When the temperature is well below zero outside, Ottawa offers numerous indoor attractions including a plethora of national museums and the national art gallery. Over the years I have had a chance to visit almost all of them, and with ever-changing temporary exhibitions, all of them are worth returning to.
On a recent mid-winter visit to Canada’s capital city, with an $8 day bus pass in hand, I took advantage of the $20 ticket that provides access to both the Canadian Museum of History (formerly and mostly still known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization), and the Canadian War Museum.
The Canadian Museum of History is a massive complex in Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa. You can catch bus #8 in Ottawa and it will take you to the front door (but check with the driver, not every bus on this route goes as far as the museum).
Perhaps the most famous aspect of this museum, beyond the Alberta Badlands-evoking shape of the building itself, is the Grand Hall. This large and dramatic space features totem poles and building facades that represent the construction styles and tell the stories of the first peoples of the Northwest Coast. The buildings are arranged along a raised walkway/beachfront, and inside each is an exhibition that further displays and describes everyday and ceremonial aspects of Northwest Coast First Nations culture.
On the same level is the First Peoples Hall, described as Canada’s “largest permanent exhibition on the history, diversity and contributions of Canada’s First Peoples.” There is much to see and read about First Nations life from coast to coast to coast.
The other main permanent exhibition area is the third floor and mezzanine that focuses on the broad history of Canada, from pre-contact to present day, including a whaling station, turn-of-the-century village, depictions of wars and rebellions, and the nature of immigration over the years. Loads of information on the people and personalities who shaped the idea of Canada over the years.
The second floor is given over to temporary exhibitions. The mini-exhibition on snow was not that interesting to me; what caught my attention was the exhibition that explored the history and rituals associated with Vodou. Numerous objects, audio recordings, film clips, and descriptions were used to help people understand the origins and worldview of those who practice Vodou. I’d highly recommend this exhibition but it was closing soon after my visit. Maybe it will tour.
Back on the #8 bus which conveniently passes by the side of the equally massive Canadian War Museum. The exhibition space is divided into four major chronological phases in the history of war in, or involving, Canada: wars in Canada up to 1885, wars involving Canada as a Commonwealth nation, the Second World War, and a final gallery that looks at Canada’s role in the Cold War, peacekeeping, and recent conflicts around the world. Within each there are themed sections that examine specific battles, wars, equipment used, the role of artists and the media, and military alliances.
There is also an open exhibition area featuring the heavy equipment of war: trucks, artillery, tanks, boats and warplanes. Perhaps a bit too much killing technology in one place for my peace-activist mind to take, but overall the museum is well worth a visit.