 1665. After gaining an audience with King Charles II, the two explorers convinced him of the potential of their scheme.
The Nonsuch was purchased for 290 pounds and fitted out for the long journey. Commanded by Capt. Zachariah Gillam, the ship left port on June 3, 1668, and reached James Bay 118 days later. In his journal, Gillam claimed they traded with 300 peaceful Cree and returned home the following August with "a considerable quantity of Beaver, which made them some recompense for their cold confinement," as the London Gazette reported.
The beaver sold briskly on the London market and though the profits didn’t offset the cost of the trip, there was little doubt of the value of the new trade route. The investors applied to the king for a charter to trade, which was granted on May 2, 1670.
Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay, more familiarly known as the Hudson’s Bay Company, now HBC, would go on to play a huge role in establishing trade and scientific exploration, as well as contributing to the colonization of what would become Canada.
It might surprise you to discover that International Fur Dressers and Dryers, a family-owned and -run business in industrial St. Boniface, is the largest tanning facility in North America.
Then again, it might not — it’s part of the legacy of the fur trade in this province.
Matthew Stepian is a third-generation tanner; his grandfather started International Fur in 1967. He’s intensely proud of the work they wdo, everything from garment-quality furs for European fashion houses to hides for taxidermists across Canada.
It’s that pride that led to his involvement in the Nonsuch project. He had taken his kids to the museum, where his attention was naturally drawn to the furs on display as part of the HBC collection. They were looking a little worse for wear, a little shabby — and he knew he could do better.
He contacted the museum and offered them an arctic fox; he has since provided the Nonsuch exhibit with dressed beaver pelts much like the ones traded in the early days of the HBC.
Taking an animal pelt from raw fur to usable textile is a process, an incredibly time-consuming one, that hasn’t changed that much in the last 400 years. It’s become less toxic — tanners no longer use mercury, for instance — but the basic treatment is the same, and much of the work is done by hand or via low-tech processes (the specifics of which, however, are closely guarded secrets).
"Just like a baker who has his own recipe for bread, in tanning, we all have our own recipe," Stepian says, walking through an enormous cold storage room full of cardboard boxes full of coyote, bison, arctic fox, lynx, bear and muskrat hides waiting to be tanned.
First, trappers remove as much flesh and fat as possible, and then dry-stretch the skin, which helps prevent the proliferation of bacteria that will loosen the hair follicles. In this state, called raw fur, it can be stored in a cooler at low humidity for up to four years. If it gets wet, however, it’s unsalvageable, which is some indication of how perilous the fur trade was in the days when pelts travelled by boat with no refrigeration.
Tanners take the raw furs and put them through a 24-hour soak in soapy, salty water, "just like a giant bubble bath," Stepian says, to remove natural oils. Next step is a pickle, a brining process to help preserve the hide. Finally, the skin is tanned in a solution that locks the hair follicles into the epidermis.
Between each step, the skin is shaved down by hand.
Next, the skins go to the dry room, with a large dehumidifier. Once dry, the fur is soft, locked in place and the skins won’t decompose, but the leather is stiff and unworkable.
To remedy that, the hides are tumbled in giant wooden drums with sawdust for up to 24 hours. "The friction makes it heat up; it’ll make the animal sweat a little bit and open up their pores, and we’ll rub warm oil into their leather and let it sit and absorb," Stepian says. The hide is hand-stretched and more tumbling soaks up the excess oil. This process is repeated multiple times.
Finally, any seeds or debris are removed manually, and the fur is detangled and brushed.
In the early days of the HBC, beaver pelts were so important, the company issued currency, called Made Beaver, based on the value of one prime skin in good condition. Nowadays, the market is down: a trapper can expect only about US$35 for a beaver pelt.
The Nonsuch arrives in Winnipeg
The Nonsuch is an oak ship called a ketch, which was the typical merchant ship of the 17th and 18th centuries. Measuring just 16.5 metres (54 feet) from stem to stern, with a maximum width of 5.4 metres, it’s tough to imagine a dozen men living in her cramped quarters for such a long voyage, never mind how she would have been tossed about in an Atlantic gale.
However, the Nonsuch’s small size was an asset in the frigid Canadian North. Whereas larger ships would be crushed as ice formed around them on the water, Nonsuch could be lifted out to overwinter on land. When her crew landed at the river in the south end of James Bay, which they christened Rupert (in honour of Prince Rupert, the cousin of King Charles II and one of the voyage’s benefactors), they hauled her out, spending the winter in a cabin they constructed.
According to the informative bookThe Return of the Nonsuch: The Ship That Launched an Empire by Winnipeg author Laird Rankin, she carried cargo that included tar, compasses, axes, hammers, blunderbusses, pistols, shot, paper, quills and eel nets.
Food rations aboard included salt pork and beef, as well as raisins, prunes, lemon juice and sugar. The seamen drank beer and brandy — quite a lot of the former. Because it wasn’t possible to keep water potable for long on board, every man had a ration of eight pints of beer a day, although it was what’s known as "small beer," with a lower alcohol content.
In planning for Nonsuch’s renewal, curator Fay wanted to flesh out the area around the ship, which was largely empty rooms.
"The ship is awe-inspiring and people love it, so they perhaps don’t notice how sad the townscape is," Fay says. She wanted to bring it to life with furniture, dishes, tools and food of the time.
"That was one of the things I sort of laughed about, because I had to choose period-appropriate bread," the curator says.
"I never would have thought I got a PhD to look at fake loaves of bread to see which looks the most 17th-century-like, but there I was. I got sent a (props) catalogue of things and picked the stuff I liked. They’re even making a custom dish for me that’s not in their catalogue."
For some other items to complete the picture, such as replica axe heads to put in the warehouse space, Fay went to local sources.
Blades are not Cloverdale Forge’s usual stock in trade, but the opportunity to be part of a museum display was too tempting to pass up for the local blacksmith shop run by Matt Jenkins and Karen (Rudy) Rudolph.
Their small forge on Cloverdale Road off Highway 8, about 25 minutes north of Winnipeg, specializes in more decorative items (the ironwork in the Common at The Forks is their handiwork), but when Fay asked them to contribute to the Nonsuch project, Jenkins couldn’t resist.
"It was always my favourite spot in the museum," he says.
The blacksmith also worked at Lower Fort Garry for years (as did his father before him), so he’s knowledgeable about the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The axe heads Cloverdale is recreating, which are part of the HBC Museum Collection, are not beautifully etched weapons but tools of the "cheap and dirty" variety known as trade axes, used for such everyday tasks as splitting kindling, chopping down tent poles, cracking open crates and popping open barrels.
"It’s just a wrapped piece of steel," Jenkins explains, as Sophie, a grey Persian who’s "90 per cent fur, 10 per cent attitude" winds around his feet in the handsome log cabin on their rural property. "Kind of French in origin; it typically has a rounder handle than the rectangular oblong, lozenge-shaped axe handle that everyone’s used to nowadays."
They’re quite small and have no pole, an extension on the back of the blade that acts as a counterweight. They have a "French notch" on the underside, the origins and benefits of which Jenkins says are debated but remain undecided.
Another element that makes them distinctive is the crack that forms where two metals — mild steel for the body and high-carbon steel for the blade — have been forge-welded together.
"And it’s more of a wrapped eye than a punched eye," says Jenkins, referring to the hole for the handle. "You could punch it, like sticking your finger through a piece of plasticine, but in this case we’re wrapping it around and welding it."
There are some concessions to modernity: in the late 1600s, blades would have been made of low-quality wrought iron; known for pitting, it’s no longer manufactured.
"But I’m taking the attribute I think is the most important from back then, which is that it was the cheapest," Jenkins says. "We’re using that attribute for the material (mild steel) we’re using today."
Wearing steampunk-style goggles Rudolph refers to as "birth control" and a fire-retardant apron, Jenkins holds the tongs in his bare hands alarmingly close to the glowing coals of his gas-fired forge to pull out a rectangular piece of low-carbon steel, which he wraps around a mould to shape the eye and then hammers almost flat, leaving a gap to insert the wedge of the blade.
In forge welding, Rudolph explains, "You actually stick the metals in the fire and they get so hot on the surface that they start to melt, so you bring them out and slam them together and sparks go everywhere and they become one piece of metal."
If that sounds kind of magical, it is. Heated to a yellow-white molten heat, the metal starts to look like a sparkler. Jenkins holds a hammer where he wants pressure and Rudolph swings a mallet, melding the two metals together. After a few more fires and shaping, it’s been transformed from two bits of steel to an axe head.
"The beautiful thing about what we do in our shop is we’re not a big manufacturer, so we don’t have the machines or modern technology to produce hundreds of axes a day," Rudolph says. "So the tools and technology that we use are a lot of the same tools and technology that would have been used when these axes were made back in the day."
The replica of the Nonsuch was commissioned by the HBC to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 1970 and pay homage to its nautical history.
At the time, the company, though based in London, England, had its Canadian administrative headquarters in Winnipeg; Manitoba would, coincidentally, turn 100 in 1970.
In 1966, Manitoba Centennial Corp. was planning a cultural complex of concert hall, museum and planetarium to celebrate the province’s centenary year. It approached the HBC for a contribution to the project, and the company saw a way to dovetail its own commemorative ad campaign into the corporation’s plans.
It sounds a bit mad and not a little grandiose in hindsight, but the HBC offered to organize and pay for construction of a seaworthy Nonsuch replica that would eventually be housed in a wing of the proposed museum complex.
Designed by Warington Smyth, she was manufactured in Britain and staffed with a crew of seven, in addition to her captain, Adrian Small.
The ship proved immensely popular on her tour around England and France. Crowds greeted her wherever she travelled, drawn to harbours and shores by the sound of the six-gun salute and the beauty of her unfurled sails and elaborately carved prow.
When it came time to make her way to Canada, the long ocean voyage was deemed too risky — Nonsuch was brought over on the deck of a steamship — but before reaching her final dry dock, the ship would do a promotional tour, sailing up the St. Lawrence and through the Great Lakes.
For her Canadian journey, HBC decided to include some Winnipeg sailors as an acknowledgement of the ship’s final destination. Sam Richards joined the crew as an ordinary seaman or deckhand in 1970.
Then 20 years old, he was one of two local men hired after responding to a tender in the Free Press, "based on the fact that we’d been in a boat before," he says, laughing. His only experience was racing 19-foot lightning sailboats on Lake of the Woods.
Now 68 and a landlubber working in software support, he looks back fondly on his days with the Nonsuch, despite the cramped quarters and the lack of amenities.
"It was a lovely time," he says. "I think of it as a separate life, almost."
After his three seasons aboard Nonsuch, he joined the crew of the Golden Hinde, a replica of explorer Sir Francis Drake’s 1500s galleon, for a voyage across the Atlantic; he shows off an impressive scar on his leg that’s a memento of an incident with one her cannons.
As a novice seaman, Richards learned the ropes, literally, while aboard the Nonsuch. Luckily, Smyth had made her easy to handle.
"You put your butt on the tiller, you could focus on point on the horizon and she would just go in a straight line," he recalls. "It was beautiful sailing."
As a floating billboard for the HBC, Nonsuch was a great success.
"The Hudson’s Bay Company got a lot of free coverage," Richards says. "We’d often be on the front page of the local paper. You’d go into these small towns along the St. Lawrence Seaway and tons of people would be there.Every once in a while there’d be a floating dock and it would be sinking (under the weight of the crowd).
"When we went to Niagara-on-the-Lake, we sailed into it through a fog. We came out of this fog and you couldn’t believe how many people were on the shore. It was just fabulous."
By 1972, it became evident the construction of Nonsuch’s new home was behind schedule. A Manitoba election in 1969 saw the New Democrats replace the Progressive Conservatives; the new government had no formal ties to the Manitoba Centennial Corp.’s project and there was some concern it would not honour the agreement. (Oddly, the situation is now reversed. The NDP had promised $10 million to the Manitoba Museum’s $17.5-million capital campaign, but Premier Brian Pallister’s government has committed to $1.4 million with an addition $3.6 million in matching funds).
HBC took advantage of the delay to give Nonsuch another season at sea, this time along the coast of British Columbia and Washington State, before wintering her in a Seattle boatyard.
The ship was finally dismantled and transported over land to Riverton Boatworks, about 90 kilometres north of Winnipeg. On Nov. 20, 1973, a crane placed the hull of the Nonsuch on the floor of what would become her permanent home.
When the replica Nonsuch set sail from England in 1969, almost 40,000 people turned out to watch her embark on her maiden voyage.
There’s no record of who gathered on the shores to bid farewell to the original Nonsuch on June 3, 1668, but in the Manitoba Museum, since 1974, the ship has rested on the banks of the Thames at dawn, the town of Deptford evidently asleep around her — the only sound visitors hear is the call of a lone gull. No vendors hawk their wares, no crowds jostle on the banks.
Curator Amelia Fay envisioned a livelier atmosphere for the ship’s return — "Oh, that sad, lonely seagull!" she says. To bring her vision to life, she turned to Dacapo Productions, a Winnipeg audio production company that has extensive experience in theatre, film, animation and video games.
At the Exchange District studio in early May, the finishing touches are being put on the expansive soundscape elements that will fill the gallery, as well as a special soundtrack to play in the tavern. (That space has been expanded and made to feel like a cosy pub; it will feature chatter from the returning sailors about their journey and their interactions and relationships with the Cree hunters they met overseas.)
Voice director Nolan Balzer is working with actor Monique LaCoste to provide bilingual voice-over for five documentary video clips about the replica Nonsuch that will play in a kiosk.
Sound engineer Steve Payne plays a snippet of conversation between two women haggling over the price of a bolt of cloth, and another of boisterous tavern customers lustily singing along with a tune penned by Olaf Pyttlik as part of a collection of original period-style music.
Seven members of the Dacapo crew have been working since November on the project, which general manager Clinton Skibitzky says is the most ambitious soundscape of its kind that the company has tackled. The audio setup features 40 speakers, all transmitting something different in a very tall space with a lot of reverb.
After consulting with Fay, they brought on Governor General’s Award-winning Métis playwright Ian Ross (fareWel) to craft a script that would reflect the language and activities of the time. Sixteen voice actors, including some names that will be familiar to local theatre-goers, such as Gord Tanner and Mariam Bernstein, provide a large cast of characters.
"We didn’t want to hear same voice in two locations — that’s a moment where you lose the magic," Skibitzky says. "It’s like on The Simpsons when you realize Chief Wiggum has the same voice as another character; you can’t suspend disbelief. We want to make it feel like a vibrant, real community."
Dacapo has created three different 17-minute, day-to-night cycles, meaning every visit to the gallery should provide a slightly different experience (the gallery lighting will adjust with the cycle). Visitors might catch the quiet of a town just waking up, the bustle of a busy morning marketplace or the rowdy sounds of a tavern at night.
"We started thinking abut the duration of the timeline — how long does a person actually spend in the gallery? — which is about 10 minutes, so you don’t want a one-hour day because you’d only get a small fraction of it," Skibitzky says.
"Then we looked at things that would actually happen in this town in that century, the kinds of activity you would have. In the market, they would barter like this and use this currency and ask to buy these kinds of goods," he says. "There would be this kind of ship repair going on with these kinds of tools in this warehouse.
"Even in the tavern — how did you pour ale then? You’re not going to have it on pressurized taps like you do now."
The soundtrack’s dedication to veracity goes beyond what the casual museum visitor might notice. For instance, one of the day cycles features a rainstorm, necessitating research into building materials of the day.
"It’s slate roof here and thatch over there; as you walk by, you’re on wooden planks or stone, so the sound of the rain would change," Skibitzky explains.
For sound effects engineer Gisele Nazareno, it was capturing home life that was most challenging.
"It’s a real historical thing where I had to look online to find out what utensils did they use. The women just sweep a lot," she says, laughing.
"The sounds of the homestead were the hardest. You can’t just have a TV on in the background!"
The Nonsuch is typical of 17th-century ketches. She features two square-rigged masts — a tall main in front and a shorter mizzen behind — with two sails on each. She has bowspirit (a spar extending out from the vessel’s prow), and a high foredeck and poop (the deck that forms the roof of the cabin in the rear of the ship).
Though visitors revel in the details of the Nonsuch replica — the carved wooden dogs known as Wellington and Boot, the many naked torsos of women, which 17th-century sailors believed would keep bad weather away — they largely mimic similar ships of the period.
Few specifics are available about of the appearance of the Nonsuch herself, about which few records were kept and precious little is known, beyond dimensions and some provenance — she was purchased from Sir William Warren, who had likely bought her from the British navy, where she had been in service since 1654 (hence her cannons).
That said, much research and effort was undertaken to make her free of anachronisms… or modern conveniences
When the shipbuilding yard J. Hinks & Son of Appledore, England, won the tender to build the replica in 1967, there were strict instructions to make the Nonsuch as authentic as possible. That charge of authenticity extended to the painstaking use of 17th-century tools and methods.
She had to be made of oak, and the seams of her hull were caulked with oakum, a fibre made by unravelling tarred hemp ropes, which was hammered into her seams with a wooden caulking mallet. The sails were handmade out of flax canvas; no machine stitching was used and such modern inventions as wire and brass eyelets were verboten.
The few concessions to the 20th century were the installation of electricity, mandated safety equipment and a toilet.
A 39-year-old British sailor, Adrian Small, was named captain of the Nonsuch. He had much experience with square-rig ships, having been second mate on a Mayflower replica, as well as working aboard replicas used in films including Moby Dick and Billy Budd.
Over time, an important aspect of the Nonsuch’s authenticity became unravelled.
The rigging — the complex system of ropes that hoists the sails — has been redone frequently over the years, as sailors aboard the replica adapted it to be more functional for their needs.
To rectify the situation, Cindy Colford, the museum’s manager of collections and conservation, brought in Courtney Andersen, an American expert in historical rigging, to lead a team of riggers in returning the ship’s lines to a pristine period condition.
Their job was threefold: to correct historical inaccuracies; to make sure the rigging was all in working order; and to make it safe for curators who actually have to climb it.
Andersen, one of about 20 historical riggers in North America, has worked on several replica ships, including the Bounty (of the famous mutiny); the Half Moon, a reproduction of Henry Hudson’s 1609 square-rigged vessel; and the same Golden Hinde facsimile Sam Richards sailed on.
He’s also been a consultant on films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and works at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco.
Talking to Andersen, 49, after a February lecture at the Planetarium auditorium, he exudes a distinctive aroma, noticeable from about a metre away — but that’s not a bad thing. The smoky scent is one that will make many museum-goers intensely nostalgic, because it’s the same odour that permeates the Nonsuch gallery: the smell of pine tar, often called Stockholm tar. This sticky substance, made by cooking the roots and stumps of pine trees down to a thick molasses-like goo, is used to waterproof ropes.
The rigging on the Nonsuch is maintained using the age-old treatment of traditional twisted rope. First, to protect from moisture and rot, it is "wormed" by laying small line in the spiral grooves between the strands of the rope, to make a smoother surface. Then it’s "parceled" by wrapping in the same direction with long canvas strips, and finally it’s "served" by wrapping it in the opposite direction with twine to prevent wear and chafing. It’s then treated with Stockholm tar.
"Everyone I’ve talked to in Winnipeg says, ‘Oh, yeah, I went on that when I was a little kid!’ and everyone talks about the smell of the ship," says Andersen, who looks like you might imagine a historical rigger to look, weathered and bearded with a strapping Nordic vibe. "It’s kind of cool.
"This is a huge crowd for a topic like this," he adds, gesturing at the lineup of people waiting to talk to him about futtock shrouds, lateen sails and poop decks, or why Stockholm tar is superior to other tars (pro tip: it’s not; it’s just pine tar from trees in Sweden). "That really just shows how excited people are about the museum and the Nonsuch."
Though no drawings exist of the Nonsuch, much as the designers of the replica relied on paintings of similar ships of the day, Anderson studies paintings and book illustrations to untangle the mysteries of historical rigging.
"Square sails are designed for the trade winds," he explains. "They’re called the trade winds because they blow constantly from one direction, so European ships would sail from Europe, follow the trade winds to the Americas and then follow another set of winds going in the other direction, not the same latitude.
"If you’re going basically downwind, a square-rigged ship with the sails going across the beam of the ship, the width of the ship, is ideal because it’s just basically pushing you along. When people wanted to start going — and this is very simplified — but when people wanted to start going in other directions, square sails aren’t the most efficient. You need to have fore- and aft-rigged sails that you can point up into the wind."
Historical accuracy can include everything from the way ropes are coiled on deck to what they are made of. In the 1600s, ships would have used hemp rope; when it became hard to find, Manila rope was used as replacement. Manila is made from the fibre obtained from the leaves of the abacá, a type of banana native to the Philippines. It gives you splinters and its difficult to work with; it has been replaced with Hempex, a synthetic alternative (true hemp rope is no longer available).
Andersen also had to replace a couple of blocks (pulleys) that had seized. When global commerce relied on trade ships, wooden blocks were one of the first mass-produced items in the world, made by the Dutch. "It’s a lot more difficult to find them these days," he says.
When the Nonsuch crew made camp at the mouth of the Rupert River (today’s Waskagnaish, Que.), they were greeted by a climate and an environment that was utterly foreign to them. Blackflies and mosquitoes were a plague in the summer months and the bitter winter was unlike anything they would have experienced in England.They no doubt brought home tales of unique animals, unfamiliar plants and new customs.
The time was one of exploration and adventure, with the British Empire devoted to expansion by colonization. The Restoration era also saw the founding of the Royal Society in London in 1660. This prestigious independent scientific academy was devoted to research and innovation in trade and technology; regular trips to New France and beyond provided opportunity for gathering specimens from a new part of the globe.
The Hudson’s Bay Company went on to be involved in much more than just the fur trade, branching out into oil and gas, and salmon fisheries. They had outposts in such far-flung locales as Hawaii, California and Siberia — the Hawaiian dish lomi-lomi can be traced back to HBC introducing salmon to the area.
Entering the Nonsuch gallery, to make the transition from James Bay to England more clear, Randy Mooi, curator of zoology, has created a corridor that takes visitors through a boreal wetland environment that emulates what those long-ago traders would have left behind on their return home.
"That whole space in the past was looking at organisms as commodities — fur-bearers and how they affect people, biting insects — which is important, but I wanted to put it in a broader context," Mooi says. "The idea is to look at things like the beaver as an organism that is in an environment and does its thing and interacts with all these other animals and plants."
Part of the purpose of the Bringing Our Stories Forward campaign is to show off artifacts and specimens that have been languishing in storage — just five per cent of the museum’s collection is on display.
The museum has drawers and cabinets full of examples of Manitoba insect species; Mooi winnowed down the 700 or so specimens arrayed in beautiful backlit cases from more than 60,000 in the collection.
The exhibit also makes better use of a balcony space overlooking the ship, which now houses an area devoted to the role HBC played in commerce and scientific study, and to emphasize the part First Nations played in the company’s endeavours.
"HBC didn’t go to a lot of places that hadn’t already been visited by somebody," Mooi, 56, says. "They used maps that were created by members of First Nations communities.
"There’s a section about mapmaking with some beautiful old maps, showing some of the First Nations maps and how they’re translated into modern maps."
Some of the first directors of the HBC were members of the Royal Society. They instructed their factors — the people staffing the posts established as the company expanded its reach — to collect examples of local flora and fauna.
"As early as the 1740s, they were sending specimens back to Europe, many of them collected by First Nations people as well," Mooi explains. "They would work together and write journals and collect information about these organisms and send it back to Europe. Those were some of the first scientific descriptions, so we talk about some of that."
For every artifact, Colford and her team must assess the logistics of displaying items that are fragile and may degrade.
"I oversee the staff that works to make sure all the archives and specimens have catalogue numbers and proper documentation and the proper mounts that will be supporting them," she says.
Colford, 44, works with the museum’s operations team to make mounts that will be appropriate and safe, while showing off artifacts in their best light.
"A good example is up in the balcony. Amelia… wanted to include this life preserver. It’s cork and it’s quite fragile. You want it to be upright so people can get the full sense, but it can only be at a certain angle in terms of its support. In some of the original drawings, it was at a 90-degree angle, which was not going to work."
With the countdown to the big reveal now measured in days, Fay is eager to show off what she and so many others have been working on for years — and not a little nervous.
"It’s kind of a scary project, because Winnipeggers are Nonsuch-obsessed," she says. "We’re very protective of the ship; we love the ship because it’s kind of unique to have it here in the middle of the Prairies. So it has been a daunting task to balance nostalgia with trying to update.
"We’re trying to assure people that it’s still going to be the Nonsuch gallery you know and love, but it’s going to be brought up to date and tell different stories, and they’re going to be exciting stories."
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.