No trip to Canada’s capital is complete without visiting one of the dozen national museums based in Ottawa.
I’ve only been to half of them: several visits each to the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of History (formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in Hull, Quebec, accessible via a pedestrian bridge over the Ottawa River; one-time visits to the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography; the Library and Archives Canada; the Canadian Children’s Museum (part of the Museum of History); and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
The others cover science and technology; nature; war; agriculture; and Laurier House, the official residence of prime ministers Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. The current Currency Museum is expanding and morphing into a new Bank of Canada Museum, opening on Canada’s 150th birthday, July 1, 2017. While the Royal Canadian Mint is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba its Ottawa branch (the original headquarters) is open for tours. Many of these museums have evolved, merged, or been renamed over the course of their history: the Canadian Encylopedia entry on the Canadian Museum of History explains what started where and when, and which ones have evolved into today’s current group.
The greatest draw is the Canadian Museum of History, attracting 1.2 million visitors a year. Designed by Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal and opened in 1989, its curving shapes are meant to represent the landscape of Canada and it remains the country’s largest museum. My favourite spot is the Grand Hall, with its incredible view of the Ottawa historic buildings framed by totem poles and, at centre, Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations have prompted a renovation of other two popular spaces, the Canada Hall and the Canadian Personalities Hall.
The National Gallery is, itself, an artwork, designed by Canadian artchitect Moshe Safdie (who also designed the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library) and open in 1988. Its signature glass façade is shaped to mimic and reflect the Parliament Buildings and contains the most stunning spot for a reception in the city. Its strength is, as one would expect, is collection of Canadian art, including increasing attention being paid to collecting, preserving and sharing work by aboriginal artists.
One of the quirkier installations is Rideau Street Convent Chapel, which was demolished in 1972: its interior structure and artwork were carefully preserved and was reconstructed within the gallery, adjacent to an interior courtyard/garden. The gallery over the years has collected or been given other significant works of art from the U.S. Europe, and Asia, as well as collections of photography: my favourite of these is Viennese artist Gustav Klimt’s Hope I. The gallery also hosts the largest visual arts library in Canada, with a collection of more than 230,000 books, exhibition catalogues, and periodicals.
To celebrate Canada’s 150th, the National Art Gallery is reopening is Canadian and Indigenous Galleries with a new 1,000-work exhibition, Our Masterpieces, Our Stories.
I was a reluctant visitor to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, not being an aficionado of mechanical things with wings or wheels. However, it’s good to expand your horizons: this place has plenty of details for knowledgeable enthusiasts while also providing context for those of us who unaided can’t tell a spoiler from a stabilizer. It’s located northeast of the central city of Ottawa and is chock-full of planes from earliest flying days in the country through to the 20th-century world wars and on to the present. There’s an informative display about The Canadarm, Canada’s crowning space collaboration with the U.S. National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA), and a fascinating area on The Avro Arrow.
For those of you not already sighing in exasperation, a quick brief: The Avro Arrow was an interceptor jet developed in the 1950s by Canadian company A.V. Roe to fill a need for a new kind of plane to counter the threat of over-Arctic Soviet attack. It was, experts still maintain, a remarkable piece of technology but an expensive one that eventually lost support of the government of the day; a plan to build 600 planes was cut to 100, and then the government terminated funding for “Canadian fire-control and missile development”, which was supporting the Arrow project.
Unable to find buyers elsewhere in the world, the company folded. For reasons to this day not understood, the government ordered the existing prototypes of the plane to be dismantled: only the cockpit and nose on display at this museum remain. What’s even more fascinating are recorded interviews done with the engineers and others involved in the Arrow story, including June Callwood, herself a licensed pilot who covered the story as a young journalist. Someone was smart enough to interview these people while they were still with us: hearing those voices, expressing their memories and frustrations, while standing next to the distinctive needle-nose of the Arrow is a uniquely Canadian experience I won’t soon forget.
Main photo, Canada’s Parliament Buildings: John Lederman