The Canadian Museum of Civilization - A Short History

Chantal Amyot

Canadian Museum of Civilization

100 Laurier Street Gatineau, QC J8X 4H2 Canada

The Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) is Canada''s national museum of human history. Devoted to exploring Canadian History, culture and art and to celebrating the civilizations of the world, the Museum attracts over 1.3 million visitors per year. It houses more than 3.75 million artifacts spanning the disciplines of history, archaeology, folk culture, ethnology, postal communications and various other areas of heritage study.

Many visitors think the Canadian Museum of Civilization was established in 1989, the year it moved into its current building. Not so ? in 2006, it celebrated its 150th anniversary. Since its modest beginnings within the Geological Survey of Canada, the Museum's mission now encompasses the heritage of all Canadian peoples, collecting, studying, preserving and making that heritage known.

The origins of the Museum date back to March 1845 when an act of parliament established the Geological Survey of Canada to study rocks, soils, minerals, maps and specimens. But its true roots date back to 1862 when the Geological Survey mounted its first "ethnological" exhibit, consisting of Indian stones and other implements, casts of Indian stone pipes and a few fragments of Indian pottery, all exhibited in a single display case.

In 1927, the Governor General of Canada authorized the designation of the Museum Branch as the "National Museum of Canada". Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Museum intensified its research on Canada's cultures. In 1958, it gained a new partner, the Canadian War Museum. Ten years later, the National Museum of Canada was reorganized, with the human history component coming under the jurisdiction of a new National Museum of Man. From that moment on, the rapid expansion of its activities would determine its future. A new building to meet the Museum's needs began to appear on the horizon.

In 1982, the federal government approved the construction of a new building for the National Museum of Man, on the banks of the Ottawa River. It was inaugurated on June 29, 1989. Renamed Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1986, the institution that started as a handful of geological specimens became Canada's most popular museum.

Exhibition Development Process - Striving for Excellence

With such a long tradition, the museum has had to adapt and reinvent itself several times to keep up with new museological standards and balance the demands for solid research and creation of new knowledge with the rising of the service industry, putting the visitors' needs as one of the main focus.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization's main activities relate to its mandate and consists of collecting, preserving, researching, exhibiting and making accessible its collection and knowledge. The museum is comprised of several permanent galleries and numerous galleries for temporary exhibitions. The CMC also houses the Canadian Children's Museum and the Canadian Postal Museum. Every year, the Museum opens approximately six large temporary exhibitions (presented for a period of six months to a year) as well as renews permanent spaces.

The exhibitions developed can be historical or thematic in nature, some are developed for an adult audience, others cater specifically to children. One of the aims of the Exhibition Development Process is to manage all allocated resources efficiently, in order to create exhibitions that meet the Museum's established standards of quality. It also serves to tangibly demonstrate the Museum's commitment to responsibility and inclusiveness, while also emphasizing teamwork.

The process followed allows for the team and all others involved at various levels in the museum "products" to understand the thinking process behind the choices involved in exhibition development. The choice of topic, the overall approach chosen, the resources required, etc, all contribute to the success of the final product.

To develop exhibitions, a special exhibition team is struck very early on in the process. That team is comprised of a curator (the content specialist), an interpretor (the visitor's advocate), a designer (in charge of the physical aspect of the exhibition) and a project manager (in charge of the coordination, budget and schedule). The various members of this Core Team share accountability throughout an exhibition project, from start to finish. Each member of the Core team is responsible and accountable and brings a specific and essential expertise to the product development - aiming to achieve excellence.

The concept of excellence in a museum context is hard to define as it is very difficult to quantify. Furthermore, the definition of excellence can vary greatly from one specialty to the next. How to combine excellence in research, design, project management and interpretation? The process we developed allow us to focus on those four main areas of exhibition development that we believe are essential in their combination. It provides clarity of intentions and clarity of objectives for our internal process. The results we aim for however is to achieve excellence in visitor experience. Shifting our attention to the visitor experience has been one of the main objectives for the creation of our exhibition development process.

Numerous expert opinions are incorporated during the exhibition development on an on-going basis but are managed by the Core Team. The process is a combined effort requiring much communication and coordination. The result is a harmonious product that is catered to a specific audience. This allows the museum to vary its offering while remaining relevant to its audiences.

The work required to achieve this goal is quite systematic. Identifying of the overarching main message and describing the visitor experience are at the upmost importance and help in the choice and development of exhibition content and themes. The interpretation and text strategy developed for each exhibition guide the team every step along the way. These documents developed by the Core Team at the beginning of each project help clarify which interpretive tools are most appropriate and how to communicate the knowledge and know-how of museum professionals. They also inform not only the members of the extended team involved in the exhibition development process but also serve as important documents to the Executive Committee. Indeed, it allows the Committee to understand and follow the projects as they are being developed and facilitates the approval process.

Communicating the exhibition's main message to the various audiences is a key challenge addressed by this process. Clarity is at the centre. The Core Team develops a product and builds a solid rational for its choices. Other Museum employees, at all levels, have access to the documents developed by the Core Team. This allows them to perform their tasks in a much more informed way. Whether it is for conservation purposes, for public programming, for public affairs, media relations, marketing, fund-raising, etc, the work involved in developing an exhibition is not only facilitated but improved by this systematic and open process. But mostly, it reminds all involved, every step of the way, that our prime focus is to create a successful, engaging, meaningful and memorable visitor experience.

View all