Written in the Stone - An Architectural Tour of the Canadian Museum of Civilization


Conceiving a National Museum - THE MUSEUM AS SYMBOL

Between 1983 and 1989 a sculpture of monumental proportions gradually took shape on the northern bank of the Ottawa River opposite Parliament Hill, on a site known as Parc Laurier. This was the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC).

Canadian Museum of Civilization - S2004-1238, CD2004-1376
The CMC opened to the public on 29 June 1989. Its natural forms echo Canada's geological past, when wind, water and ice shaped the Canadian landscape.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, S2004-1238, CD2004-1376

The rising building's striking design evoked the eroded landforms and streambeds of post-glacial Canada. Being on one of the most conspicuous sites in the National Capital, it began to attract the public's notice.

The museum was soon added to the world "visit list" of important cultural projects; foreign delegations came to see it from such countries as the United States, Britain, Japan, South Africa, the Soviet Union, China and Australia. Its daringly innovative design and its symbolism led to frequent comparisons with the Canadian Pavilion at Expo '86 or with the Sydney Opera House.

Such comparisons barely glimpse what the new Canadian Museum of Civilization represents for Canada. Along with the many other museums in this country, it has an indispensable part to play in assuring the vitality of Canadian culture, for an understanding of the past is the foundation for the future.

Canada being a nation of immigrants from diverse backgrounds, there is a national tendency to look to public institutions to preserve and interpret our past experiences. Museums therefore have a unifying role. Museums are sometimes described as oases of the past in a rapidly changing world, a place to seek one's roots. They do not resist change, however, but show the contrasts and continuities between past and present, and thus portray change as a natural, explicable, and acceptable fact of life.

Canadian Museum of Civilization - D2004-18585, CD2004-1377
CMC's daringly innovative architecture makes it a major national symbol.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18585, CD2004-1377

If museums generally are symbols of our society and its cultures, and as central to social development as the heritage which they help preserve and explain, what of the National Museums in particular? The National Capital is itself a symbol of national identity. Next to such historic landmarks as the Parliament Buildings, cultural institutions are the major contributors to that image, and to the region's selection as a tourist destination. A national museum of human history is part of that symbolization. It helps define cultural identity and the country itself. It stimulates pride amongst Canadians in their own culture. It announces to the world that Canada is a nation with special and unique characteristics. It reflects the ways in which various peoples, bringing their own cultures, have met the challenges of the land, by shaping it and by shaping themselves to it.

CMC offers, both to Canadians and non-Canadians, an initiation into the national identity. It submits itself to the confines of scholarly objectivity and seeks to make itself of utmost relevance to present issues and concerns. In a sense, a national museum elevates culture by recognizing it and placing it in a context that can be likened to a temple or a treasure-house. As a temple of culture CMC is very much a ritual space. This fact has been a key to the types of experiences it has sought to programme into its new facilities.

Multicultural Society - D2004-18586, CD2004-1377
Because Canada is a multicultural society, the CMC feels that it has a mandate to look at the civilizations of origin of Canadian immigrants.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18586, CD2004-1377

CMC is also a symbol of the federal government's commitment to a role in cultural affairs. The creation of a new national museum of human history is only one element in the development of a cultural pilgrimage centre: the "museum capital of Canada" as it has been tagged. The construction of new buildings for CMC and for the National Gallery of Canada, the creation of the National Aviation Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and rehousing of the National Postal Museum and the National Archives of Canada, were all components of this cultural master-plan.

Previous Next