The National Gallery, or Musee des Beaux-Arts (everything in Ottawa is bi-lingually identified) is a dazzling building, on the river just east of Parliament Hill, where its glass tower repeats the shape of the Gothic towers of the Parliament buildings. The permanent collection covers European Musee des Beaux-Arts and Canadian art from the late middle ages to the present.
It's an excellent collection of works from many styles and eras. One of the treats of visiting many art museums is that each one will have a different work by the masters. Here we saw Van Gogh's Iris, its leaves and bloom outlined in heavy darker shades, very deliberately beautiful; Daumier's Third-Class Carriage, with the working-class passengers stoically traveling along; Leger was represented by a stylized man, tatooed and brilliantined. The Canadian art was another treat: landscapes and portraits and folk celebrations in many styles.
The building is built to heroic proportions, and can easily display large works of art. But unlike the Louvre (which is also built to heroic proportions) the Canadian National Gallery is not warm and inviting. This might be because many of the walls are bare of art, or because some of the walls are unfinished concrete, or because there aren't enough interesting corners and curves and crannies in the building. We are still Leger: Le mecanicien, 1918 wondering about a number of port holes placed in some of the side walls. One looks through the hole and sees a shiny surface, a mirror image of another porthole, and some unlit fluorescent bulbs. It might be art, but if so, we could not find an identification of the work or its artist. Similarly it might be architecture as art, but the same comment applies. It remains for us, the mysterious porthole.
The next day, we looked for a different kind of museum. We should have realized, when the ticket-taker asked "Only the two of you?" that we were missing something. What we were missing was a small child, preferably a toddler. Ottawa may be the only national capital with an experimental farm and Agriculture Museum located within the city limits, and this museum was just made for children. We toured the stables, where Belgian horses and Clydesdales were being given their morning brushing. Sheep and goats and pigs and rabbits filled the small animal barn, and cattle could be found both indoors and out. The Dairy Barn was perhaps the most interesting, with its rows of cows lined up digesting. The one sight that might have appealed to grownups -- the Cereal Barn -- was closed. In fact we saw more agriculture explanations in the next day's museum! Agriculture Museum and Farm
Our favorite (and the most thought-provoking) museum of the three is the Museum of Civilization. This building is even more impressive architecturally than the National Gallery. It's larger, and accommodates as well the Postal Museum and the Children's Museum. In this case, however, the architect has planned the museum for the display of enormous totem poles, as well as balconies looking down on the tops of displays, so the architecture blends with the exhibits almost seamlessly.
A significant portion of the museum is devoted to First Nation cultures, with a number of typical native dwelling constructed as adjoining museum rooms on the first floor. Clothing, art and religious objects, handicrafts, tools, boats are displayed. Three special exhibits highlighted the Italian and French presence in Canada, the French as the first wave of European settlers and the Italians as more recent (largely post-1947) immigrants who have brought their folkways to their new homeland. The third special exhibit featured the Inuit of the north who live not far from the North Pole.
On the third floor, the major permanent exhibit chronicles the history of Canada, from the days of the Vikings and European fishermen through the explorations of Queen Elizabeth's day to the settlement first by the French, then the British. The emphasis is mostly on how people lived, with Museum of Civilization entrance discussions of the development of Confederation limited to short explanations, but the drama of the growth of the country is beautifully told, with life-size rooms, many objects, many videos and films.
As we neared the end of this exhibit and found a charming small room with souvenirs of Canada throughout the years, we realized what a treasure-trove of objects the museum owns. It is, in some respects, Canada's Smithsonian, which is also attested by the very large neighboring building devoted to museum operations.
Perhaps the most interesting exhibit of all was the story of Martin Frobisher, who sailed from England in 1576 on his first voyage in search of a water route to China. In the northern part of Canada he discovered a large bay, and his explorations on land nearby (which turned out to be Baffin Island) produced some ore which he carried back to England. It was thought that this ore contained a rich vein of gold, so getting funding for the second voyage was much easier. He brought several ships this time, and miners who loaded 200 tons of the mystery ore to ship back to England. Queen Elizabeth named this new land "Meta Incognita", and a gold rush seemed about to begin, until further tests showed the ore to be worthless. Frobisher's name is attached to several places in northern Canada, but none of them have proven to be mineral-rich. And Baffin Island remains very sparsely populated.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization reminded us, in spirit, of the Museum of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, with two main differences: (1) Canada is a huge piece of real estate, and there is truly an amazing diversity of cultures living together in this nation; and (2) Texans have (generally) amalgamated into a single Texas culture, whereas Canada is distinguished by the continuing diversity of its population. Items at a potlatch
Of course we must do some nitpicking. A museum of culture and civilization should stress the demographics; the only place we saw this done was in describing the ethnic mix of the prairie settlers. In particular, we believe (although we don't have the figures to back this up) that the government spends a disproportionate amount of money on some small ethnic and cultural minorities.
Which brings us to a second point: it is rare to find a museum of history that provides a good explanation of the economic forces operating to shape history; the dollars and cents of things can lead to a sensible (if not always approving) understanding of why certain decisions have been made.
A third point is that the museum points out that Canada has passed a multicultural law affording equality of opportunity to all Canadians. Yet such a law is obviously unenforceable, because opportunities are limited and constrained by the childhood environment; thus a child of a particular Canadian culture cannot possibly enjoy the same opportunities as a child raised in a different Canadian culture. So we rather feel that the American words of "equal protection of the laws" presents a more practical standard than the legal guarantee of "equality of opportunity" in Canada. To us this is a symptom of Canadian's foolish concern with political correctness. Of course all multicultural nations are encountering Sheaves of grain! social problems; we do not mean to imply the U.S. has achieved a better record of tolerance and understanding -- it has not.
All of these points are important, and the museum -- which celebrates Canada's diversity -- does little to explain the historical clashes between French and English and the very real possibility that the entire country may fragment, beginning with a positive separatist vote in Quebec. Indeed, one leaves the museum feeling a rather Pollyanna-ish celebration in Canada's marvelous cultural diversity.
The problems of cultural dissonance are the most important issues confronting the world today, leading to mass emigration, religious war, genocide and crowds of refugees. One western nation's struggle to confront competing cultures does not answer the larger problem of how the nations and peoples of the world will learn to live in peace and harmony. But that's a topic best handled outside of the museum.