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



Visitors find the museum's form intriguing, yet gentle and soothing. The humanistic principles embodied in Cardinal's style are a very important feature of the museum's structure. The building is sensitive to human needs. Such as the way natural light has been introduced in rest areas, lobbies, and other places where artifacts are not threatened; it provides psychological relief from the controlled-light areas of exhibitions and capitalizes on the superb local views. Or the spaciousness of the exhibition galleries: high ceilings, and general increase in space (four times that available in the Victoria Memorial Museum Building); if all the floors were laid out on one level they would almost cover the whole of Parc Laurier - making CMC one of the largest sculptures in the world.

At the river end of the Grand Hall, a suspended staircase leads to the galleries on the upper levels. From the upper levels, visitors can look down into the Grand Hall to re-orient themselves after emerging from the exhibition halls.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18599, CD2004-1377
Suspended Staircase - D2004-18599, CD2004-1377

The same sensitivity is seen in the attention to public circulation. Several large assembly areas allow hundreds of visitors to group at one time. The main entrance and a tour group entrance are accessible from Laurier Street or the driveway that rims the entrance plaza, while another entrance provides access from the riverside park. The underground parking area also has direct access into the museum. Escalators and elevators linking the three levels of the public wing are close to either end of the wing, which makes it easier for visitors to identify the principal circulation route. There was particular concern for handicapped visitors; elevators, ramps, provision of lower viewing angles, and care in placement of equipment controls, are among the efforts to look after their special needs. In only a few places is universal access still difficult.

Not only the visiting public, but artifacts too have circulation requirements. It was desirable to differentiate human and artifact circulation routes, as far as possible. The separation of curatorial and public wings helps here. They are linked only on the lowest level of the museum, by a wide corridor, the Main Artifact Route. This runs the length of the curatorial wing, and other corridors chiefly for artifact movement are on the higher levels of that wing; smaller corridors for staff are on the far side of that wing. Although there are no such dedicated routes for artifact movement in the public wing, a freight elevator there is reserved for artifacts, and connects with the end of the Main Artifact Route.

If Cardinal's design has satisfied the human needs of the building, it is no less successful in satisfying the needs of the artifacts. The separation of public and curatorial wings has facilitated the differentiation of levels of security for collections not on display. Positioning the collections holding areas in the centre of the curatorial wing may be likened to placing a strong-box inside a vault, or more appropriately the West Coast Native treasure chest which contains other worlds nested in boxes. Wrapping offices and work-areas around the collections holding rooms not only increases their security, but helps guarantee stable environmental conditions. The storage and working areas are about 50% larger than in the total previous accommodations, and provide facilities of a quality commensurate with the importance of the collections and the curatorial work.

Seen here are plans of two of the six levels of the curatorial block - levels one (bottom) and five (top) - with the layout of collections storage furniture shown.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-23610, CD2004-1378
Plans - D2004-23610, CD2004-1378

In the public wing the choice of materials for construction and limited areas of glazing (outside the Grand Hall) provide the galleries with a high thermal inertia and relatively stable environment. The demands of communications systems, security systems, lighting requirements, environmental controls, and building maintenance equipment necessitated a heavy-duty electrical system. Power failure is guarded against by having the power supply come from not one, but two substations in Gatineau; if both fail, the museum has back-up generators to support security and environmental systems.

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