HERITAGE

Showcasing Canada

A museum takes a modern approach to the past

PAMELA YOUNG July 10 1989
HERITAGE

Showcasing Canada

A museum takes a modern approach to the past

PAMELA YOUNG July 10 1989

Showcasing Canada

HERITAGE

A museum takes a modern approach to the past

For 16 years, Canada’s $1 bills have presented Canadians with a view of the federal Parliament Buildings from across the Ottawa River. As luck would have it, the paper dollar started to go out of circulation this month—to be replaced by the dollar coin—just as Parliament Hill acquired a dramatic new frame on the Hull, Que., side of the river. There, two massive, curving stone forms of the Canadian Museum of Civilization now bracket Parliament’s spires. Formerly known as the National Museum of Man, and housed in a cramped, 19th-century building across the river in central Ottawa, the institution officially reopened last week in its handsome new quarters, becoming the nation’s newest, largest and most expensive museum. Although its architecture recalls land masses eroded through the ages by rivers and glaciers, the museum’s approach to showcasing artifacts of Canada’s cultural heritage is thoroughly modem: computer and video technology have joined forces with theme park-style historic reconstructions. Declared director George MacDonald: “It is time to look through the window into the information age.”

The new museum, spread across 24 acres of a former pulp mill site, is also the focus of controversy and criticism. Announced in 1982 at the same time as Ottawa’s National Gallery,

which opened last year, the museum opened two years behind schedule and with fewer than half of its exhibits in place. The cost of the project, which was initially allotted an $80million budget, has risen steeply. To date, $147 million has been spent on construction. A further $110 million has paid for the installation of the museum’s permanent collection and other expenses. At the same time, some members of Canada’s traditionally conservative museum community have complained that MacDonald’s approach to the museum places more emphasis on entertainment than on learning.

But the prevailing mood at the museum's June 29 opening was one of spirited celebra tion. Canoeists dressed in native ceremonial garb disembarked on the Ottawa River bank, and skydivers with rainbow-colored parachutes drifted down onto the museum's plaza. Ad dressing the assembled throng, Prime Minister Brian Muironey observed, "The strands that have woven our history and our national per sonality converge in a remarkable fashion on this very site here today." The only blot on the festivities was that not all of the displays that were supposed to have been completed were actually ready: workers in hard hats were still scrambling to put the finishing touches on some areas. Still, the museum's attractions, which include a collection of West Coast totem

poles in a hall that is longer than a football field, re-creations of an 18th-century town square in New France and other life-size historic streetscapes, were undeniably spectacular.

Besides the dramatic displays housed inside it, the museum’s principal attractions include its two boldly sculptural buildings—the domed, copper-vaulted exhibitions wing and the graceful, multitiered curatorial wing. The buildings, which are sheathed in warm-hued Tyndall limestone from Manitoba, were designed by Alberta architect Douglas Cardinal, 55. Cardinal says that the buildings reflect his fascination with curving, organic forms—and his rejection of the right-angled, boxlike forms that have dominated 20th-century architecture. Said Cardinal, a Métis: “With the museum, I wanted to say, Why are we turning to Europe for our artistic style? Why not be inspired by the land and the people here?”

The striking new museum seems destined to enthrall visitors. Almost immediately after entering the exhibition wing, museum-goers find themselves overlooking the vast expanse of the Grand Hall, the most showstopping space in the complex. In front of the totem poles is an elliptical glass wall, nearly 50 feet high. Reproduced on a huge screen behind the totems is a photograph of the coastal forest, which museum officials say is the largest color photograph in the world.

Staircases lead down into the hall itself, where reproductions of six traditional Pacific Coast Indian houses, each one representing a different cultural group, frame the totem poles. Designed to resemble a coastal area, the hall takes realism to a degree that rivals Disneyland: at the water’s edge, a mechanical model of a salmon stranded on the shore at low tide periodically flops its tail. The exhibition also ventures into the realm of fantasy. At times, animated versions of Indian myths are project-

ed onto the screen, suggesting the close relationship between the legends and nature.

A similar approach dominates the History Hall, where visitors can walk through nearly 1,000 years of Canada’s past. Each time they round a comer, museum-goers arrive in a

different, life-size historical _

setting, ranging from the hull of a 16th-century Basque whaling ship to a late-Victorian streetscape in small-town Ontario. Visitors also will encounter costumed performers and artisans portraying historical figures. MacDonald says that he hopes the general public will also get into the act: at the end of regular museum hours, visitors will be able to rent out part of the hall to perform—and, if they wish, videotape—their own historical skits. The idea is part of MacDonald’s plan for making the museum interesting to people who do not normally visit museums. Said MacDonald: “The History Hall is as much for people to project themselves into history and into those settings as it is for them to extract pure information out of them.”

Apart from a children’s

museum, where young visitors will be able to dress up in costumes from around the world and participate in craft workshops, most of the completed museum areas are devoted to changing exhibitions. The current offerings include a large, multimedia display on the lives of Chinese-Canadians and a gallery of works by contemporary Canadian Indian and Inuit artists. The museum also has a 295-seat giant-screen movie theatre, the only one in the world equipped with both a flat, 62-feet-high screen and a curving OMNIMAX screen that surrounds viewers.

that surrounds viewers. Originally, organizers had planned to open with the premiere of The First Emperor of China, a $6.7million coproduction by the museum, the National Film Board of Canada and China's Xi'an Film Studio. But the federal ministry of external affairs and the department of communications elected not to show the film at a special June 27 gala screening: the government felt that the story, which deals with QinShihuang, the leader who

2,200 years ago, was too sensitive in light of the recent political turmoil in China. Museum officials agreed to show a film on Canada geese throughout the opening weekend instead, and premiere The First Emperor on July 4.

question whether too much technology will get in the way of the museum’s educational function. Michael Ames, director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, said that the institution could become too much like a world’s fair, where the kind of information offered is reduced to “easy messages and quick fixes.” Added Ames: “My idea of a museum is a place you think about after you’ve been there.” For their part, museum officials brushed aside the criticism, expressing confidence that the museum’s distinctive architecture and dramatic exhibits will help to make it the hottest tourist attraction in the National Capital Region this summer.

PAMELA YOUNG

RANDY FISHER