Selma Huxley: discovering the Basques in 16th-century Terra Nova

Selma Huxley: discovering the Basques in 16th-century Terra Nova is a journey through the life of Selma Huxley (London, 8 March 1927 – Chichester, 3 May 2020), a pioneering scientist and historian of international renown. Her work, of great relevance to the maritime history of the Basque Country and Canada, focused on the little-known Basque expeditions to Terra Nova, today’s Atlantic coast of Canada, during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The exhibition, supported by Laboral Kutxa and Ternua, is curated by Michael Barkham, PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge and Selma’s son. A great connoisseur of the maritime history of the Basque Country of the 16th and 17th centuries, since it was the subject chosen for his doctoral thesis, he is also a specialist in the presence of Basque whalers and cod fishers in Terra Nova.

Consisting of four thematic sections, the exhibition presents this extraordinary woman’s pioneering archival, historical and archaeological research and discoveries, with which she was able to reconstruct a new chapter of history: the Basque cod and whale fisheries in Terra Nova, especially in the 16th century.

The first section, Selma Huxley and the Basques in Canada, focuses on her family, her youth and the events that marked her early life and awakened her interest in the history of the Basques in Canada. The second, Delving into the Archives, explains her meticulous archival research work. This dedication allowed her to find thousands of manuscripts, in around 40 archives throughout the peninsula, relating to Basque expeditions to Terra Nova and Basque maritime activity in general.

The third section, Historical Reconstruction, is but the product of her research, the historical chapter of the Basque fisheries in Terra Nova. Finally, the fourth section, Archaeological Discoveries, presents the finds made in Canada on expeditions led or promoted by her: archaeological remains of the 16th-century Basque whaling bases and Basque galleons sunk in the area, including the probable San Juan (1565) in Red Bay, Labrador.

Each section is composed of several panels with texts and images and, in some cases, reproductions of historical documents discovered by Selma. Also shown are several pieces on loan from other museums and institutions such as the Euskal Museoa, Arkeologi Museoa, Arrantzaleen Museoa, Plasentzia Butroi Museoa, the Aquarium of Donostia, the Provincial Councils of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and some objects and images from the family archive. Finally, audiovisual elements allow us to hear Selma’s voice and listen to her talk about her way of working.

Her work has been internationally recognized. Thus, in 1981 she received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian distinction awarded by the country, in 2014 the Basque Government awarded her the Lagun Onari for her contribution to Basque maritime history and the Spanish Geographical Society awarded her its 2018 International Prize.

Selma Huxley was appointed Consul of Bilbao in 1992 and was closely linked to Itsasmuseum Bilbao from its origins.

She passed away on May 3, 2020, having left an enormous professional legacy that changed the maritime history of Euskadi and Canada, as well as an exciting personal life, which are presented in this exhibition that can be visited at Itsasmuseum Bilbao until April 7, 2024.

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