Manitoba History: Exhibit Review: Renewed Nonsuch Gallery, Manitoba Museum
by Tom Kynman
A trip to the Manitoba Museum will bring you face to face with what is still one of the most impressive galleries you might encounter in any museum. The reconstructed, renowned 17th century Hudson’s Bay Company sailing ship Nonsuch and its environs have undergone a comprehensive refurbishment and conservation treatment, resulting in a fresh new gallery for visitors to explore and (for many) to discover all over again. This meticulous care and attention is wonderful to see, especially as the Nonsuch has been the iconic centerpiece of the Museum since it was opened in 1974. Of course, refurbishing an exhibit as large as this takes a great deal of time, as well as considerable human and financial resources. The museum staff have done an impressive job and should be commended for their work in arresting and reversing the wear and tear on artifacts and exhibit elements, the necessary toll of decades of exposure to visitors. The ship, being such a large artifact, has a stunning visual effect, powerfully conveying a “sense of place.” Indeed, it begs to be boarded and explored, and visitors are still afforded this opportunity. It is a wonderful visitor experience, but one that will inevitably result in the eventual need for another “refresh.”
Some subtle and some not so subtle changes to the overall gallery have been made. While the ship remains docked at a representation of Deptford, its home port in England, the most striking change is that the ship is now in full sail! I can only guess as to why this decision was made. As a former interpreter, I suspect that visitors over the years may have expressed interest in seeing the ship that way. It may also have been the most obvious way to make the exhibit look different from before. It was no small feat I suspect. But once you get over the visual impact and give it some thought, a ship at full sail in port does not seem likely!
I must admit to being rather interested in seeing the ship with sails unfurled, but what struck me as I entered the gallery was a sense of not being able to fully take in the view of the large vessel, because the sails obscure it. One must get fully into the gallery in order to see the ship itself, rather than a curtain of canvas. Nevertheless, it surely does lure you in and “pulls” you towards getting a better view.
The premise of the previous Nonsuch gallery was that it is 1668, and the ship is preparing to depart from its home port in England for the ‘new world.’ In the renewed gallery, the Nonsuch has just returned from its sixteen-month voyage to the Hudson Bay, laden with furs and other goods obtained from the Indigenous traders, and triggering the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670. I did not notice any significant change to the physical layout of the various bales and barrels to indicate this, but the exhibit does now effectively employ some new technology in trying to situate the visitor in time and space. Most notably, the use of audio in the form of conversations and music along the wharf encourages visitors to stop and listen. The audio clip I found most effective was the conversation between a woman and her children talking about the return of her husband, their father, after a three-year absence. As the stories progress, visitors will become aware of a change in light and ambient sound as, over a seventeen minute period, the gallery moves through three days of sunrises and sunsets, and includes a thunderstorm. I must say that sitting there and taking it all in certainly did make me want to “go for a sail.”
The ancillary galleries flow nicely and, more than ever, the spectacular Hudson’s Bay Company collection evokes the clash of cultures between the Nonsuch, its home port, and the ‘new world.’ The upper gallery tells the story of shipping with a focus on Hudson’s Bay Company activities in Rupertsland, while providing the best views of the ship from a higher vantage point.
Possibly the best feature of the renewed exhibit is one that I missed on my first visit and saw only on the second visit when I was leaving. As you exit the Boreal gallery and just before you enter the Nonsuch gallery, there is a small alcove marked “First Encounter.” In this room, visitors can read or listen to a Cree oral history of the first meeting with Europeans on the shores of Hudson Bay. Twenty minutes spent listening to Omushkego Elder, Dr Louis Bird describe how the Cree of Hudson Bay experienced first contact with Europeans provides the non-Indigenous visitor with a very different perspective from the traditional Eurocentric museum approach to interpreting the fur trade. Do not miss this feature, as it will bring a whole new dimension to your visit.
Although the changes made to the renewed gallery do have an overall positive impact, in the end perhaps not enough has changed. As time and thousands of feet take their toll, the Nonsuch gallery will require “refreshing” again. Personally, in the next iteration I would like to see the ship depicted upon its arrival in Hudson Bay, providing opportunity to pick up on some of the themes reflected in the story Dr. Bird has shared.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 25 April 2021