Photo credit: © John Whelan, May 22, 2010.

The Re-Opening of the Canadian Museum of Nature and their new Lantern tower

by John Whelan

The Canadian Museum of Nature is showcased in the "Victoria Memorial Museum Building", located at 240 McLeod Street (at Metcalfe) in Ottawa.

The museum has a rich and fascinating history.

The land which this museum rests on was originally owned by farmer.  It was purchased by the Government of Canada and work began in 1905 to build a castle out of sandstone which was designed by chief architect and designer, David Ewart.  According to the Canadian Museum of Nature website, the castle "was intended to mirror the Centre Block of Canada's Parliament Buildings, due north of the museum's site.  Both buildings share similar stonework on the facade and, at one time, shared a similar tower.  Unfortunately, in 1915, the top of the museum's tower was removed because the foundation could not sustain the tower's weight." 

This is because the land on which the castle was built rests on marshy ground.  I suspect back then the soft clay was something unknown (or perhaps unproven because of primitive technology) to the government when they purchased it.  But today, a visitor to the museum can easily verify how far into the ground the building has sunk by examining the basement windows.  The basement windows are no longer at ground level, they are much deeper into the ground.  I recalled about this problem as far back as 1960 when I was a 5-year-old visiting the museum for the first time.

What this writer didn't know back then is that in 1916 the building "became the emergency headquarters for the Canadian government after the Parliament Buildings were consumed by a great fire" writes the Canadian Museum of Nature website.  It remained that way for the next four years until the new Parliament Buildings were built.  This historical information is displayed inside the museum's Lantern tower. 

In another bit of unusual museum history, in 1919 the body of Sir Wilfrid Laurier rested in state in the museum's auditorium.  He was Canada's seventh Prime Minister.

The museum first opened to the general public in 1912.  "Through its 100-year history, it has housed the collections and exhibits of the Geological Survey of Canada, the National Gallery of Canada, the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) and the National Museum of Natural Sciences (now the Canadian Museum of Nature)," writes

May 22, 2010 is "International Day for Biological Diversity" and this day was chosen as a backdrop to re-open the Canadian Museum of Nature.  It is announced at the official ceremony the restoration costs (including the Lantern) to the Federal government came in at $216 million "leaving the museum to raise its “gallery-development” funds from private, mostly corporate sources," writes the Globe and Mail.  Media reports all agree about the actual figure for private funding: "Support for the development of the new signature galleries, national travelling exhibitions and educational programs was generated through the museum's Natural Partnerships Campaign, which has received its $12-million goal with the announcement today of two new $1-million contributions," wrote  The final tally for the rejuvenation of the museum came in at $250 million.
This writer agrees with the investment: the former layout and footpath of the museum was always very predictable and much of it back then wasn't even a "hands-on" experience for kids.  But today that's all changed.  The museum's fresh facelift includes three new themes: RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) Blue Water Gallery; the Animalium; and the Vale Earth Gallery.  The museum provides the visitor with more space to view things without having that feeling of overcrowding. 

But getting there and getting the job done became a bit of a political juggernaut for senior museum officials to deal with.  Restoration of stonework and windows commenced in 1989 because the museum had cracks and it was leaking.  The roof of the museum was in bad shape as well.  The Toronto Star reported that "[t]he big remake didn’t come along until 2001, when then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien approved a top-to-bottom overhaul.  Subsequent PM’s — Paul Martin and Stephen Harper — both tried to kill the scheme, but by then, it was too far along to halt."

With restoration well under way, a new piece of architecture was being added to the building: the stunning glass Lantern.  "This structure replaces the original stone tower that was removed in 1915, and houses an essential new staircase to the upper three floors, a functional need that was resolved with the renovations," writes  "Behind the scenes, more than 4 million pounds of steel were installed to reinforce the building in event of an earthquake, while an interior "buffer zone" wall in the new gallery spaces ensures control of temperature and humidity to preserve the unique natural treasures on exhibit," it went on to say in their report.

The Lantern is playing an important role during the three-day re-opening celebrations: Sunday, between 7:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m., a Tribute to Light Event takes place throughout the museum.  Activities include "costume lantern people, stilt walkers, Dr. Kaboom and his fire spinning spectacle (featuring Acacia Lyra harpists / singer Natalia Spirina and Andrei Krylov on guitar), the award-winning choire from the De La Salle school, actors in fairy costumes and more!" wrote the Museum of Nature leaflet.  This is a build up for the Lighting of the Lantern at 10:00 p.m. which is described in their leaflet as "a spectacular sound and light show in the Museum's new Lantern, choreographed to create a moving and unforgettable experience for all."  Best viewed locations for the event: Exterior Front Entrance / Lantern / Atrium of the museum.

The third day of festivities is a salute to the Victoria Day celebrations; a great big cake-cutting ceremonies and a Victorian Tulip Tea party.

The rejuvenation of the museum has already proved itself successful.  According to OttawaStart website, the 1st day of celebrations by 7:00 p.m. drew 12,000 visitors which is a record number for a single day at the museum.   When questioned about the total attendance figure during the long-weekend festivities at the museum, "We are guestimating about 35,000 for the weekend but final numbers not in yet," wrote Elizabeth McCrea, Manager of Communication Services in an e-mail correspondence to this website proprietor.*

The Canadian Museum of Nature boasts world-class permanent galleries:

Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery
RBC Blue Water Gallery
Mammal Gallery
Vale Earth Gallery
Bird Gallery

Special exhibitions (until September 6, 2010) are:

Aqua: A Journey Into the World of Water
Frogs: A Chorus of Colours
Canadian Wildlife Photography of the Year

And finally, this interesting comment by Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star: "...thanks to a major makeover, we will be able to see more of the 10.5 million objects in its collection than ever before. That collection, 150 years in the making, includes 24 discreet categories ranging from botany and earth science to animals and insects."

With files from: “Canadian Museum of Nature Unveils Renewed Historic Public Exhibitions Site”, May 23, 2010.

Canadian Museum of Nature: “Grand Reopening – Weekend Activities & Events” leaflet

Canadian Museum of Nature website: “Museum History” and “Birthplace of National Museums”

The Toronto Star: “Hume: Newly renovated museum of Nature opens”, May 21, 2010

Globe and Mail: “Canadian Museum of Nature sports $250-million makeover” by James Bradshaw, May 19, 2010

OttawaStart website: "Canadian Museum of Nature - record number of visitors attend 1st day of Grand Reopening", May 23, 2010

*E-mail correspondence from Elizabeth McCrea, Manager of Communication Services, Canadian Museum of Nature, May 25, 2010.  This page was updated on
June 12, 2010.

External link:

The Canadian Museum of Nature's official website