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History of HBCA and the HBC Museum Collection

 

Hbc Archivist R.H.G. Leveson-Gower and historian, Professor Arthur S. Morton in the archives room, Hudson's Bay House, London, ca. 1933. HBCA 1987/363-A-19/2

HBC Archivist R.H.G. Leveson-Gower and historian, Professor Arthur S. Morton in the archives room, Hudson's Bay House, London, ca. 1933. HBCA 1987/363-A-19/2

In preparation for the Company's 250th anniversary in 1920, Sir William Schooling was commissioned to write the first official history of Hudson's Bay Company. His account was published in 1920 under the title The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay during Two hundred and Fifty Years, 1670-1920. Schooling's research into the Company's vaults revealed a wealth of historical information locked in the archives, a discovery which prompted the Directors of the company to declare it their "duty to make our information available to the people of Canada". HBC's Head Office in London thus began to arrange the records for better access.

At Hudson's Bay Company's 1928 Annual Meeting in London, England, Governor Charles Vincent Sale announced the establishment of an Archives Department. He told the assembled shareholders:

"We have, as you probably know, an immense collection of records relating to the earliest days of our history; to the wars and fighting; to the explorations by land and sea; to the customs and life of the Indians and Eskimo; to the struggle for the occupation of the Pacific Coast; to the peaceful retention of the Great West; and finally, to the general conduct of the Company and its affairs during the two centuries in which it was responsible for the government of the territory of Rupert's Land."

Reading room, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

Reading room, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

The Archives were opened to the public in May, 1931 and for the next decades the staff of the Archives Department provided invaluable service to those who studied Canada's past. In 1934 the Company hired Professor Coupland of Oxford University and Mr. Hilary Jenkinson of the British Public Record Office to review the archival collection, and prepare classification and catalogues. "We are much indebted to those gentlemen for their advice and assistance, and we hope that in due course we shall have this unique collection in a shape which will make it readily accessible to historical research students."

In 1970, HBC's Head Office moved to Canada, but it was not until 1974 that the archives were in effect moved to their new home in Winnipeg. The British Crown felt that the Company records were of such value that it would not permit their removal from the U.K. unless HBC agreed to two conditions. The first was that all records prior to 1904 had to be microfilmed, and a duplicate set of those films deposited with The National Archives. The other condition was that the archives must be deposited in a recognized archival facility. In 1973, HBC agreed to deposit its records on long-term loan with the Archives of Manitoba. The archives were shipped to Canada and opened to the public in 1975, after a year of re-organization.

Also in 1920, a retired fur trader named Francis David Wilson was commissioned to collect artifacts representing fur trade and aboriginal culture for exhibition in the downtown Vancouver and Winnipeg stores. Consisting largely of objects which had been presented to the Company over the years as part of trading ceremonies, the collection was consolidated at the Winnipeg store in 1935. In late 1960, when the space it occupied became necessary for retail purposes, the collection was placed in temporary storage. Negotiations began with officials from the Manitoba Department of Industry and Commerce regarding the future of the collection. Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site near Winnipeg, Manitoba was proposed as a suitable location for the collection and a long term loan agreement with Parks Canada was signed. A new museum space was built which finally opened to the public in June, 1966.

In the early 1990s Parks Canada decided that the Lower Fort Garry site did not provide sufficient display, storage and conservation facilities for the collection. A series of meetings of interested parties concluded that the best location for the collection would be the Manitoba Museum. This was a natural choice, since the Museum had already received the replica of the Nonsuch built for the Company's 300th anniversary celebrations in 1970.

Storage vault, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

Storage vault, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

In 1994 the status of these two long-term loans was settled once and for all. HBC Governor Donald McGiverin announced that each collection would be permanently donated to the institution housing it. At the time the announcement was made, McGiverin said "The two donations follow our practice of transferring Company assets that are part of the Canadian heritage to public ownership." Previous gifts of this kind include the Lower Fort Garry and York Factory historic sites and the 1970 replica of the Nonsuch, the Company's first ship. Mr. McGiverin explained further "What makes this gift special and perhaps unique is the decision by the Hudson's Bay Company to invest the tax savings in the Foundations to support Canadian history and charity."

HBC's decision was called "an unprecedented act of corporate social responsibility and generosity", by Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon as he acknowledged the gifts of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives and Museum Collection to the two Manitoba institutions "in trust for the people of Canada" at a ceremony in Winnipeg on March 1, 1994.

In 1994 the Hudson's Bay Company Archives, comprising thousands of documents dating back to the Company's founding, were valued at approximately $60 million. The Hudson's Bay Company Museum Collection, comprising more than 6,000 artifacts relating primarily to aboriginal and fur trade culture, was valued at $8.1 million. HBC ensured the future care, management and interpretation of its valuable gifts by establishing the Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation (HBCHF).

Funded by the approximately $29 million in tax savings resulting from these donations, Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation is a private charitable foundation controlled by Hudson's Bay Company. The foundation was established to advance knowledge of, and interest in, Canadian history through financial assistance to qualified recipients. The majority of the annual spending of HBCHF is committed to the substantial financial support of HBCA, the Hudson's Bay Museum Collection at the Manitoba Museum and Canada's National History Society (CNHS), a not-for-profit organization whose objective is the promotion of greater interest in Canadian history. Numbering over 50,000 members CNHS took over publication of The Beaver magazine in 1994. Originally HBC's in house magazine, today The Beaver is Canada's leading popular history publication. Through CNHS the Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation also sponsors the Governor General's Awards for Teaching Excellence in Canadian history. The Foundation has the capacity to spend approximately $150,000 - $200,000 annually on other history activities. Recipients must be registered charitable organizations.

The donation of its archives and artifacts did not, as some feared, mean that HBC would abandon its history or forget its roots. Today's HBC Heritage Services is proof positive that our past remains a vibrant part of the company. Meanwhile, the donations and the resulting increase in accessibility of these collections, have helped to promote HBC's history both in Canada and around the world. Countless historians and researchers use the collections every year and the results of their work continually reinforce the importance of HBC in our collective history.