Museum curator brings Mennonite identity and research to role

March 8, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 5
Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe | Manitoba Correspondent
Roland Sawatzky at The Manitoba Museum, where he works. (Photo by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe)

As Roland Sawatzky gives a tour through The Manitoba Museum, his eyes light up and his hands animatedly point out the highlights and features of each gallery. It’s clear he’s passionate about his work.

Sawatzky is the curator of history at The Manitoba Museum, a human and natural history museum in Winnipeg that is the province’s largest, not-for-profit centre for heritage and science education. He has worked at the museum since 2011, where he researches, handles acquisitions, and develops exhibits. In the last few years, he has played a key role in creating two brand-new exhibits: the Winnipeg Gallery and the Prairies Gallery.

From 2003 to 2014, he served as curator at the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) in Steinbach, Man. His main goal there was to introduce thorough academic scholarship to the interpretation in the open-air and indoor museum. His leadership generated numerous exhibits on topics like the windmill industry, Mennonite funeral customs, a music and Mennonites concert series and a reinterpreted outdoor area. “Basically the first day there, I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” he says. “I felt like I found my work home.”

Sawatzky is a member of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg and his kids are students and alumni of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, where he also sits on the board. Born in Winnipeg to Paraguayan Mennonites, he grew up in southwestern Ontario where his father was a pastor, and he eventually settled permanently back in Winnipeg.

He was eight years old when he figured out his passion and career path. He was flipping through National Geographic magazines from his parents’ subscription, when he came across an archaeology article and realized that’s what he wanted to pursue.

Sawatzky earned a BA in anthropology from the University of Winnipeg, an MA in anthropology from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in archaeology from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “I’m very interested in what people are actually doing on the ground, how people are actually living their lives,” he says.

He’s contributed significantly to the field of Mennonite research. He wrote his dissertation and did considerable post-graduate research on the social use of space in Mennonite house-barns in southern Manitoba between 1874 and 1930. He is part of the Mennonite Historic Arts Committee that produced the book, Mennonite Village Photography, and he recently wrote a paper on Mennonites and alcohol, based on a bottle collection at MHV.

“I think Mennonite material culture has particular historical significance because it connects you to their physical and creative lives. In order to understand Mennonites more fully, it’s important to understand this,” Sawatzky says. “There’s this notion that Mennonites are people of the word—but they’re human beings, they’re people of the earth, too. If you even just scratch the surface of history you can see that.”

Mennonites show up in The Manitoba Museum’s new Prairies Gallery, which he had an important part in developing. The gallery focuses on the history of the southern Manitoba prairies through time, from the plants and animals to the human connections—the different Indigenous people groups, including the Metis nation, and the settlers, of which Mennonites were one of the biggest early groups.

Sawatzky was the lead curator for the Winnipeg Gallery, another new addition to the museum. He says that while the majority of Manitobans live in Winnipeg, there was no exhibit specifically about Winnipeg history in the museum or anywhere else in the province. He and a team of two Indigenous curators and two non-Indigenous curators transformed a neglected area of the museum to fill this gap. “That’s a once-in-a-career experience and I was very excited about it,” he says.

The Winnipeg Gallery features a photo wall of notable Winnipeggers, audio stories from newcomers, an interactive digital map showing the city’s evolution through the years and an artifact wall in seven themes, such as City of Water and City of Contrasts.

Modern immigration and Indigenous history were themes he prioritized in these new galleries, which were created with the guidance of an Indigenous advisory circle and a community engagement team of newcomers to Manitoba. “It was just a great team effort,” Sawatzky says.

When asked how his Mennonite identity intersects with his work, he says, “First and foremost, my Christian beliefs affect how I relate to my colleagues and the public…trying to be a source of something positive for other people.”

It also means he doesn’t stop looking for meaning at a superficial level. “I wouldn’t say I interpret history through a Christian lens, but it affects the way I look for meaning—I dig deeper all the time.” 

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at

Roland Sawatzky at The Manitoba Museum, where he works. (Photo by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe)

Roland Sawatzky by the Prairies Gallery section on Mennonite settlement. (Photo by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe)

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