The Canadian Museum of Civilization

A view of the Museum of History from the Alexandra Bridge across the Ottawa river. © Charlotte Thomson / April 3, 2022
The curved walls of the Curatorial Building on the eastern side of the museum. © Charlotte Thomson / April 3, 2022

For the week of Monday, June 27, 2022.

On June 29, 1989, the newly constructed Canadian Museum of Civilization (now, the Canadian Museum of History) opened its doors in Hull, Quebec (now Gatineau). In the years that followed, it has become an important architectural landmark in the National Capital Region.
The groundwork for a national museum was laid by the oldest government-funded scientific organization in Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). It was founded in 1842 to collect geological, archeological, ethnographic, and biological materials, which it curated and showcased at international exhibitions. In 1877, the GSC became part of the Department of the Interior and in 1881 relocated from Montréal to what is now the former Geological Survey Building on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, where historical artifacts like fossils and fur hides could be displayed for public viewing.

After many failed attempts to secure funding for a larger building, the collection was moved in 1910 into the newly constructed Victoria Memorial Museum on Metcalfe Street in Ottawa and, by 1912, exhibits opened to the public. The building was soon overflowing with natural materials and historical objects, ranging from art to textiles. Following the reorganizations that came with the passage of the National Museums Act in 1968, the Victoria Memorial Museum housed the collections of the new Museum of Natural Sciences (now the Museum of Nature) and National Museum of Man (now the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of History). It was soon evident that the Museum of Man needed more space to house and display its more than two million historical objects. Thus, planning for a purpose-built museum began in 1982.
Several architects submitted designs and, by January 1983, Douglas Cardinal, an architect of Siksika (Blackfoot) and Métis descent from Porcupine Hills, Alberta, had been selected. His previous works consisted of public buildings like the St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer, where he showcased a sculptural and expressionistic style, for which he has since gained recognition. The new Canadian Museum of Civilization would be his first project outside of Western Canada.

The site chosen for the museum was Parc Laurier in Gatineau, which had previously been an industrial timber yard. This location offered dramatic views of the Parliament Buildings across the Ottawa River. Cardinal’s approach was to design a building that flowed into natural environment instead of imposing its power over nature, so he made a point of addressing the adjacent river in his placement of the structure. Believing buildings should respect nature and magnify its beauty, he designed walls with layers of curved lines that imitate the edge of a rock face to reflect the ways in which “culture grew entwined with the forces of nature.” These shapes were too complex to be calculated manually, so Cardinal’s architecture firm transitioned to Computer Assisted Design to accommodate the organic design style. Cardinal’s design philosophy contributed to efforts towards the decolonization of public history and the pursuit of more inclusive interpretations of the cultural heritage of Canada.

The design was also part of a growing international architectural movement away from Modernism’s simple, cubic volumes to more complex compositions of varied, irregular masses. Many embraced more expressionistic, or organic approaches, often prioritizing harmony with the environment. In addition, Cardinal’s design showcased Prairie expressionism with its prioritization of the horizontal composition over the vertical. Postmodern architecture became popular for museum buildings in North America and Europe because of its freedom from restrictions, which resulted in one-of-a-kind designs that quickly became important cultural landmarks.

The Former Geological Survey of Canada Building was designated as a national historic site in 1955 and a Recognized Federal Heritage Building in 1986. The Victoria Memorial Museum (Canadian Museum of Nature) was designated as a national historic site in 1990 and a Classified Federal Heritage Building in 1986. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings, and cultural landscapes. The Minister responsible for Parks Canada designates federal heritage buildings on the recommendation of the Federal Heritage Buildings Committee (FHBC).

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.