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museum of nature

The institution's makeover means that a blue-whale skeleton, donated to the museum in 1975, can go on display for the first time.Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail

The renovations at the Canadian Museum of Nature were less a cosmetic nip and tuck than emergency surgery. Its historic site on Ottawa's McLeod Street had the architectural equivalent of a broken back, its wings cracking and sinking around the building's stone spine.

The Tudor-Gothic architecture sitting on soft Leda clay had gradually become a lopsided disaster, complete with increasingly uneven floors and slanted window frames.

"The building was really in sad shape," says Maureen Dougan, the museum COO who has spearheaded its $250-million revival. "Some cracks were so large I walked through them."

On Saturday, Canada's oldest national museum will fully re-open with a three-day celebration after six years of renovations and partial closings. So complex was the task set for PKG Joint Venture Architects, a consortium including Bruce Kuwabara of Toronto's KPMB and Ottawa-based Barry Padolsky, that to fully close the museum would only have saved about six months. The central conundrum was stabilizing the building with a steel "endoskeleton" composed of 1.8 million kilograms of seismic steel.

As it happens, the building will open its doors bang on time, on Biodiversity Day, in Biodiversity Year, exactly 100 years after the building was completed. And the renovation is the "first major breakthrough" for the Museum of Nature in a very long time, points out CEO Joanne DiCosimo.

It has rarely enjoyed the high profile of some of the other museums and galleries dotted across the Ottawa region, and it was only 13 years ago that it took control of its current research facility in Aylmer, Que., putting the museum's scientific staff and collections in one place. Until then, they were scattered among 12 or 13 buildings in Ottawa, divided by department.

"It was really the first time you could have a staff meeting," DiCosimo says.

Today, the museum has a new-found maturity, its new climate-controlled galleries full of artifacts from its 10-million-specimen collection, which couldn't be featured in the drafty halls of the old building.

"It's completely different. People will not recognize it," says Dougan.

That is, on the inside: The exterior remains largely unaltered, crookedness and all, with two exceptions. The first is a south-side extension containing a much-needed loading dock, the roof of which doubles as an outdoor patio.

"We used to put exhibits through windows with cranes," says Jonathan Ferrabee, a senior exhibit designer, shaking his head.

Then there's the "Lantern," the new structure's flashiest element. This light-filled glass tower replaces the original stone tower, torn down in 1915 because its weight was literally tugging down the rest of the building. The Lantern is practical as well as pretty, linking the second, third and fourth-floor galleries with a scissoring "Butterfly" staircase.On the inside, much of the restoration work went into the atrium, the hub that links every artery of the museum. The marble, floors, plaster and railings have all been refreshed or replaced and the atrium's original soft yellow-beige paint colour restored. The building has also been properly "wired," expanding technological possibilities for distance education and collaboration with other museums.

Millions have been spent to rework and expand the galleries. The Blue Water, Earth and Animalium galleries debut this weekend and three others - fossils, mammals and birds - were phased in during construction. The museum's star attraction is a 19.8-metre-long blue whale skeleton (the whale was found dead in Newfoundland in 1975), which couldn't be displayed until now.

The atrium has always been a destination for wedding photos, but a new dining salon and plush boardroom have been added with an eye to generating more rental revenue, which hasn't always been a top priority for a Crown corporation that gets nearly all of its $30-million budget from the government.

A spike in attendance could also help the bottom line. The museum was drawing about 250,000 visitors a year before the redesign, but dipped as low as 100,000 while partially closed before returning to previous levels last year. DiCosimo expects some 350,000 people to visit this year.

From a heritage standpoint, the Museum of Nature was not something to be neglected. It has variously housed several museums and galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada, and hosted Parliament for four years after the Parliament buildings burned down in 1916.

So the federal government dutifully footed the $216-million bill for the structural updates, leaving the museum to raise its "gallery-development" funds from private, mostly corporate sources.

Soon, the museum's leadership will change as well. DiCosimo retires on July 5 and newly elected board chair Florence Minz is hoping the sparkling new digs will help lure someone with scientific credibility, but also entrepreneurial vigour, to shape its future.

"This has moved the museum, a national treasure, a quantum jump forward," Minz says.