Nature and Nation: The Bedrock of Identity at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

By Hanks, Laura Hourston | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Nature and Nation: The Bedrock of Identity at the Canadian Museum of Civilization


Hanks, Laura Hourston, British Journal of Canadian Studies


With 'the creation of a symbol of national pride and identity' as the main programmatic objective, no later-twentieth-century Canadian building project reveals a more explicit agenda of homogeneous nation-building than the Canadian Museum of Civilization at Ottawa. Since opening in 1989, the museum building has received a largely favourable reception from both press and profession. However, within the multi-ethnic context of late-twentieth-century Canada, the creation of a physical monument to symbolise a cohesive or unilateral national imagination was undeniably both challenging and contentious, and this article considers the uniting agency of the architectural fabric in this reflection and/or creation of national consciousness. A particular aspect of the design is argued to be the representation of ethnic and national identities in relation to the museum's immediate urban, civic contect, as well as the wider geographical and cultural context.

Geography and identity. These two words seem to best describe the ebb-and-flow of Douglas Cardinal's ... Canadian Museum of Civilization. (Hammett 1989: 16)

WITH 'THE CREATION of a symbol of national pride and identity' defined as one of its principal architectural aims, few, if indeed any, later-twentieth-century Canadian buildings reveal a stronger agenda of nation-building than the Canadian Museum of Civilization.1 The museum, which was opened in Gatineau, Hull, in 1989, forms the subject of this article. The article will ask how the architect, Douglas Cardinal, and his firm, TSE, in collaboration with the Montreal firm of Tétreault Parent Languedoc and Associates, attempted to create an architecture capable of engendering 'national understanding and identity', a key directive of the Architectural Programme Synopsis (Architecture and Planning Group 1983: 2). Apparent motives, as well as more hidden and charged motives for the aesthetic representation of nation will be explored, before conclusions are drawn.

The Architect and Commission

Douglas Joseph Henry Cardinal was born in Calgary in 1934, and had a turbulent and impecunious childhood in and around the town of Red Deer, Alberta. Geography and identity are central to his personal story, as well as that of his Museum of Civilization. The vivid landscape of his childhood appears to have become fixed indelibly in his consciousness, influencing his architectural sensibilities and underpinning his subsequent designs. Identity was equally significant. He was partly of Blackfoot origin, although his family never acknowledged this ancestry, being fully integrated into the non-native community. Others were aware of his origins, however, and his private perception and later public image of himself as an 'outsider', along with his fierce determination to succeed, were fuelled by a series of injustices.2 After a somewhat difficult start to his career, Cardinal finally graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1963. It was not until the early 1970s that he seriously addressed his Native roots, engaging with 'Indian' and Métis political issues and exploring Native religion.

Out of this period of spiritual renewal came an almost complete makeover: new image, new politics, new clothes, new language. After having spent an entire life avoiding any trace of his Native ancestry, he confronted it with a vengeance, transforming every aspect of his being - social, spiritual, political, and professional. (Boddy 1989: 52)

As a result, 'the architecture of Douglas Cardinal must be seen within these ... contexts: natural landscapes and the human sensibilities that interpret them ... and, most of all, the biographical forces that permit and deny' (p. 10).

Cardinal's first solo commission, for St Mary's Catholic Church in Red Deer, set the standard, in terms of both process and product, for the architect's future work. Here he engaged in much discussion with the client user-group, employed structural and conceptual three-dimensional modelling techniques as part of the design process, used the most sophisticated US computers to solve the building's structural complexity, and took a lengthy period of nearly two years to reiteratively work on and complete the design. …

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