A must-see for anyone visiting the Capital region, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is the largest and most popular cultural attraction in Canada. Located just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, the museum’s multi-level exhibition complex receives an astounding 1.3 million visitors annually.
Architecturally, the Museum of Civilization, which opened its doors in 1989, is one of the most stunningly original museums in the world. The museum, which is actually made up of two distinct buildings – the Museum Building and the Curatorial Building, was designed by Native-Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal. It is famous for its curved lines, domed roofs, and monumental size. Its exterior is faced with 36,000 square metres of Tyndall limestone from Manitoba, and its roof is made of nearly 11,000 square metres (90 tons) of Canadian copper – more copper than on any other building in the world!
Not surprisingly, the museum buildings are considered a major attraction in their own right.Inside, the museum is as vast as it appears on the outside. In total, it contains over 100,000 square metres (1,076,400 square feet) of floor space. The Curatorial Building houses the collections (over 5,000,000 artifacts), while the Museum Building contains the exhibitions. The museum is large, so visitors may wish to spend more than one day. Guided tours are available.
LEVEL 1: THE GRAND HALL
One of the most popular attractions at the museum is the awesome, elliptical gallery known as the Grand Hall. Located on Level 1, below the ground floor, it is reached by escalator. Because the museum is built on the slope of the river bank, the architects chose to create an outer wall for the Grand Hall built almost entirely of windows. These windows soar to a height of three floors, flooding the length of the hall with light. The curved glass wall of the Grand Hall measures an astounding 112 X 15 metres (365 X 50 feet).
With its superb view of Parliament Hill, across the Ottawa River, the Grand Hall is the architectural centrepiece of the facility. Entirely open to the upper floors of the museum, it provides a splendid environment for 43 enormous totem poles (the largest indoor collection in the world) that sore high overhead the entire length of the gallery. In addition, six reconstructed houses within the Grand Hall present the various Native communities of coastal British Columbia.
FIRST PEOPLES HALL
Another major attraction on Level 1 is the First Peoples Hall. This hall presents a display of over 2,000 artifacts, archival documents, works of art, and audiovisual material, pertaining to the country’s Native peoples from the earliest times to the present day. A permanent exhibition, the First Peoples Hall was ten years in the making.
LEVEL 2: TEMPORARY EXHIBITIONS, CHILDREN’S AND POSTAL MUSEUMS
Level 2 -- the ground floor -- features three large halls for temporary thematic exhibitions. Visitors should check listings for current programming. Also on this level are the Canadian Postal Museum and the Canadian Children’s Museum, both described elsewhere on this site and both well worth a visit. This level also contains an IMAX theatre, a restaurant and two boutiques. A splendid view may be had of the Grand Hall on level 1, below.
LEVEL 3: CANADA HALL
The major attraction on level 3 is the Canada Hall. This hall, which includes a 17-metre (56-foot) domed ceiling, features life-sized recreations from Canadian history. Covering 1,000 years of Canadian history, the hall is divided into two sections, one featuring Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario from 1000 to 1885, the other featuring Western and Northern Canada from 1885 to the present.
Reconstructed scenes (that use real artifacts from the museum’s collections) include: a Norse landing in Newfoundland (c.1000 A.D.); the interior of a Basque ship and whaling post (c.1560); an Acadian exhibit; and a farmhouse, inn, and public square in New France (1600 to 1760); a Voyageur camp; a lumber shanty; a Métis campsite, a British military headquarters; a shipyard; a typical main street in 19th century Ontario; a turn-of-the-century railway station; a Ukrainian Church in Alberta; an oil derrick; and a West Coast fisheries scene, to name only a few. The exhibits in the Canada Hall are so convincing that one sometimes forgets one is in a museum! And thanks to a large, blue, domed ceiling, even the sky overhead in some parts of the hall seems real. Visitors on level 3 are treated to a view both of level 1 (the Grand Hall) and level 2.
One other attraction of note on this floor is Samuel de Champlain’s long-lost astrolabe, which is the centrepiece of the David M. Stewart Lounge. One of the museum’s most famous (and most expensive!) artifacts, the astrolabe was purchased from the New York Historical Society for $250,000 in 1989.The uppermost floor of the museum, level 4, overlooks the Canada Hall below. It is devoted to special thematic exhibitions, and once again, visitors are advised to check museum listings for current shows.
Any visit to the Canadian Museum of Civilization is an enriching experience. Visitors should allow for at least a half-day at the museum, more if they wish to take in all of the temporary exhibitions, as well as the Children’s Museum and the Postal Museum. As with all large museums, however, one’s best strategy is to plan for several shorter visits. That way one does not get tired out too soon. After all, this is a world-class museum, and there is a great deal to take in.
For fees, opening hours, and current exhibitions at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, call: (819) 776-7000; Toll free 1 (800) 555-5621, or click here: www.civilization.ca/cpm.html.