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Strike 1919: A City Divided/La Greve De 1919: Ville Divisee.

Roland Sawatzky (curator), Strike 1919: A City Divided/La Greve De 1919: Ville Divisee. Winnipeg: Manitoba Museum. Opened 22 March 2019, runs to 5 January 2020.

This year Canadians and Winnipeggers have been immersed in literature and events focussed on the Winnipeg General Strike, especially those who live and work in the community where the strike took place. It resonates now, perhaps as much today as in those turbulent times when the city ground to a halt and society was cleaved into two camps.

The 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike has generated a wave of public interest, prompted by academic conferences, concerts, exhibits, public art installations, walking tours, and popular and academic publications. Adding to this impressive body of work is the Manitoba Museum's current exhibit, "Strike 1919: A City Divided."

The popular Urban Gallery in the Manitoba Museum, which originally depicted Winnipeg in the 1920s, has been transformed to the year 1919. Since the "Strike 1919" exhibit opening in late March, visitors to the gallery now find themselves situated in the epicentre of a city divided, and can follow the chronological development of events. As well as featuring large digital projections of strike scenes, authentic artifacts from the period and event, archival interviews gathered from strike participants in the 1970s, the museum exhibit includes two audio scenarios featuring "conversations" between two Winnipeggers. The exhibit poses the question, "At the heart of the strike that shut down the city, who was in control?" Was it the strikers? The government? Or business interests? For six weeks in May and June of 1919, that open question lingered in the air. The answer became abundantly clear in the violent confrontation that followed on June 21st, 'bloody Saturday': a confrontation sanctioned by traditional authorities. As the labour leaders were arrested, as two strikers were killed and many others injured, and as military patrols were retained on city streets, the strike was broken.

A successful museum exhibit incorporates a variety of interpretive techniques to convey the historic narrative to a broad, diverse audience. This exhibit is spatially restrained by the ongoing adaptation of the existing Urban Gallery. This spatial limitation meant the exhibit curator team, headed by Roland Sawatzky, had some tough choices in messaging themes conveyed in the exhibit. For example, while the exhibit is light on content that conveys the socio-economic grievances leading up to the strike events, familiar large images of the events on Main Street those June days are projected on city walls, drawing the viewer into the scenes through the emotions and gestures of strike participants.

Engaging and creative exhibits should also integrate three-dimensional materials in a provocative and meaningful way to enhance the narrative. Here we have period signage such as "Permitted by Authority of Strike Committee" and "Down with Bolshevism." Equally impressive is the contrast between the menacing weapons used by the authorities--such as the clubs, guns and a mounted 'Lewis' machine gun developed in the war (ultimately not used)--and the bricks and stones available to the strikers.

In order to examine contrasting points of view on the strike's causes and events, the exhibit also features two vignettes of audible dialogue between lifelike, costumed mannequins. One is set in a wealthy family's parlour, where visitors can listen in on a conversation about the strike between a domestic servant and her matronly employer. While this exchange is interesting for revealing the nature of economic disparity of the era from particular points of view, it is not as evocative as the second vignette, which depicts two young men discussing the strike through the thin walls of their boarding house. Both unemployed, the young men express contrasting experiences and positions on the eve of Bloody Saturday. The war veteran, newly returned from the First World War, expresses allegiance with the Committee of 1000, the citizen body organized in opposition to the strikers. The second, an immigrant ("alien") who was not allowed to fight, expresses sympathy and even solidarity with the strikers' cause. Both vignettes bring the issues to an accessible level.

Also evocative is the large-scale image of Winnipeg's old 'gingerbread' City Hall, where the precise words of the pivotal Riot Act, voiced by Mayor Gray, scroll the wall. Accented with a sign that captures the essence of the fear of the established order--"Down with Bolshevism"--it reminds us how controversial the Russian Revolution was in the immediate post-war period of global unrest.

As the visitor proceeds through the exhibit, vivid strike images scroll across a wall every five seconds, tracing the chronological evolution of the strike. Another blank space is dedicated to the Pathe newsreel: live footage of the strike that was shown around the world in movie theatres. This gives a glimpse of how outsiders may have been swayed to view the strike from the fearful position of the established authority.

For those curious about the fate of the strike leaders, a blank wall on the second floor of the exhibit projects details of those individuals arrested for "treason." Their prison terms served, many carried on to become elected politicians and community leaders who eventually participated in shaping the progressive social ideology for which they had struck. Fittingly, "Strike 1919: A City Divided" was sponsored in part by the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, along with provincial and federal support. The exhibit runs until 5 January 2020.

Sheila Grover and Greg Thomas

Winnipeg, Manitoba
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Author:Grover, Sheila; Thomas, Greg
Publication:Manitoba History
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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