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



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.

Victoria Memorial Museum Building - NMC 71850, CD96-802-003
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.

Buildings - D2004-23614, D2004-23615, D2004-23616, CD2004-1378
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
Crowded Storage Conditions - 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 available.

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
Construction Worker - S2004-1240, CD2004-1376

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