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The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization features Haida poles and (in the background) a Tsimshian house from the Northwest coast. (Marie-Louise Deruaz/Handout)
The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization features Haida poles and (in the background) a Tsimshian house from the Northwest coast. (Marie-Louise Deruaz/Handout)

The new Canadian Museum of History: Whose history will it tell? Add to ...

If the CMC were to be judged not by what stories Canadians might want it to tell but by the artifacts it has collected in the past, then first and foremost it is the repository of a magnificent array of first-nations objects, especially from the Northwest Coast. Despite recent additions to the historical collection, including the Richard jersey and a ceremonial last spike from the Canadian Pacific Railway, the archeological and ethnographic material that the Geological Survey of Canada first started assembling in the 19th century is still the cornerstone of the institution. That will remain powerfully symbolized by the iconic Haida and Wakas poles and the contemporary Spirit of Haida Gwaii sculpture that stand in the museum’s Grand Hall within sight of the Parliament Buildings, but does the new name and new focus reflect those strengths? Ironically, when staff stopped in Edmonton to consult the public there, native elders had but one message to relay: We want to be included in the new history galleries too.

How they did it in New Zealand

The Museum of New Zealand or Te Papa Tongarewa is a bicultural, European-Maori museum of art, artifacts and natural materials that sits on Wellington’s waterfront. The collection, housed in 36,000 square metres of space in a building designed by local architect Ivan Mercep, features hundreds of thousands of objects grouped around five themes: art, history, the natural environment, Pacific and Maori.

Te Papa (the Maori name means container of treasures) is internationally recognized for its interactive exhibits, which include a laser-light show devoted to aboriginal legends, as well as video walls and artifacts that can be handled by visitors. Its holdings include everything from a 1913 silver rowing trophy made by the Canadian jeweller Birks in Vancouver and presented to officers of the HMS New Zealand battlecruiser to the world’s largest specimen of a colossal squid, as well as numerous examples of Maori art. The museum receives more than a million visitors a year.

The result of a 1990s merger of the National Museum and the National Art Gallery, the new institution that opened in 1998 has faced several controversies. Some critics have compared the interactive exhibits to a theme park while others have questioned the wisdom of housing precious artifacts on reclaimed land in an earthquake zone. The building is erected on 150 shock absorbers and is built to withstand a one-in-250-year earthquake without suffering any damage.

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