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June 16 2016

Manitoba Museum, long under the radar, has ambitious plan for the future

Aging museum is an ongoing work in progress

By: Mary Agnes Welch, Winnipeg Free Press

Let’s get this out of the way first: no one’s going to mess with the bison.

Those iconic, wild-eyed buffalo and their oddly plastic-faced Métis hunter have for decades launched any visit to the Manitoba Museum. The diorama is one of the museum’s most beloved exhibits, along with the Nonsuch, the urban gallery of boomtown Winnipeg and the bloody seal in the darkened polar bear den. Those are why Winnipeggers feel a tremendous sense of nostalgia for the Main Street icon.

An artist’s conception of what the museum complex will look like a decade from now; a new building focusing on science and technology is planned for the parking lot on Rupert Avenue north of the current building.

But nostalgia isn’t enough to sustain a world-class regional museum, especially one whose provincial funding has flatlined for six years and whose galleries run the gamut from terrific (the new Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trade room) to boring and text-heavy (the mining and northern railway alcove) to downright hipster vintage (pretty much everything in the 1970s rumpus room that is the Arctic area.)

The Manitoba Museum has a $160-million plan — one it hasn’t really shared with Winnipeggers until now — to catapult the museum past 2020. The first phase is already underway with the expansion of Alloway Hall, where visiting exhibits, such as the recently wrapped up Real Pirates! display of sunken treasure, are located.

The next step is a targeted overhaul of the first few permanent galleries, with a new grand hall down the spine of the museum and new content focused especially on the province’s modern history of immigration and indigenous peoples. Last will be the big one — a $100-million science centre built on the vast surface parking lot just north of the museum.

Canada, and especially Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights, has been in the midst of a debate over what ought to be in museums — how the best and worst of our history and culture ought to be faithfully presented. But that scrutiny hasn’t yet been brought to bear on Manitoba’s regional museum.

For years, the museum has flown under the radar, a financially stable, uncontroversial and too easily overlooked civic attraction.

When Winnipeg belatedly rushed to promote its tourist attractions to international visitors here for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Manitoba Museum rarely made the list, trumped by newer, sexier hot spots such as the polar bears at the Assiniboine Park Zoo or the human rights museum.

Now that the CMHR is open and no longer hogging capital donations, it could be the Manitoba Museum’s turn for an overhaul and a cash infusion. It would be great timing because the museum will be the fulcrum of some big birthdays in 2020.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, whose collection of fur-trade artifacts rests with the Manitoba Museum, will turn 350. The province will celebrate its 150th birthday, and the centennial-era museum itself will be 50.

In some corners, though, it’s already showing its age. On a recent tour of the museum, University of Manitoba historian Adele Perry said many of the exhibits fall into the old-school “man and nature” model. Walking through, especially in the first few galleries, she joked she almost expected to hear a 1970s documentary narrator booming “Man and his environment…” over the PA system. And, in several parts of the museum, it is just about man — not women or humans.

In addition to a few lingering references to “Indians” and the display case lumping all immigrants from Africa and Asia together are areas where the museum’s language is jarringly dated.

In some spots, Perry said, indigenous history is still seen as “before time,” before the “real” history of the province began with colonial settlers. Indigenous oral tradition is downgraded to myths and legends and the province’s urban history starts only in the 1900s, even though indigenous settlements existed long before then.

On the other hand, there’s a clear emphasis, especially in newer exhibits, where some of the museum’s remarkable indigenous artifacts are on full display, on the partnership between First Nations and colonial settlers who learned from each other as equals.

But it’s possible to tour the entire place and barely stumble on a mention of Métis leader Louis Riel, the province’s founding legislature, the Indian Act, Manitoba’s wartime history, former premier Duff Roblin or any key civic leaders in Winnipeg, such as former mayor Stephen Juba.

Manitoba’s story essentially stops at 1920, something former and current staff readily acknowledge.

Museum director Claudette Leclerc says the museum earmarks $500,000 a year to update exhibits, but many visitors don’t notice what’s new because it’s blended in with the old, such as new murals in the urban gallery, a new teepee in the grasslands gallery and at least half the displays in the earth history gallery.

Each square foot of new stuff costs $800 — a huge amount that reflects research, conservation, consultation and construction.

“When you have 70,000 square feet of gallery space, it’s really hard to make wholesale change,” said Leclerc. “Have we gotten smarter at telling the story? Yes.”

Leclerc notes government is unlikely to hand over the roughly $160 million needed to give the museum the overhaul envisioned in its master plan all in one lump sum. The feds just funded part of the capital and most of the operating costs of the CMHR and made no provision for arts and heritage projects in the newest Building Canada infrastructure fund. The province won’t likely ante up huge dollars, either.

Instead, said Leclerc, the museum must pick away at manageable chunks of its long-term plan.

“We want stepping stones that are achievable,” said Leclerc. “I don’t want to sell a vision that can’t be supported.”

At least half the cash will come from government and the rest from major, private donors. Those are the groups that have already seen the museum’s plan, developed about five years ago.

The plan started with the just-announced $5.3-million expansion of Alloway Hall, which will nearly double in size, giving the museum more space and better technology for travelling exhibits. Leclerc hopes to snag a “big wow” dinosaur show for the hall’s 2017 reopening.

The next phase will focus on the Manitoba story, likely starting with the first gallery visitors see, just past the bison. Throughout the museum, exhibits featuring immigration and indigenous peoples will also be updated.

The Nonsuch could get some new accessories — new technology, added interactivity and a better use of the museum’s Hudson’s Bay collection.

Curators are working this summer on how to do some of this and will have a plan to present to funders, likely this fall.

Ideally, as part of this phase, the museum would like to renovate the interior structure, adding a grand hall down the centre of the museum. It would allow direct access to galleries, so visitors and school groups could make a beeline for what they want to see, instead of following the long, winding, IKEA-style route the museum has now.

With the grand hall could come a glass collection storage wall so some memorable artifacts from recent Manitoba history — an iron lung, an original Winnipeg Jets sign, some huge stained-glass windows — could be displayed.

How the exhibits get renewed, whether a major interior renovation takes place at the same time and where the cash comes from is a puzzle Leclerc is just starting to solve.

The last and biggest part is a new science centre on a government-owned parking lot on Rupert Avenue to replace the small one in the museum’s basement. It would focus on innovation, science, technology and engineering and would essentially have to be built and stocked from scratch. It’s likely a decade away.

Other improvements include a much nicer front door on Main Street with a “community commons” feel, much better conservation facilities and, obviously, an actual cafeteria.

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