Canadian Museum of History

(Gatineau, Quebec)
Judi “Scoop” McWilliamsFestival Nomad Correspondent
A Canada’s First Peoples Display ~ Canadian Museum of History

The Canadian Museum of History may be known to some as the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Times change; names change; history does not change; but the interpretation of the history can change with every perspective each human can imagine.

The Canadian Museum of History has an amazing website where you can learn all about the structure, where from 1983 to 1989, it began to take shape. I highly recommend taking the time to view the Slide Show, Video Clips ~ streaming Video, Quick Time Movies,, a Full Tour and more; truly an experience in itself. Another great place to start is to view their Full-Colour Visitor Guide. It will assist with guiding you to the main points of interest.

The Museum attracts over 1.2 million visitors, so you can imagine that it makes it the country’s most-visited museum. It is a highly respected centre, sharing its history, archaeology, ethnology and cultural studies to visitors from around the world. The Museum houses the Canadian Children’s Museum and an IMAX® Theatre. Today a large group of students enthusiastically joined in a line-up waiting to take their turn in the Theatre, the noise was high with excitement, then quite ensued, leaving us in a peaceful state to start our Tour.

The Museum allows visitors to discover exhibitions, rich with information, artifacts and exciting experiences. Today we were fortunate to tour the Museum with our guide Michel. He has been with this Museum for 5 years, but previously has had a lot of experience with other organizations. Michel insisted that we start the tour outside. Here you will see that the architecture has been designed to look like a mask.

On the walls outside the Museum, we saw, The St. Lawrence Seaway cut through the Canadian Shield forming the “strata”. You can actually see the layers of limestone. If you have ever been caving or even rock climbing, you will recognize the magnificent natural work of art. The design represents the Plains and the water cascading made to represent ice melting. What better place to start.

There are over 4 million artifacts and specimens, being housed in the Museum archives. Acquisitions of Canadian heritage are received via donations or bequest, but there are distinct conditions for acceptance. The new acquisitions can bring a new perspective to the existing collection and they can be use for research. Michel tells us these artifacts are unparalleled anywhere in the world. He also mentioned that they are at the point where the CMH is looking for rare items, ones they don’t already have and considerations to see if there is a “fit” for their research. You can check out their website for more details if you are interested.

The Artifacts in the Museum are strategically placed in the telling of a story. On the second level, the three galleries are devoted to changing exhibitions. Some are designed by the CMH, while others may be presented by other International Institutions. The museum includes the Canadian Children’s Museum and an IMAX® Theatre.  Unfortunately we did not have time to check out either on this visit. Michel tells us the Museum offers a passport to learn from a child’s perspective.

Before we started, here are some points of interest that Michel mentioned. The Museum is “mobility impaired” compatible. That means that folks with any walking issues can still get around the Museum. Elevators are available to assist with transition from level to level. The washrooms and parking are mobility friendly also.

As we stood at the main entrance inside, a lower level welcomed us to “The Grand Hall”, a newly renovated Northwest Coast permanent exhibition of a 1900 century village. This area explores the rich and vibrant culture of the Canada’s First Peoples. It represents their histories, cultural identities, artistic expressions and traditional and contemporary ways of life. High above the ceiling looks like a dug out canoe. The walls, if you look closely, resemble large canoe paddles. The granite floor represents a body of water. This exhibit was created with collaboration with the University of British Columbia and the Native Peoples. It was very important when developing this exhibit that “their voice” was heard.

The artifacts are placed by themes rather than by communities. The mandates have changed and the Village is now more open. There is a flow of the continuity of the artifacts.

The steps leading to the Village areas symbolize a beach. The tide pool shows the food source that embraced the Village so many years before. The “treasure troves of archaeology” and the ability to learn and enrich your knowledge can be appreciated by all.

Our tour guide explained the significance of the totem polls. They tell the stories of the peoples from long ago. The Commemoration Poll in the centre is made of red cedar. Michel tells us this was a great wood to work with, it kept the insects away. Some of the polls are hollow; they dry up and actually become stronger. Prior to our “modern days” it would take over 100 people to put up a totem poll. Interestingly enough, I just watch a television program where a massive transport forklifts truck actually got upending by underestimating the weight of erecting a totem poll. …So much for technology.

Michel was also enthusiastic to tell us about the “Information Poll Stations”. As a visitor, this is a great source for reference. If you read the Information Polls, you will learn and understand so much more, and they can assist with your tour by guiding you through logistically.

Michel goes on to tell us the exhibits we are looking at take the “rule of 3 in balance”. The longest totem poll is 16.5 meters in one piece carved and on display in this area. The Village has been recreated to embrace and present the environments that once encompassed these lands.

By a large glass window pain stood a massive white sculpture created by Bill Reid, “Spirit of Haida”. This is the plaster mould that has been used twice. One sculpture stands in the Canadian Exhibit in Washington D.C. They have been pored from liquid bronze. You might recognize from our photos below, that this sculpture has been captured on the new $20.00 bill.

It seemed like a good time to ask Michel how long it would take a visitor to tour the Museum. He chuckled when he told us his response … “There are 2 options. Option #1 until closing time or, Option #2, until your feet or brain wears out”. He told us that touring the Museum is like “food for thought” … “when you’re full, you’re full”. I wondered today what would happen first, Michel’s enthusiasm and knowledge made me think the Museum would have to close before we were too “full”.

How long one need to tour through the Museum … Michel’s response does was fantastic and true … he would recommend about an hour per floor. If you get turned around on your journey, our guide suggests “go by the panels”, if you take the time to read them, they will guide you through an ultimately enlightening experience.

It is true when Michel suggested that visiting the Canadian Museum of History was a “seasonal experience”, one that folks should experience during each season. We know that to be true with our many Ontario outdoor adventures, visiting different communities in different seasons. I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. Then he explained that as the backdrop outside changes, so does the experience indoors. He goes back to out beginning of our Tour; he reminds us that the outside presence of the Museum is just as important as the inside.

Our Tour Guide goes on to say that this Museum is about Canada and its people. We were welcomed to the This First People’s Hall. Here they attempt to help shed the stereotypes about the First Canadians. One of the mandates of the Canadian Museum of History is to break down the stereotypes, help educate people and create awareness. The name had to be a common name; their own name. The diversity of the culture, clothing was well depicted in the displays. All the displays are embraced with a re-enactment of the natural environment of the Villages being displayed; from the covered ceilings in tree foliage to the Rock River terrain below your feet. This part of the Museum represented who we were, who we are and our aspirations for our future.

“Can you dig it”? Archeologists love this area, it helps us understand who were the First People based on archeology findings. The Bluefish Cave from the Yukon is 24,000 years old. A mammoth leg bone is the oldest artifact in the Museum. The Museumuses areas that create a story. LeFemme du Ciel and Gloscap is depicted high above dropping from the ceiling.

Michel was sure to just provide us with “information”. Our interpretation of the “fact” and “information” being provided was up to us. Michel goes on to say is it NOT part of the Museums mandate to choose right or wrong, or for that matter give their opinion or observations. They are just providing the scientific presentation for all visitors to embrace.

We discussed with Michel what we were looking and at what it represented. In part, Michel said it represented the sacrifices that people made to have a better life, they fought for their freedom. Part of the wonderful opportunity in the Region was the natural resources and the ability to fish, whale resources, fur, timber trade and such.

From the First Nation Exhibits, we were fully immersed in our journey through Canada Hall, all 17 meter high ceilings and a full football field in length. Our timing was perfect to Tour today as this Exhibition will be closed while they create a new Canadian History Hall.

The following is just a “taste” of Canadian History Hall. As we traveled along, we came across the period of time when wagons were introduced into our lives. Gary, being a McWilliams, has ancestors in Lakefield, Ontario, where his ancestors were the local carriage maker. Our guide seemed to be intently listening to Gary’s story. This is when he told us that the Museum tells “our story”, that your ancestors are here, this is the story of your grandfather, his father and so on. I felt a great connection being there.


We traveled through the Railway where we were told this may be the most important stop, from 1867-1923, were it is said “lets go west my son”. And travel became a possibility, a reality. The multicultural country church in the Museum is an original artifact from Alberta. A Chinese hand laundry building is displayed. Many components of the Museum reflect the plight of the people in Canada and their journey through time.

There are artifacts in the Museum from Medalta Pottery Stoneware which even today is very sought after, being from the period 1915-1924. Looking at the Museum artifacts make me reflect that I need to treasure my own pottery coffee mug, hand made in front of my eyes in St. Jacobs Old Stone Mill years ago, that much more. We moved along to the Points System, where immigration policies to discrimination based on ethnicity, colour, and country of origin. Finally moving to Northern ~ Yukon territories where an amazing display of artifacts, in an authentic environment make you stop and try to imagine the life we have lived in, live in and are heading towards.

As I have mentioned, the Canadian Museum of History has a great website where you can tour many, many components. They have an entire section of On-line tours, you can take your time, digest and come back for more.

That’s what we plan on doing, getting a full feast of Canadian History, what an incredible journey, what an amazing Tour.