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The Manitoba Museum: A contemporary cultural icon

Transforming this cultural institution required a unique approach to construction, learning the language of curators, and being agile in response to the global pandemic.

The Manitoba Museum is one of our province’s most well-known museums. A Winnipeg institution since 1970, the Museum has educated generations of Manitobans, as well as national and international visitors to our City. The responsibility of telling a people’s and a geography’s story is an important one; one that requires a lot of thought and attention to detail.

The need to tell the stories of Manitoba’s people and natural history in a contemporary way led the Museum to start their “Bringing our Stories Forward” capital campaign. Forty-two percent of the Museum’s galleries will be updated once the third and final phase of the Galleries renewal is complete. There is a concerted effort by the Museum to update the stories related to Indigenous peoples and new waves of immigration to Manitoba, as well as documenting the impacts of climate change and the history of natural science in the decline and evolution of new species.

The Winnipeg Gallery
Photo credit: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

“As a biome-based museum, it is imperative that we continue to grow and represent the diversity of historical and contemporary experiences, both human and natural, as they develop,” says Seema Hollenberg, director of research, collections and exhibitions for the Museum and the Chair of Bringing our Stories Forward capital project.

“With the new galleries designed to ensure responsiveness to evolving social issues and scientific content,” explains Hollenberg, “visitors to the Museum will have refreshed and contemporary content to explore and re-explore for years to come as the Museum, through the galleries and new programs, continually integrates new facts and interpretation of human and natural history.”

The Winnipeg Gallery
Photo credit: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

The Project

The transformation of a cultural icon such as the Manitoba Museum, while it is still operating, requires a skillset well beyond that which is the “norm” in construction. As the design-builder, we had to learn a new language in order to translate the curators’ visions into a built form, manage a global supply chain that included consultants, fabricators and installers from England, Vancouver and New York (and the added complexity and risk created by the Covid-19 pandemic), and implement elements of agile management to provide the Museum with the flexibility required to maintain operations.

The project was broken up into three phases: Phase A was the Nonsuch and Boreal Galleries which were completed in 2018. The Winnipeg Gallery (Phase B) opened in the fall of 2019, and the current renovation of the Grassland and Orientation Galleries (Phase C) will wrap up this November. Prior to the Galleries renewal project, Bockstael completed the renovation and expansion of the Museum’s Alloway Hall. All these projects have been completed on time and on budget.

Alloway Hall Expansion
Photo credit: Joel Ross

Advances in technology have greatly expanded museum design and how exhibits can be created. Static displays are evolving into much more interactive displays. We engaged subcontractors in theatrical lighting, touch table displays, audio and visual production, and graphics. These elements are integrated and layered with works from muralists, artists, specialty metal workers, highly specialized mill workers for artifact display cases, and even riggers who have worked on The Pirates of the Caribbean movies (for the Nonsuch Gallery). All these elements combine to make visitors feel transported to a different time by the layered sights and sounds, creating an immersive learning experience.

The Nonsuch Gallery
Photo credit: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

“This is an art,’ says Bockstael Construction project manager Julia Vossen. ‘All the components have to work together. The physical components need to be positioned properly to integrate with the lighting and projections, as well as the audio sounds that play as you take in each part of the exhibit.” 

The Boreal Gallery
Photo credit: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

In the museum exhibits, accuracy at the most minute level of detail is paramount. The materials used in exhibit must depict historical accuracy and manifest the curators’ vision. All the miniscule details make a difference, such as the way prairie grasses are positioned to ensure it is accurate to the way it would grow in nature. As the design-builder for the project, not only did Bockstael have to coordinate the multitude of moving parts, we had to learn a new language. We learned the language of curators, artists, and muralists so we could bring their visions to life.

“Through Bockstael, we engaged in workshops with the external design team, Aldrich Pears Associates (APA), who assisted in taking all these ideas and tracking and mapping them into manageable components and, with Bockstael and The Manitoba Museum, considering how to phase, schedule and budget to the construction, design and development of the new galleries,” describes Hollenberg.

The Nautical Gallery
Photo credit: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

With such intricate details and specialized subtrades (both locally and internationally), the approach Bockstael took is unusual for a construction company. As the design-builder, we pulled together all the individual contracts, integrating and coordinating with the curators. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, our project team had to manage the impacts on the global supply chain. There were suppliers from England, New York, and Vancouver – all places that were hard hit by the virus and temporary closures. Many were supposed to travel to Winnipeg but no longer could. The pandemic drastically altered the schedule of work and frequent adjustments needed to be made.

As the Museum reopened, our schedule remained fluid and flexible to allow the Museum to be open as much as possible and continue taking in revenue. The importance of keeping all project partners moving on schedule and budget is always at the forefront of our construction projects, and even more so when it is a capital campaign. “We’re always mindful of our client’s investments,” says Carmine Militano, senior vice president of Bockstael Construction and project executive on the project. “And when it’s money that’s been fundraised through donations, there’s an extra layer of awareness of how each dollar is spent.”

The Nonsuch Gallery
Photo credit: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

At Bockstael, we’re not stranger to complex, intricate projects – in fact, we thrive in these types of projects. What makes this project stand out is the overlapping of multiple art forms, the attention required to the minute details, the complexity in executing a curator’s vision, and the specialization of suppliers. And finally, the importance of the project for our community, by our community.

The transformation of the Museum to a contemporary cultural institution that inspires visitors requires input from multiple stakeholders. As Hollenberg puts it, “The Manitoba Museum represents a lifetime of memories for many Manitobans. This project has brought together a diverse spectrum of Manitoba stakeholders including community representatives, primary audiences and members, growth audiences, local business and industries, universities, and government partners, and has invested in local economy whenever possible.”

Photo credits: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland – www.manitobamuseum.ca

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