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Uncovering Canada‘s Story: The Canadian Museum of History

Perched on the banks of the Ottawa River, directly across from Parliament Hill, the Canadian Museum of History stands as a testament to the rich and complex heritage of Canada. As the country‘s national museum of human history, it is charged with the critical task of collecting, preserving, researching and interpreting the artifacts and stories that define the Canadian experience. More than just a repository of objects, the museum actively shapes our understanding of what it means to be Canadian.

A Brief History of the Museum

The origins of the Canadian Museum of History can be traced back to 1856, when the Geological Survey of Canada established a museum to house its growing collection of mineralogical and paleontological specimens. Over time, the museum‘s mandate expanded to include anthropological and archaeological artifacts, laying the foundation for its current focus on human history.

In 1910, the anthropology division was formally established, marking the beginning of the museum‘s serious commitment to researching Canada‘s Indigenous peoples and cultures. The museum continued to evolve throughout the 20th century, moving into its first purpose-built home in 1911, then to its current location in 1989. Along the way, it was renamed several times, finally becoming the Canadian Museum of History in 2013 to reflect its broad national scope.

An Unparalleled Collection

At the heart of the museum are its vast collections, which serve as an unparalleled resource for understanding Canada‘s past. With over 4 million artifacts and specimens, the museum‘s holdings cover the entire span of human habitation in what is now Canada, from the arrival of the first peoples over 13,000 years ago to the present day.

The archaeological collections alone include some 3 million artifacts, ranging from ancient stone tools to 19th-century Inuit carvings. Particularly noteworthy are the museum‘s extensive holdings of Indigenous archaeological materials from across the country, which provide invaluable insight into the lifeways and cultures of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples prior to European contact.

Equally impressive are the museum‘s ethnological collections, comprising over 700,000 objects that document the traditional cultures of Indigenous peoples as well as the folk traditions of settler communities. From intricate West Coast First Nations masks to delicate Ukrainian Easter eggs, these artifacts embody the incredible diversity of Canada‘s cultural heritage.

Other significant collections include the Canadian Postal Archives, with over 500,000 philatelic items tracking the history of Canada‘s postal system; an extensive collection of folk art from every region of the country; and more than 2 million archaeological and historical photographs. Together, these wide-ranging holdings form an unparalleled record of Canada‘s human history.

Bringing History to Life

To make this vast collection accessible to the public, the museum has developed a range of permanent and temporary exhibitions that bring Canada‘s story to life. The First Peoples Hall, for example, explores the histories, cultures and contributions of Canada‘s Indigenous peoples through innovative displays that incorporate artifacts, audio-visual elements and Indigenous perspectives. Visitors can marvel at towering totem poles from the Pacific Northwest, learn about the sophisticated farming practices of the Iroquoian peoples, or hear first-hand accounts of the impact of residential schools.

Another flagship exhibition is the Canadian History Hall, which opened in 2017 as part of the museum‘s transformation into the Canadian Museum of History. Spanning over 40,000 square feet, this immersive exhibit traces the history of Canada from the dawn of human habitation to the present day. Visitors journey through six distinct eras, encountering key artifacts, multimedia displays and hands-on interactives that bring the past to vivid life.

Canadian History Hall visitor admires display

In addition to these permanent exhibitions, the museum regularly hosts temporary shows that delve into specific aspects of Canadian and world history. Recent examples include "Medieval Europe: Power and Splendour", which brought together over 200 artifacts from across Europe to explore the complex world of the Middle Ages, and "Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition", which used recent archaeological discoveries to shed new light on the tragic fate of the famed Arctic explorers.

Architecture and Location

The museum‘s exhibitions are housed in an equally impressive building that is itself a showcase of Canadian history and innovation. Designed by Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, the curving, fluid lines of the museum‘s exterior evoke the natural landscapes of Canada, from rolling hills to windswept plains. Inside, soaring public spaces like the Grand Hall feature dramatic architectural elements that honor Canada‘s First Nations heritage, such as the massive totem poles that line the walls.

Canadian Museum of History exterior

The museum‘s location in the heart of the National Capital Region also speaks to its importance as a cultural institution. Situated on the ancestral lands of the Algonquin Anishinabe peoples, the site has been a place of gathering and exchange for thousands of years. Today, its proximity to Parliament Hill and other national landmarks underscores the museum‘s role in shaping our understanding of Canadian identity.

Beyond the Galleries

But the museum‘s work extends far beyond its physical exhibitions. Behind the scenes, a team of curators, conservators, researchers and other specialists work tirelessly to study, preserve and interpret the museum‘s collections. Their research spans a wide range of disciplines, from archaeology and anthropology to history and material culture studies, and helps to push the boundaries of what we know about Canada‘s past.

The museum also plays a vital role in educating Canadians about their shared history. Through school programs, public lectures, workshops and online resources, it provides opportunities for learners of all ages to engage with the past in meaningful ways. Its website offers a wealth of digital content, including virtual exhibitions, educational materials and access to the museum‘s collections database.

Challenges and Opportunities

As a national institution, the Canadian Museum of History is not without its challenges. Like many museums, it must grapple with the difficult task of representing Canada‘s complex and often painful history in an honest and inclusive way. This includes acknowledging the ongoing impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples, as well as the systemic racism and discrimination faced by many communities throughout Canada‘s history.

At the same time, the museum has a responsibility to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Canadians from all walks of life. Balancing these competing imperatives requires sensitivity, nuance and a willingness to engage in difficult conversations about the past and its legacy in the present.

IMAX theater at Canadian Museum of History

As a Crown corporation, the museum is also subject to the changing priorities and funding levels of the federal government. In recent years, it has faced budget cuts and staffing reductions that have impacted its ability to carry out its mandate. Despite these challenges, however, the museum remains committed to its core mission of preserving and sharing Canada‘s diverse heritage.

Plan Your Visit

For those interested in experiencing the Canadian Museum of History firsthand, the museum is open daily from 9:30am to 5:00pm (with extended hours on Thursdays). Admission is $20 for adults, with discounts available for seniors, students and children. The museum is fully accessible and offers a range of amenities, including a café, gift shop and coat check.

Located just a short drive or bus ride from downtown Ottawa, the museum is easily accessible by car or public transit. Paid parking is available on site, and the museum is also served by several bus routes from the city center. For those coming from further afield, the museum is just a 20-minute drive from the Ottawa International Airport.

Whether you‘re a history buff, a curious tourist or a proud Canadian looking to connect with your heritage, the Canadian Museum of History is not to be missed. With its world-class collections, engaging exhibitions and stunning architecture, it offers a fascinating journey through the rich and complex story of Canada. Plan your visit today and discover the museum that brings our nation‘s past to life.

Museum Quick Facts

  • Location: 100 Laurier Street, Gatineau, Quebec
  • Opened: 1989 (current building)
  • Architect: Douglas Cardinal
  • Collections: Over 4 million artifacts and specimens
  • Annual Visitors: 1.2 million
  • Permanent Exhibitions: Grand Hall, First Peoples Hall, Canadian History Hall
  • Amenities: CINÉ+ Theatre, Canadian Children‘s Museum, Panorama Café, Boutique
  • Research Areas: Archaeology, ethnology, history, folk culture, postal history
  • Budget (2019-20): $83.4 million
  • Employees (2019-20): 441