There was a new captain at the helm of the Nonsuch Monday and she’s ready for a new voyage.
Dorota Blumczynska, the Manitoba Museum’s new chief executive officer and executive director, took over the top job Monday. She says the museum and its flagship, the Nonsuch, a replica of an 18th-century ketch that took part in the fur trade, is sailing through rough waters in 2021 yet both are buoyant enough to stay afloat amid the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic that have restricted the number of visitors it can welcome.
"Choppy waters, sure," she says during an interview while walking through the museum’s galleries. "But when you know your ship is equipped with an incredible team of people who have courage and don’t back away from the uncertainty but lean into the uncertainty and say, ‘How do we make it through this.’...
"The Manitoba Museum is very fortunate to be extremely well loved by Manitobans. Manitobans have been very generous to the museum to weather this storm to move forward."
Blumczynska takes over from Claudette Leclerc, who had steered the museum for 23 years as its CEO, and who has been showing the new skipper the ropes off and on since the nonprofit organization that runs the museum announced Blumczynska’s hiring in February.
The Manitoba Museum has spent $20.5 million in the past four years on widespread renovations that included freshening up the Nonsuch gallery, and, most recently, revamping the Prairies Gallery.
Not only are there new exhibits, but the museum’s galleries have improved the way it addresses Manitoba’s Indigenous history and culture. Artifacts reveal how Aboriginal tribes lived before European explorers and settlers arrived in Manitoba but also tells of those who had cope with government-imposed atrocities such as the residential school system, which led to thousands of deaths among Aboriginal people and many more who survived years of abuse.
"When you step into that small schoolhouse that talks about residential schools, it’s a small space but it’s the feeling you get in there what it must have been like to be a child ripped away, a child robbed of innocence, and of life and family and deep-rootedness," Blumczynska says.
"We lean into being a place of conversation about who we want to be in the future and how we bring into peaceful co-existence, the natural world, the people world, the physical world, our societies, and how do we go through very uncomfortable conversations in order to evolve into something better."
Blumczynska had been the executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba prior to joining the Manitoba Museum. She was a child refugee when her family came to Canada from Poland in 1989 and since then, she’s had time to rethink her welcome to Manitoba, which included a visit to the Manitoba Museum shortly upon her family arrival in Winnipeg.
"Within 12 months of landing in this country, my mother took us to this museum. None of us knew the language so we couldn’t have read all of the background information. All we could have done was walk through it," she says. "My mother did it with such intentionality because this is the beginning of every Manitoban’s story. These are the stories we so want to celebrate."
The Manitoba Museum has more than three million artifacts, most of which remain in its climate-controlled vaults, from prehistoric fossils to modern-day items that are touchstones of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blumczynska got a first-hand look at the emotional power of artifacts, even items such as plates and dishes that packed a wallop and show what some newcomers, even those who rise to become the head of the Manitoba museum, leave behind to find a better place to live.
The story begins in a dusty storage locker her aunt found in Poland and brought back memories of her parents, and a farewell to her grandparents that she didn’t know until much later would be a goodbye.
"She had gone to one of our aunt’s apartment buildings, and in the basement was a storage locker. She had opened that storage locker, which hadn’t been opened in 30 years, and found boxes, and those were the boxes that my aunt who stayed behind after we left had packed up our entire house and put them away," Blumczynska remembers, sobbing.
"I have pictures of us going into the storage locker, and my hands are covered in dust... and there are bowls from our kitchen and there’s a canister with loose tea, and plates and household items. There were things I remember when I was seven years old, and you can see how much we had a life that all of a sudden just got suspended.
"Opening these boxes, these were things my mother touched and she’s been gone for many years... As a seven-year-old child, I have memories of home, and I have memories of that train journey (from Poland) and I have memories of my grandparents on that train platform. I remember my grandmother weeping, and my mother trying to calm her down.
"It all put together what I knew was real, but I couldn’t find any evidence of."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.