Orkney and the HBC

Throughout the summer of 2021 our 3DVisLab collaborated with the Stromness Museum on a project to design a new digital resource for the museum which would be both online and installed on a touchscreen in the exhibition. Our aim was to explore around 80 objects in their collections relating to Orkney’s history with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. Working together with the museum and a number of key collaborators in Canada, the resource brings together 3D scans and photographs of the museum’s collections together with insights and stories from different perspectives, including Orcadian, Cree, Métis and Inuit voices. What resulted was a compelling and diverse variety of material offering fresh insights and contemporary connections to this complex period of shared history.

Miller Sisters Kayak Toy 1996.030.1 by Dr Alice Watterson on Sketchfab

In the first instance, the collections were challenging to work with at times because the vast majority of objects, belongings and souvenirs had very little provenance associated with their records. To give some context, at one time, nearly 2/3rds of the HBC workforce were Orkney men – cheap labour and hard workers – recruited when the boats made a final stop to fill up on water in Stromness before the long crossing to Canada. Many of the items in the museum’s care were donated by the families of people who had worked for the HBC, often long after the person had passed away. Consequently, although some objects had clear connections to places, people and timeframes, much of the material was accessioned with almost no information whatsoever.

Lucky for us, the museum already had links with some key people over in Canada through Orcadian family ties and connections from previous ‘homecomings’. We also joined forces with a fantastic team of collections researchers – Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Peter Loovers and Lise Bos – to investigate the material and track down their likely origins. Krista and Peter did extensive work researching similar objects in other museum collections and using their existing knowledge, particularly in relation to Inuit-made objects, to enhance our understanding of the Stromness collections. Meanwhile, Lise – based at the Marischal Museum in Aberdeen – made a focussed effort into a comparative report on the Marischal’s collections alongside Stromness, identifying similar objects which had more detailed written records.

We uncovered a lot of wonderful new information about the collections which was incorporated into the written descriptions, but a huge part of the project also focussed on multivocality and co-curation of the collection through soundbite insights from a variety of different perspectives. Many of these were personal stories from people with family connections spanning the Atlantic – like Kim Foden (nee Twatt) from Orkney and Willie Ermine from Sturgeon Lake, Saskatchewan. Both are related to Magnus Twatt, who emigrated from Orkney to work for HBC in the 1700s, married into a Cree family, and whose grandson William Twatt founded the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation. In the early 2000s Kim tracked down her Cree relations in Canada and was welcomed into the Sturgeon Lake community! You can hear all about Magnus and William Twatt in the ‘Connections‘ section of the resource (at York Factory and Sturgeon Lake), recounted from both Kim and Willie’s perspectives along with the story of Kim visiting Sturgeon Lake, and a delegation from Sturgeon Lake visiting Orkney.

Krista Ulujuk Zawadski and I also worked closely together to shed light on some of the Inuit material in the collection. Having grown up in Nunavut, Krista shared her own insights and personal stories in the resource. As an Inuk curator and researcher, she was able to give historic and cultural context to much of the material, but her personal insights and anecdotes added another layer of understanding and contemporary perspective to some of the items. For example, for the needle case below she spoke about its construction and use, but also her own experiences with traditional skin sewing. She also shared some (very funny!) reflections on growing up in Igluligaarjuk/Chesterfield Inlet – one of my favourites is in ‘Connections‘ mode in Avertok, where she speaks about handmade clothing.

Needle Case 1993.012.06 by Dr Alice Watterson on Sketchfab

Krista also worked with me on a number of interviews for the resource, including with her aunt Manitok Thompson whose mother grew up at the first Inuk managed HBC post at Wager Bay. Manitok’s relatives also worked alongside Orcadian explorer John Rae in his search for the lost Franklin expedition – check out ‘John Rae’ mode in the resource for the full story.

This process of design for this resource – working with people to match researcher insights and personal stories to a collection of objects which had in many ways lost their voice over the years – was a compelling way to curate a collection. The result I think reflects the nature of this collection very well, the resource is a patchwork of fragmented histories, often eclectic, sometimes sad, sometimes funny – but always with a lot of heart!

The resource is installed on a touchscreen in the Stromness Museum and available for free online here. There are so many more people and stories I didn’t have time to mention in this post, so you will have to explore for yourselves!

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