Canadian Museum of History | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Museum of History

The Canadian Museum of History (CMH) in Gatineau, QC, is the leading museum of human history in Canada and one of the country’s oldest public institutions. Previously called the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the crown corporation’s name was changed to the Canadian Museum of History, and its mandate rewritten, in 2013. Recognized for its spectacular architecture, which is designed to reflect features of the Canadian landscape, the CMH is Canada's most visited museum, with an average 1.2 million visitors each year.
Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Museum of History on September 8, 2012 in Ottawa.


The Canadian Museum of History has a mandate to "enhance Canadians’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of events, experiences, people and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada’s history and identity, and also to enhance their awareness of world history and cultures." The museum continues to study and interpret history, with a particular emphasis on the culture and heritage of Canada's many peoples.

The museum’s current research strategy focuses on three areas of Canadian history: 20th-century and contemporary history, Aboriginal history, and social history. The 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017 occasioned the expansion and renovation of Canada Hall, a permanent exhibit since 1989, and Canadian Personalities Hall. Canadian History Hall, which opens 1 July 2017, will combine the two in a 4,500 m2 space.

Canadian Museum of History, Façade
Canadian Museum of History, located in Gatineau, Québec, on the bank of the Ottawa River (courtesy Douglas Cardinal).
Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Museum of History, designed by Douglas Cardinal (courtesy Douglas Cardinal).
Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Museum of History on September 8, 2012 in Ottawa. 31470324 \u00a9 Songquan Deng |
Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Museum of History on September 8, 2012 in Ottawa.

Exhibitions and Collections

The Canadian Museum of History contains several permanent exhibitions, including First Peoples of the Northwest Coast and From Time Immemorial — Tsimshian Prehistory in the Grand Hall; First Peoples Hall, showcasing the enduring traditions of Aboriginal peoples; the Canadian Stamp Collection (see Postage Stamps); the Canadian Children's Museum; and Canadian History Hall (open 2017). The museum also houses a 500-seat theatre for live performances and lectures and a 295-seat IMAX 3D theatre. The Canadian Museum of History has 25,000 m2 of exhibition space, more than any other museum or art gallery in Canada. In total, the complex contains over four million artifacts (218,000 of which are accessible through the museum’s online database), one boutique, three restaurants and over 500 employees (including persons who work at the Canadian War Museum).

The Canadian Museum of History corporation also oversees operations at the Canadian War Museum and the Virtual Museum of New France, which explores colonial French history in Canada (see New France).

Research and Publications

The Canadian Museum of History both contributes to and compiles collections of scholarly research on a variety of subjects. It has done so since its inception. In addition to a collection of rare and old books — including Paul-Émile BorduasRefus global (1948) and Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle-France (1744) — the CMH houses more than 60,000 books; over 2,000 journal and magazine titles; over 1,000 DVDs, CDs and videocassettes; and over 8,000 e-books and e-journals.

The museum has published its own research since it was founded in 1856. In addition to its catalogues and popular history volumes, the CMH publishes the Mercury Series. Established by the CMH in 1972 and published in partnership with the University of Ottawa Press since 2012, Mercury Series is an academic imprint for teachers and scholars that covers history, archaeology, anthropology and more.


The institutional roots of the Canadian Museum of History date back to 1841, when Queen Victoria granted £1,500 for the "creation of the Geological and Natural History Survey of the Province of Canada" (see Geological Survey of Canada). The survey was originally located in Montréal, and scholars spread out across Canada collecting geological, archaeological and biological material. After the survey’s first season, a museum was established in Montréal to showcase its geological findings; over the ensuing decades, its exhibitions travelled to London and Paris. In 1877, an Act of Parliament ensured the continued existence of the Geographical Survey, which had broadened the museum’s collection base to include botanical, zoological and ethnographic specimens and artifacts. The museum moved to Ottawa in 1881.

In 1910, a new anthropology division was established under the direction of Edward Sapir, which included two sections in charge of archaeological and ethnological fieldwork. The following year, anthropologist Marius Barbeau was hired. The museum has been a centre for research in Canadian anthropology since this period. When fire destroyed most of the Parliament Buildings in 1916, Parliament was housed in the museum building, and the museum’s collections were put in storage until 1920. In 1927, the Geological Survey became the National Museum of Canada, encompassing national collections of human history and natural history. Another notable Canadian anthropologist who worked for the museum was Diamond Jenness, a member of the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913–18), who joined the museum after the Second World War.

In 1956, the National Museum of Canada was divided into two branches (natural history and human history). Two years later, the Canadian War Museum became a division of the National Museum of Canada and expanded significantly when it took over the old Public Archives of Canada building in 1967. The National Museums of Canada Corporation was established under the National Museums Act on 1 April 1968, comprising the National Gallery, the National Museum of Man (including the Canadian War Museum), the National Museum of Natural Sciences (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) and the National Museum of Science and Technology (now the Canada Science and Technology Museum). The National Museum of Man and the National Museum of Natural Sciences continued to share the same building in Ottawa.

In 1986, the National Museum of Man changed its name to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It opened to the public on 29 June 1989 in a new building in Hull, Québec. On 1 July 1990, the Museums Act disbanded the National Museums of Canada Corporation and established four crown corporations: the Canadian Museum of Civilization; the National Gallery of Canada; the Canadian Museum of Nature; and the National Museum of Science and Technology. On 12 December 2013, the Museum of Civilization was renamed the Canadian Museum of History. The museum’s mandate also changed at this time to reflect a focus on social and political history.


The Canadian Museum of History complex was designed by architect Douglas Cardinal to reflect features of the Canadian landscape. According to Cardinal, the buildings “speak of the emergence of this continent, its forms sculptured by the winds, the rivers, the glaciers." Comprised of curving forms and undulating shells, the museum was built between 1983 and 1989. It comprises a 75,000 m2 structure located on a 9.5 ha site that overlooks the Ottawa River and Parliament Buildings from Laurier Park in Gatineau, Québec. The roof of its public Glacier Wing is built of nearly 11,000 m2 (or 90 tonnes) of copper. The exterior walls of the complex are faced with 30,000 m2 of Tyndall limestone quarried in Manitoba — enough to build 460 bungalows. The infrastructure is constructed of 56,000 m3 of cement, or enough for 8,500 truckloads, as well as 7,300 tonnes of steel, about three-quarters the weight used to build the Eiffel Tower. The dome that sits atop the IMAX theatre is 23 m in diameter and weighs 8.6 tonnes.

(See also Art Galleries and Museums.)

External Links