Manitoba History: Breaking the Mirror: Reflections on “Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis, a 75th Anniversary Exhibition on the Winnipeg General Strike”

by Claudine Majzels
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Number 28, Autumn 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Breaking the Mirror: Reflections on Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis, A 75th Anniversary Exhibition on The Winnipeg General Strike; held from April 22nd to June 19th, 1994 at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Winnipeg.

Strikers parading in front of City Hall. View of the central tableau as seen from the doorway of Alloway Hall.
Source: Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature; photographed by Rob Barrow.

The last day of the exhibition, June 19th, was Fathers’ Day. Alloway Hall had been buzzing all afternoon and gradually the visitors trickled out, reluctantly, hesitating for a last look, a last comment to a companion, before leaving to continue their conversations in the lobby. Just as the doors were closing, a woman approached me and asked if I had enjoyed the show. She began to speak, she seemed to need to tell me something, even though she didn’t know me or why I was there.

She had come to the exhibition to find her father, she said. He was a returned veteran in 1919. He’d been wounded in the War and came back on the boat just before the start of the Strike. She had never asked him what he’d done in the Winnipeg General Strike. She thought he had probably supported the Committee of 1000; the family lived on the affluent south side of the city.

She was reminded of a magazine from the United States, Colliers perhaps, with an article about the “gilded youth” of Winnipeg rising up to defend their families’ interests, their property and their businesses. She thought perhaps her father had joined up to do the same. She had spent some time that Fathers’ Day afternoon, looking at the group photographs of the fire brigades and so on, looking for her father. But she couldn’t tell if he was one of the young men in the pictures, she didn’t recognize him.

She wished she’d had a chance to talk to him more and to ask him if he had joined the fight against the strikers. But he had died in 1965. The family had never talked about the Strike much. It seemed you weren’t supposed to.

Now looking back she thought most people had come to understand how health care and unemployment insurance were good things and that with the New Democratic Party and more liberal government the standard of living for everyone had been improved, but those ideas were considered dangerous back then. She wondered if people would have behaved differently if they had known then what we know now about social welfare. She wondered how her father would have felt about this exhibition. [1]

This story, it seems to me, tells us that the exhibition succeeded in reaching visitors, in engaging them on a personal level through a lesson in their history. But the museum and its objects can go beyond this simple reflection of identity to being the actual proving ground for the creation of new identities. To some degree the exhibition Winnipeg 1919, A City in Crisis went a long way towards opening up social discourse among the communities of Winnipeg.

There has been much discussion in the literature of museology in recent years regarding the practice and purpose of the museum in general—in particular the shift away from the collection and display of objects belonging to the ruling class—to the display of everyday objects of “ordinary people” and other formerly excluded identities, and the exhibition of local social histories in particular. [2] If the museum was once thought of as a mirror of society, albeit a distorting mirror constructed by the dominant groups, there has been much bending and enlarging of mirrors in recent museum practice, and even the breaking of mirrors in the critical and theoretical literature on museums.

The problem faced by curators and designers of this exhibit was a difficult one: how to assemble, borrow or simply house in trust (I won’t say “collect” with its connotations of acquisition, appropriation and objectification), and then display and interpret objects that are the traces, the fragmentary material evidence of a particular event from the past, a moment in time. In this case, the event was one that profoundly shook Winnipeg’s power structures in 1919 and that still has social and political repercussions in the city today.

As D. A. Muise has described, the middle-class attributes to the museum its central role as authority on the social value of objects and the validation of their authenticity; “the notion that museums infuse public symbols with private meaning is the more narrow definition that society, and, by association, governments impose upon museums.” [3] Contemporary thinking on museology has moved in the direction of plutocracy and devolution. In innovative institutions, and all museums need to be innovative if they are to survive into the 21st century, the community is invited into the museum and the gallery to participate in what and how the museum selects objects, exhibits them, and prepares labels and interpretative texts.

Photograph of two pump attendants.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection, 1670.
Photographed by L. B. Foote, N2736.

Display techniques have moved beyond the glass cases at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where thousands of thimbles lie mute in numbered rows, to the installation of the “tableau vivant” at the Museum of British Columbia, where the pioneer woman sits in her rocking chair by the fireplace, her needlework basket at her side, a single thimble nestled among the spools and ribbons; where one example stands for many and historical context is provided for in a holistic reconstructed picture of the past. But the temptation to glamorize, to entertain at all costs, in order to draw the crowds and their admission fees is great, and overlaps untidily with the notions of education and social improvement, ideas that have been an important part of the mission professed by the Victorian founding-fathers of the first great public institutions for the preservation of culture.

Photograph of a gas pump scene with an attendant and three “Specials”.
Source: Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Neal Putt Collection [7748]

The post-war open-air historical site, the “living” museum, and the hands-on exhibition have become accepted by communities and their tourists, but there does seem to be a limit to the amount of entertainment and commercialism that the public will tolerate.

As reported on CNN recently a proposed Disney theme park of the American Civil War is being vigorously opposed by the local community. The residents believe they already have the “real” thing in their historical museums and in their re-enactments of local Civil War battles at historic sites, reproduced as accurately as possible. Of course no simulacrum, no matter how close the resemblance, will ever be the “real” thing, but these members of the public have seen through the commercial sell of the tourist trap, and they no longer want to be sold their culture. [4]

The chief curator for the exhibition Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis was Sharon Reilly. Reilly has been interested working-class history for some time and as one of a new generation of museum curators she was trained in social history and public education rather than exclusively in the older traditions of connoisseurship, conservation and classification. Stanislao Carbone contributed an integrationist perspective on multicultural issues; Jackie Dupas, an MMMN intern from the Human Ecology Programme at the University of Manitoba, helped with the display of clothing; and the design team was headed by David Hopper.

The space of Alloway Hall was divided by the central tableau of marching figures and the large image of the old City Hall. All the exhibits were centred around this group which invited the public to enter the exhibit: the mannequins were visible as far back as the far end of the main lobby area where visitors first enter the museum. This gave the exhibit an air of celebration and theatre that certainly attracted many visitors. But the advertised title and content of the show is what drew the very large numbers of people who attended. They came to re-visit their own past, as the large number of elderly people in the Hall each time I went attests. Visitors included the descendants of families who had lived through the Strike as well as a younger generation of the historically-curious and labor-unionist public. Calls continued to come in to the Museum after the all-too-brief exhibition had closed, a sign of the need in the community for the retelling and reinterpretation of the story of the Strike. Members of the Jewish Historical Society, for instance, demonstrated considerable interest in the exhibition with their repeated visits, and, as a result of renewed interest in the issues foregrounded by the exhibition, the Society has scheduled an autumn meeting to consider the impact of the Strike on the Jewish community at the time.

Ivan Karp has written on social discourse and the museum:

More than a mosaic of communities and institutions, civil society is a stage, an arena in which values are asserted and attempts at legitimation are made and contested ...

As significant elements in a civil society, museums articulate social ideas. They define relations with communities whether they intend to or not. The processes of making meaning and of negotiating and debating identity—localized in institutions such as museums—provide the unwritten ever-changing constitution of civil society. [5]

Clearly, in the planning of Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis there was an intention to empower visitors to the exhibit.

The opening night festivities provided more than the usual formal speeches and thank-yous; we were also treated to the songs of the workers’ movements performed by the Manitoba Labour Choir, who were in great demand for the whole period of this exhibitions’ run and afterwards.

Other related events organized by or in co-operation with the Museum to interpret the exhibit included the Winnipeg General Strike Bus Tour conducted around the city streets in the chronological sequence of the events of those six dramatic weeks of the Strike; the Manitoba History Conference; the Joe Zuken Memorial Lecture; and a School Program in the Museum’s galleries. Also scheduled during the brief period of the show were story-telling evenings, a series of women’s stories of the Strike performed by the local trio Earthstory, and numerous guided tours.

There was no catalogue for the show but the booklet 1919: The Winnipeg General Strike, a driving and walking tour (co-published by the Manitoba Labor Education Centre and Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Citizenship) was available, which covered much of the historical material, illustrated many of the photographs seen in the show, and provided a map of the sites included on the bus tour. [6]

A video monitor with a small cluster of chairs was a focal point in the Hall, and although the combined tapes from the CBC archives of two programs on the Strike produced in 1959 and 1969, forty and fifty years after the event respectively, took an hour to view, the seats were constantly filled and people remained in them discussing the issues during the intervals when no videos were being aired. In 1994 a new CBC documentary, produced with the assistance of Museum staff and others, was aired on public television at the time of the exhibition.

The choosing of an anniversary year, in this case the seventy-fifth, may seem an arbitrary excuse for a revival in interest in a moment from the past, but whatever the number, in the case of the 1919 General Strike it did seem that no revival was actually needed: the legacy has lived on, certain issues in community’s pain and guilt have not been resolved, and the struggle for social justice in Canada is not over yet. Both of the older tapes screened at the exhibition contained dialogues between surviving strikers and Specials. The arguments of 1919 were still alive in 1959 and in 1969, and profoundly-held positions were still adhered to. Those issues are still relevant today.

The exhibition reflected the split between the strikers and those who opposed it in the overall arrangement of the spatial elements and somewhat incidentally in the visual effect of the lighting in the hall.

The story began on the brighter left-hand side of the hall. A series of archival photographs with interpretive label copy (originally selected and framed to interpret the Winnipeg General Strike at the 1992 CUPE National Conference) provided a narrative line that circled the room along the walls. This chronology was punctuated by the arrangements of life-size mannequins dressed and posed to match some of the iconic images in the photos. The installations created a three-dimensional presence in an otherwise quite “flat” and documentary collection of objects and provided vivid dramatic excitement to the show. The mannequins evoked the human element by their gestures and clothing, elements that certainly enlivened the enthusiasm of visitors, young and old alike.

Attention was given to the women workers and supporters of the Strike, in particular the switchboard operators. The clever arrangement of a mannequin with a time clock and calendar, all set for the precise moment of the walk-out by the switchboard operators, was accurately reconstructed from photographs and used objects in the museum’s storage vaults and clothing lent by the Dugald Costume Museum.

On the left side of the hall the large number of glass cases reflected light and created an additional sparkle. Memorabilia from various cultural groups in the North End of Winnipeg in 1919, be they Jewish, Hungarian, or Ukrainian, were brought together in a way that emphasized shared facilities and shared political goals. One similarity found in many of these groups, although expressed in different forms and styles, was the need for educational resources and the institution of various kinds of visual symbols and formal regalia. The use of self-identifying insignia such as ribbons and membership cards with a rhetoric of mystical symbolism is an apparent imitation of the institutions and secret societies of the European elites that, ironically, had driven these immigrants to the New World in the first place. However, the widespread establishment of workers’ beneficiary funds was another common feature of the various groups illustrated in the exhibition, a practice which led eventually to the dream of One Big Union and to a communal desire for social justice beyond ethnic boundaries.

The right-hand side of the room was darker, partly due to some technical problems in the installation, but also because as the story wound around to its grim close the objects grew fewer, there were fewer glass cases, and subsequently there was less reflected light. The emphasis shifted from the story of the build-up to the strike and its actual duration to the growing violence as the threatened establishment defended itself with brutality and coercion. There simply were not so many artifacts to display from the strike-breakers side of the story. Those objects that were shown in the installations, because of their greater material value, were necessarily behind plexiglass, distancing the viewer: the oriental rug, the fine furniture, and the gas-station antiques lent by a private collector. The other tableaux were made of simpler stuff.

The exhibition drew on all the resources possible, despite a constrained budget. A dominant visual component of the show were the paintings of Robert Kell. [7] This was yet another element in the mix of visual forms available to the audience and no one type of object had more authority than any other. In this case, what would conventionally be called “fine art” was cheek-by-jowl with documents, regalia and “knick-knacks”, furniture, clothing, and photographic journalism. Kell’s own use of collaged materials in his works, of stencilling, and photocopied images together with painted ones, speaks to a democracy of media, in the interests of expressive accessibility. These techniques and their under-lying radical ideology were first espoused by the revolutionary Dadaists in the first decade of the twentieth century, and again by Robert Rauschenburg in the late 1950’s. Accessibility was the common feature of all the forms of display in the exhibit as a whole. Variety, continuity, colour, personal identification, story-telling, the qualities that evoke the viewer’s senses of touch and sight and hearing were all in abundance and provided a rich and stimulating participatory experience for the audience. Interpretation through written texts was kept to a minimum, although during the guided tours I was able to catch snippets of a more detailed account of the facts and stories behind individual items as the curators offered the viewers an opportunity to reminisce, to ask questions, and to discuss. Sometimes the significance of a particular arrangement was so subtle as to be almost invisible and I do wish a few of those stories had been told on the walls and in the cases.

For instance, Sharon Reilly helped me understand how in the juxtaposition of two photographs of the same subject the fallacy of the “truthful” photograph is tellingly illustrated. Two images of the women who “manned” the gas station pumps were displayed together. The first image is a close-up of two smiling young ladies, welcoming and cheerful. The staginess of this posed shot is revealed by the second photograph: the image of a desolate and sinister street, nearly empty but for the pumps attended by a solitary tentative figure, and the distant presence of three “Specials”, armed and alert. The first was a propaganda still for the benefit of the Committee of 1000, the second a candid blurry snap-shot. [8]

View of the exhibit including the Fire-fighter, swearing in a “Special” and the Gas Pump Tableaux.
Source: Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature; photographed by Rob Barrow

Also included was a useful display of the books and articles generated over the years by academic and other writers on the social history and political theory of the events of 1919.

For this exhibition the community brought its objects to the museum for safe-keeping, and as the site where they can have access to their history. Traditionally founded by the dominant class, museums have told a history sanitized for, and in justification of, the interests of the ruling class. Winnipeg 1919 spoke for the post-structuralist validation of many voices, of those who have never been represented before, and have even been excluded from museums. But the inclusion of all the “others” does not necessarily create a new and singular plurality of samenesses, rather all the fragments of the mirror in the mosaic continue to reflect their particular differences in a constantly changing light. No all-embracing authority defines the direction of the light beams, each projects itself among all the others.

One example in this exhibition of a shift in the nature and manner of objects collected and of the return of the museum to the community (after all, no longer privately funded, but in the tax-payers’ ownership) was the banner of the Electrical Workers’ Union. Instead of the object being taken from a group that is seen to be inferior by the elite that controls a museum and constructs a history to suit itself, objects and their history can be of, for, and by the people they belong to. The banner had been all but discarded by the Union some years earlier and was given to the Museum when Sharon Reilly approached the group and explained that she was trying to locate and salvage early labour history regalia. The Union members were gratified by this official display of interest in their history and were alerted to the importance of ensuring its preservation. When the Winnipeg Strike exhibit presented an opportunity to display the banner and monies were needed to buy a special display case, the union readily provided the necessary financial support. [9]

In these times of strained finances, this would seem a neat solution for meeting expenditures, but the ideological implications are quite major. The Electrical Workers’ Union now owns a piece of the museum, owns its artifact, owns its tradition. In fact, although the Union’s head office is in the United States and the banner might easily have ended up in their archives, the Electrical Workers chose to keep the artifact in Winnipeg and it is now housed at the MMMN, in a public institution in Canada, which could conceivably eventually become literally a people’s museum, with a Board of Governors drawn from all the communities in a pluralistic society where heritage is a matter of living in the present, informed by the past.

Telephone operator tableau.
Source: Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature; photographed by Rob Barrow

What contribution did Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis make to Manitoba history? The most telling aspect of this exhibit was the way in which the objects were brought together, each a part of the greater whole. This approach has of course its parallel in the political philosophies that engendered the 1919 strike itself, the idea of One Big Union, the demand for collective bargaining, and fair wages for all human toil.

But the polarization of haves and have-nots in the city of Winnipeg at the end of World War I brought about alliances that crossed identities of class, gender and ethnicity. Returning veterans took different sides in the confrontation in the streets despite their joint experiences in the trenches due perhaps to their different origins north and south of the Assiniboine River. The military uniform and the rhetoric of patriotism were erased when faced with the dual realities of soup kitchens for workers and mansions for the war profiteers. Returning from abroad, the class divisions at home clearly separated the pro-strikers from the anti-strikers. [10]

Women too, from high society and low, although all of them subject to the patriarchs at home and in the work-place, the school, or the institution, played opposing roles when the call to walk out came. Wealthy and comfortable women ran transports and gas stations, women who had needy families and their own stomachs and principles to fight for joined the Strike. [11] Having won the vote only the year before, women had experienced leaders fresh from that struggle and fully part of many political fori, including their own Labour League and the Temperance Union.

Ethnic and religious lines were blurred, making strange bedfellows of working-class Jews and Ukranians, Russians and Germans: clashing cultures in the Old Country, but working side by side in the organization of a strike action that immobilized the city for six weeks. In the dialectical push and pull, subject to the realities of hunger, inadequate housing, intolerable working conditions, and working-class solidarity, both gender and ethnicity were over-ruled by class. Even the prevailing British quotient of the population was split by economic and political differences. Indeed, while the Town Hall bosses tried to fix the blame for the incentive to strike on “foreigners” from Eastern Europe, it was in fact a nucleus of English-speaking radical partisans, although not all cut of the same socialist cloth, that actually orchestrated the events of that Winnipeg spring.

Certain goals were fought for and hard-won in the aftermath of 1919. The individual contributions of some of the Strike leaders to civic, provincial and national political life in the succeeding decades were considerable, and the Winnipeg Strike remains the dramatic high-point in the unfolding of Canadian social action and subsequent legislation for seventy-five years.

The Museum of Man and Nature’s exhibition Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis served as a reminder of an historic struggle for the legitimization of social values which we easily took for granted until quite recently. As we witness the erosion of our security in the 1990’s, will we even be able to salvage those values? As the first world loses its privilege in an increasingly hungry world, what can we learn from this exhibition? Collective memory, in all its diversity, needs an arena for discourse in a physical space that belongs to all, where differences can be shared and celebrated. Only then can we continue to change and generate a living culture inside and outside our museums rather than reflect, preserve, or project a fossilized or homogenized one within them.

“A museum, then, must be an argument with its society. And more than that, it must be a timely argument.” [12]


I would like to thank Paul Labun, a former student at the University of Winnipeg and currently pursuing a Master’s degree at Queen’s University, for his research assistance; and Sharon Reilly, Curator of History and Technology, MMMN; Stanislao Carbone, Assistant Curator of Multicultural Studies, MMMN; and Nolan Reilly, Associate Professor of History, University of Winnipeg for all their help in preparing this article.

1. I have transcribed this story to the best of my recollection from the notes I recorded moments after saying good-bye. I have added nothing.

2. See Tony Bennett, “Museums and ‘the people’,” in The Museum Time-Machine, edited by Robert Lumley, London and New York, Roufledge, 1988, p. 73; also Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” in The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, Bay Press, 1983, pp.43-56 and Julie Marcus, “Postmoderity and the Museum,” Social Analysis, vol. 30, December 1991, pp.10-19.

3. D. A. Muise, “Museums and the Canadian Community: A Historical Perspective,” in En vue du 21e siecle: Orientation nouvelle des musees nationaux du Canada = Toward the 21st Century: New Directions for Canada’s National Museums, edited by Leslie H. Tepper, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Mercury Series, Directorate Paper No.5, 1989, p.11.

4. CNN News, September 17, 1994.

5. Ivan Karp, “Introduction,” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, I. Karp, C. M. Kraemer, S. D. Lavine, editors, Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, p.6.

6. 1919: The Winnipeg General Strike, a driving and walking tour, written by Gerry Berkowski and Nolan Reilly, design by Tom Morris, Manitoba Labour History Series, co-published by the Manitoba Labour Education Centre and Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Citizenship.

7. For more about Kell’s Strike paintings see Sharon Reilly, “Robert Kell and the Art of the Winnipeg General Strike,” Labour /Le Travail, vol.20, Fall 1987, pp. 185-205.

8. Sharon Reilly, personal communication.

9. Ibid.

10. See Chad Reimer, “War, Nationhood and Working-Class Entitlement: The Counter-hegemonic Challenge of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike,” Prairie Forum, 1993, pp. 219-237.

11. See Doug Smith, Let Us Rise! A History of the Manitoba Labour Movement, Vancouver, New Star Books, 1985, pp. 40-44.

12. Neil Postman, “Museum as Dialogue,” Museum News, September/October 1990, p.58.

Page revised: 10 January 2015