A Change of
Address - THE NEED FOR NEW ACCOMMODATIONS
The beginnings of CMC stretch
back to the founding of the Geological and Natural History
Survey of Canada in 1842. Specimens gathered by its members
were the basis for the collections of the future museums. In 1910
the Geological Survey moved into the Victoria Memorial Museum
Building, whose construction had begun five years earlier.
The first home of the national museums,
the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, has its own part in
Canadian heritage. Parliamentary sessions were held there after
the fiery destruction of the Parliament Buildings in 1916. In
1919 it hosted funeral ceremonies for Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization,
NMC 71850, CD96-802-003
Over the decades CMC built up large and valuable collections and
a staff of experts in scientific and museological fields. In the
1970s it developed a philosophy of public programming stressing
increased public access to heritage collections. But, as its
collections grew and its public services expanded, there was no
corresponding provision of the proper facilities to house them,
once the Victoria Memorial Museum Building was outgrown.
CMC's collections and staff were formerly
housed in these and several other buildings, scattered across
Ottawa. All were designed originally for other tenants; none was
very suitable for museum functions.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization,
D2004-23614, D2004-23615, D2004-23616, CD2004-1378
Instead, collections and staff were decentralized into 17
scattered buildings, most never designed for museum functions.
Many were warehouse-type structures eminently unsuitable, in
terms of space, environment, fire safety and security, for
housing the often fragile and irreplaceable artifacts. Too few
people and too little money hindered efforts to combat the
deterioration to collections which the unsatisfactory storage
conditions were causing. Some buildings were so bad that the
Fire Marshall condemned them. These were no proper places for
safeguarding the national treasures. Furthermore, the dispersal
process, separating those responsible for exhibitions, extension
programmes, management, administration, collections management,
and research, tended to create a feeling of isolation of each
division from the others, impeding teamwork. These factors
compromised the museum's ability to carry out its mandate and
generally obstructed the efficiency of museum operations.
Some of the problems with former
collections holding areas are illustrated here. Crowded storage
conditions sometimes made it difficult to retrieve an artifact
without moving others or dismantling shelves.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-23609, CD2004-1378
Nor was this state of affairs conducive to increasing public
access. Although the collections grew, the amount of display
space in the Victoria Memorial Museum Building did not. So the
proportion of the collections publicly accessible was
increasingly dwarfed by the proportion hidden from view in
storage. Some exhibits that CMC staff wished to present were
extremely large, and demanded more spacious galleries than were
The roots of the decision on new accommodation for CMC lie in
the National Museum Policy (1972). With its twin pillars of
democratization and decentralization, it engendered optimism in
the museum community that the National Museums Corporation would
provide leadership and support to that community and would
develop national museums of a quality comparable with those of
other countries. Over the next decade this turned to pessimism,
as it became apparent that the National Museums could not reach
their potential within the confines of government funding, which
increased at a lower rate than inflation. Federal politicians
were finally persuaded of the long-standing deficiencies in
accommodations of the museums.
In June 1981 Cabinet approved in principle the transfer of the
National Museum of Man and the National Gallery of Canada to new
buildings specially constructed to meet their needs. This
decision was made public in February 1982, when $185 million
was allocated to build the new museums. The Canada Museums
Construction Corporation was set up to recommend to Cabinet
sites, architects, and designs for the two museums, and to
manage construction. CMC pulled some of its specialists from
their regular duties to form the New Accommodation Task Force to
gather information, coordinate the production of conceptual
design proposals, and represent the museum in the formulation of
an architectural programme.
It is not enough to attribute the decision to build new museums
to their own needs. Also significant was the effect of museum
construction on the economy. It would provide employment for the
construction industry, Canadian architects, designers,
engineers, and various consultants. There would also be job
creation in the museums themselves. And most of the materiel for
constructing and furnishing the new buildings would be purchased
from Canadian sources. More importantly, the new museums would
stimulate the tourist industry in the National Capital Region.
Buildings that were themselves works of art would be an
attraction in their own right; more so if they provided
facilities that allowed major exhibitions of international
renown into the capital.
Major projects such as the new Museum
provide a shot in the arm for the local economy, by ensuring
employment for construction workers and others.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, S2004-1240, CD2004-1376