Museum displays must reflect current context

On Friday, the Manitoba Museum revealed the first phase of its Bringing Our Stories Forward project, a $17.5-million capital campaign with the aim of revitalizing and updating the museum's galleries.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/06/2018 (1749 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On Friday, the Manitoba Museum revealed the first phase of its Bringing Our Stories Forward project, a $17.5-million capital campaign with the aim of revitalizing and updating the museum’s galleries.

After three years of planning and work, the improved Nonsuch gallery was unveiled, providing a new perspective on the replica 17th-century fur-trading ship that has been a favourite with visitors since it was installed in 1974.

Museums, especially venerable ones, are faced with multiple challenges when it comes time to update.

First, there’s the fickleness of the public. On one hand, people tend to assume attractions that have existed for decades have nothing new to offer, that they’re a been-there, done-that proposition. On the other, curators who make changes hear the howls of outrage when beloved exhibits are altered or removed.

Balancing nostalgia with progress is a delicate process.

In comparison with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — a shiny new toy, outfitted with the bells and whistles of cutting-edge technology — the Manitoba Museum, with its endearing old-school dioramas, might seem like a half-forgotten old teddy bear, but it is an important and evolving record of the history of this province.

Its collections, only five per cent of which are on display, contain tangible links to the people, species and ecosystems that have made us who we are.

The original Nonsuch never actually visited Manitoba, but her voyage and the subsequent formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company set into motion the wheels of colonization in Western Canada.

The replica was intended as a celebration of HBC’s legacy; that legacy’s influence is widespread and undeniable, but not without its issues. As historian Ira Berlin, who died on Tuesday at age 77, said, “One does not get over history, one just has to come to terms with it.”

Part of that “coming to terms” can be achieved by shifting the narrative. Museum artifacts and specimens don’t exist in a vacuum; the context in which they’re displayed tells a story. In many cases, that story has been a one-sided account that largely discounts the contributions of Indigenous people, whose lives and belongings are often presented as curiosities set apart from the settler experience.

“Now there’s a lot more collaboration and thinking about how we write about people and their things,” says Amelia Fay, curator of the Hudson’s Bay Co. Museum Collection.

The words we use make a difference — remember that when the Nonsuch was originally ensconced into its wing, the building was known as the Museum of Man and Nature. To that end, the new exhibit includes a Cree oral history that recalls First Nations’ initial encounters with Europeans, and an audio soundtrack, written by Métis playwright Ian Ross, that highlights the interactions British sailors had with Indigenous hunters.

Incorporating multiple voices into the historical narrative is part of the work museums the world over are striving to achieve.

The Bringing Our Stories Forward campaign is valuable, not just because it makes the Manitoba Musuem a more up-to-date and appealing tourist attraction. How we present and interpret Manitoba’s history isn’t only about the way we explain ourselves to others. It’s about how we understand our past and move our own story forward.

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