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



On the day set for the submission of the architects' concept proposals, CMC staff, working with the Architectural Services staff of the National Museums of Canada corporation, completed the initial phase of deliberations of the New Accommodation Task Force (NATF) with the issue of the first edition of an architectural programme. This described:

  • the museum's mandate, goals, history, functions, audiences, and organizational structure;
  • the New Accommodation project;
  • site development guidelines, access needs, use and security requirements, and landscaping concepts;
  • general building requirements (e.g. image, functionality, circulation, conservation, security);
  • and a brief description of each of the principal areas desired for the building, with functions, space requirements, and adjacencies specified.
The architectural programme, second edition.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18590, CD2004-1377
Architectural Programme - D2004-18590, CD2004-1377

Much of this document came out of the expertise of CMC staff, harnessed through the NATF. The Task Force was divided into a Public Programming Task Group and a Curatorial and Services Task Group, under which there were 12 Study Teams planning for:

  • education and interpretation;
  • visitor amenities;
  • gallery requirements;
  • thematic concepts;
  • security and fire protection;
  • conservation;
  • open storage;
  • reserve collections;
  • office and operational spaces;
  • building maintenance and operations;
  • documentation centre;
  • and new technology.

To obtain ideas from a broader audience, the NATF surveyed the attitudes and wishes of the museum community regarding the new museum. Some 1400 discussion guides/questionnaires were sent out (July 1982) to the museum's staff, Advisory Committee, Board of Trustees, Canadian Museums Association membership, and other interested individuals. By October 1983 the architectural programme had swollen into a second edition of four large volumes of over 1200 pages. They included more detailed descriptions of individual spaces in the new building, lengthier specifications relating to conservation, security, and communication systems requirements, and a visitor projection model.

The design and production of a building as complex and demanding as a major museum could hardly be a simple sequence of architectural programme, architectural design, and construction, however. It was very much an interactive process. As important to Cardinal as the written documents was the continuing dialogue between architect's and museum staffs. The latter provided initial input (the architectural programme). The former responded with a design, in the form of a model and architectural blueprints, interpreting the programme. CMC staff came back with an analysis and criticism of the interpretation. The drawings were revised and submitted to a fresh round of feedback. And so on.

Demonstration -  Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.
Douglas Cardinal (at left) demonstrates his site plan printer to Jean Boggs, CEO of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation, Francis Fox, Minister of Communications, Léo Dorais, Secretary-General of the National Museums of Canada, and George MacDonald, Director of CMC.
© Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.

It was a learning process for both parties. It encouraged increasingly specific and careful conceptualization and verbalization of needs, as museum staff and architects learned each others' languages and thought patterns. Furthermore the conversational process was integral to the "from the inside out" design philosophy of Cardinal: allowing those persons who had lived and breathed museums for years to express themselves fully and provide an informational framework for the architect's creativity. Through this process the original visions - both of the architect and of CMC staff - evolved. And it is the nature of evolution to produce an entity which is more appropriate to its environment than its forebears.

The above is still a simplistic description of the process of design. Its real complexity may be suggested by the number of parties who had a role in it:

  • Central to the process were the architect and his staff and CMC's staff. Although in a project this complex there were some disagreements along the road, as each group struggled to understand the other's viewpoint, the relationship was on the whole harmonious.
  • Other components of the National Museums corporation - notably Architectural Services, Security Services, and the Canadian Conservation Institute - contributed to the architectural programme.
  • The RCMP was consulted on security, and the Dominion Fire Commissioner, as well as provincial and city experts, helped with standards relating to safety concerns.
  • Public Works Canada gave technical information on maintenance standards and space requirements, while the National Capital Commission specified design criteria that would ensure the building complied with federal objectives for the development of the Capital Core Area.
  • Numerous consultants helped with engineering standards, laboratory layouts, building lighting, vertical transportation, landscaping, acoustics, and many other matters, while industry was approached about preliminary requirements for products such as high-density mobile shelving, dock levellers, etc.
  • And, finally, the Canada Museums Construction Corporation was kept busy coordinating all these groups with the project as a whole.

CMC staff also looked further afield for information, visiting (or consulting by phone or letter) museums and other cultural, recreational, and educational institutions, both in Canada and abroad. CMC is not modelled on any single institution, but it was desired to identify the most appropriate features for CMC and absorb them into the evolving design. Among those which had early influence:

  • the regional orientation of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and its role in portraying Native culture to a modern society;
  • the achievement of Native involvement in the programmes of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia;
  • successful children's museums at Boston and Indianapolis;
  • outstanding exhibit techniques at the British Columbia Provincial Museum, and particular exhibitry in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History;
  • the changing exhibits programme of the British Museum;
  • the use of environmental reconstructions at the last-named, in York Castle Museum, Milwaukee Public Museum, and in outdoor museums generally;
  • interactive exhibits in science centres, notably San Francisco's Exploratorium;
  • intriguing uses of space in museums at Santa Barbara, Nagoya and Otami (Japan), and general application of new technology in some major Japanese museums;
  • innovative techniques and technologies at cultural centres such as France's Centre Pompidou and Parc La Villette, Expo 85 and Expo 86, and at Epcot Center.

From such influences CMC planners sought to synthesize a new model, unique to the Canadian experience and responsive to a wide range of audiences.

Casa Mila -  George F. MacDonaldCasa Mila -  George F. MacDonald
Cardinal's own influences include the visionary work of Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, whose early 20th century works in Barcelona Cardinal had an opportunity to see first-hand thanks to the New Accommodation Project. The curving terraces of CMC's curatorial wing recall the forms of Gaudi's Casa Mila.
© George F. MacDonald

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