Author details ‘100 years of fumbling’ attempts to create Manitoba Museum in new book

In 2020, the Manitoba Museum is recognizing 50 years of sharing and displaying the province’s history — but the author of a new book says it took a full century from Manitoba’s creation in 1870 before the museum finally came into being.

Jim Burns, author of Fire, Folly and Fiasco: Why it took 100 years to build The Manitoba Museum, told 680 CJOB the decades of efforts to find a home for the province’s artifacts was a “tragic tale of frustration and failure.”

“I suppose one could say there was a shortage of money,” Burns said.

“Manitoba was not a rich province in the early years, but this mustn’t be taken as disinterest. Manitobans really wanted a museum from early on, but an undertaking like that really does require the government to step in with support.

“This was a recurring problem through 100 years, really. There just wasn’t the financial support for the longest time.”

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Burns’ new book.
Burns’ new book. Woolly Mammoth Publishing

Burns said the museum was just one of the proposed projects beset with delays — especially during Winnipeg’s heyday as the “Chicago of the North.”

“There were certainly grand plans for building a number of buildings of monumental architecture on the boulevard just north of our present legislative building,” he said.

“But again, there just didn’t seem to be the nucleus of cash available and a real commitment to such efforts, so the buildings just didn’t get put up. We can number among those an art gallery, archives, a big library, and things like that.”

Read more: Winnipeg museums struggle to stay open amid COVID-19 downturn

Burns, curator emeritus at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton and a member of the Manitoba Historical Society, said his research for the book showed that many of Manitoba’s treasures were taken elsewhere during the 100 years without a formal place to store them.

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“With all of this fumbling around and not having a building that was devoted to a museum — a standalone, fireproof facility for storing Manitoba’s heritage — there just didn’t seem to be the will to deposit things, very important historical objects and documents.

“So many collections found their way to other places — south of the border and to Europe — and so in effect, Manitoba lost a great deal of its heritage due to inactivity and a lack of will.”

Burns has nothing but praise for the current Manitoba Museum on Main Street and for the Manitoba Archives building, and said he’s glad that, at long last, the region’s valuable history found a permanent home, beginning in July 1970.

“We certainly have a wonderful heritage here in Manitoba, and it’s worth going to those institutions to have a gander and see what you find,” he said.

The book, from Manitoba’s Woolly Mammoth Publishing, will be formally released Oct. 6 with an online event presented by McNally Robinson bookstore.

Click to play video '150 years of Winnipeg history captured in Manitoba Museum exhibit' 150 years of Winnipeg history captured in Manitoba Museum exhibit

150 years of Winnipeg history captured in Manitoba Museum exhibit

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