a peek inside the fishbowl

31 May, 2017

A bit about the new Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Ottawa

I have to start this post by confessing that I can’t stop calling the Canadian Museum of History by its old name: the Museum of Civilization. The old name is permanently etched into my brain (what can I say, I’m old) but I someday hope to be able to call it by its proper name without blanking out or stumbling over it. Sigh.

Canadian Museum of History

a short wander outside the Canadian Museum of History

Last week I attended a sneak preview of the museum’s brand new Canadian History Hall. First, I should point out that this is NOT the Grand Hall, the dramatically gorgeous part of the museum with the tall windows and totem poles into which visitors descend by escalator. (I’m only mentioning this because there seems to be some confusion out there.) The old Canadian History Hall was the massive, permanent exhibition that longtime residents of Ottawa undoubtedly remember: beaver pelts, Maritime history, a small old-time village with little shops, and costumed people walking around and talking about bits and pieces of Canadian history. One of the most memorable parts, for me, was the old school house. (Sidebar: I also remember a recording of someone who talked about school lunches, and how they kept a loaf of baloney tied to a string and lowered into the well to keep cool. They’d slice off the moldy parts before taking some for lunch. Or did I dream this?)

Over the past five years, the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) totally gutted and rebuilt the Canadian History Hall and it will be ready for viewing on July 1.

Spoiler alert: you HAVE to go.

Visitors begin in a long and curving passageway that is lined with 101 scenes of Canadian landmarks and activities and leads to The Hub, a meeting place of sorts from which you choose which of the three galleries you want to explore next (these are divided by time period). I had a chat with Mark O’Neill, the President and CEO fo the CMH, who told me the Hub was modeled after a major natural feature of this area, the Kettle a.k.a. The Chaudière Falls (translation: Cauldron Falls) which was named by Samuel de Champlain, who described it this way:

“At one place the water falls with such violence upon a rock, that, in the course of time, there has been hollowed out in it a wide and deep basin, so that the water flows round and round there and makes, in the middle, great whirlpools. Hence, the savages call it Asticou, which means kettle. This waterfall makes such a noise that it can be heard for more than two leagues off.” [via Wikipedia]

There was still a lot left to be finished when I walked through each of the three galleries and there is a LOT to see. The space occupies 40,000 square feet on two floors. I can safely say what I really appreciated about the new Canadian History Hall was the integration of Canada’s indigenous history into the overall narrative covered in the Hall (that’s 15,000 years!), from beginning to end. It is not a separate room, or a separate floor, it’s all there. This means there is an Indigenous presence throughout each gallery. It’s a timely, and very necessary, change of thinking.

Inside the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History

It’s also worth pointing out that visitors won’t find a glossy, flag-waving retelling of Canada’s glory. Attention is also given to the darker chapters in our history: residential schools, extermination of Indigenous people, wartime internment camps, these are stories that have to be remembered and told.

I had a chat with one of the curators (I wish I could remember his name!) and we talked a lot about the many stories and points of view that can be told here. I find the process of discovery so fascinating, especially since history tends to be written by the victors. It is a long process, one that involves a lot of research, discussion, and sensitivity to all parties, but ultimately, they’re telling true stories about real people, stories that are supported by authentic artifacts, whether they’re stone tools of the earliest Canadians or a Marathon of Hope t-shirt that was worn by Terry Fox:

Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope T-shirt

I would have liked to browse, but had to fly through all three galleries. There are many standout artifacts and exhibits that you can’t miss. Among them, which were of great interest to me, include:

– An ivory carving that’s between 3,900 and 3,600 years old and is the oldest known depiction of a human face in Canada. It was found on Devon Island in the High Arctic. (I would have loved to hear more about this, actually. Who found it, and where? Did it wash up on a northern beach somewhere?)
– the “family tree” of Catherine Moitie, who was among the first filles du roi to come to New France in 1663. She was 13 at the time, married a fellow servant, and went on to have 10 children with him. She had over 600 descendants within five generations, which is illustrated in a massive display.
– the entirety of Gallery 3, officially known as “The Honourable Hilary M.Weston and W. Galen Weston Gallery.” In terms of the timeline, it begins in 1914 and continues to the present day. It touches on themes of sovereignty, prosperity, diversity, human rights, immigration, and Canada’s place in the global community. It’s kind of neat to see a bit of your own story there, on display.
– Who am I kidding, I enjoyed it all!

Here are Louis Riel’s handcuffs, but the way:

Louis Riel's handcuffs, at the Canadian Museum of History

I was told that the old Canadian History Hall didn’t event mention Louis Riel. It’s hard to imagine, frankly, but then again, I suppose the focus there was more on our social history.

As I walked around, I thought about the fact that our story is unfinished and that we all play a role in our collective history as a country. What will the Canadian History look like in 10 years? 25 years?

I mentioned to Mark O’Neill that they should already be making room for a Canada 150 display. The look he gave me was one that I often see on exhausted parents, but in a funny way. The good news is that many of the panels can be moved around, so we can add to our history for the next while without gutting the whole thing.

I wish I’d had more time to explore because I really only scratched the surface during my visit.

During the media presentation, someone said there is “no ONE history in the Canada History Hall.” This was certainly the impression I had when I visited, and this statement has stayed with me ever since. We do live in a wonderful country, and there are so many stories that need to be told. We are our stories, aren’t we?

I can’t wait to go back.

6 Responses to "A bit about the new Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History"

1 | Tricia

June 2nd, 2017 at 10:38 am


I’ve been looking forward to seeing the revamped hall and now I can’t wait. I love, love, love the Museum of Civilization (you’re not alone in the name) and this little preview has just whetted my appetite to see more. I’ll be heading over early in July – the first of many visits, I’m sure.

2 | andrea tomkins

July 10th, 2017 at 11:16 am


Do it! You will really be amazed at the change!

3 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive Rediscovering Gatineau this summer (part 1) - a peek inside the fishbowl

July 10th, 2017 at 2:48 pm


[…] UNTIL NOW. Ok, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. We have been frequent visitors to the Canadian Museum of History, visited Gatineau in the winter to enjoy the festivities at Jacques Cartier Park, and of course, […]

4 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive Dinner in the sky (a.k.a. Sky Lounge, the Ottawa edition) - a peek inside the fishbowl

July 23rd, 2017 at 10:56 am


[…] I totally feel like Little Miss National Capital Region this summer. I got a sneak preview of the new Canada History Hall, attended the Picnic on the Bridge, poked around Gatineau (you can read part one and two here), and […]

5 | Lori Cloutier

August 18th, 2017 at 1:15 pm


I just visited the museum and am highly disappointed. From the point of view of a High School History teacher – this will not fly with students. The entrance is beautiful but the rest is a down grade. It wold have been much better to add to the existing story.


6 | andrea tomkins

August 18th, 2017 at 1:45 pm


Wow! I’m surprised to hear this Lori. What do you think was missing?

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our two daughters Emma (18) and Sarah (16). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger, and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999... which makes me either a total dinosaur or a veteran, I'm not sure which! The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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