Canadian Museum of History: Face to face with the past of this land in soon-to-open History Hall

An ivory carving between 3,900 and 3,600 years old — the oldest known depiction of a human face in Canada. Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

It’s not the smallest, nor the biggest, nor the oldest artifact in the new showcase hall at the Museum of History, but it is, perhaps, the most evocative, for it is the oldest depiction of a human face yet found in the land that would become Canada.

“The First Face,” found on Devon Island in the high Arctic, was carved from ivory at least 3,600 years ago, and it is exquisite. It’s a few centimetres tall, with deep lines that are worked into it, perhaps to represent the facial tattoos that some Inuit women still wore until only a few decades ago. The face is a subtle reminder of how indigenous people were on the land for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Not far away in the new, expansive Canadian History Hall is the first known depiction of a European in the western hemisphere, a small figure wrought by an Inuit carver almost 2,400 years later, around 1350.

An Inuit carving of a European, dated to around AD 1350 — the earliest depiction of a European in the Western Hemisphere. Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization

There are many stories in the hundreds of objects that make up the sprawling collection, which is spread over 4,000 square metres on two floors and was “the most ambitions exhibition project ever undertaken by the museum,” the notes say. The emotional feelings engendered by the objects and displays will depend on each viewer’s heritage, experience and beliefs, but other sensations may be more universal — and they start at the very beginning of the exhibition.

The hallway that leads to the three galleries — which cover 15,000 years from the “dawn of human habitation to the present day” — is lined with 101 silhouettes of people, symbols and landmarks that flicker by as a viewer passes, as if walking through a giant flip book of images, as if time is passing.

The “passageway” leads to “the hub,” a rotunda that was designed, like the museum was, by the Ottawa-based architect Douglas Cardinal. The hub’s ceiling, suspended below the giant dome that hangs over the History Hall, echoes the canoe-shaped ceiling of the museum’s Great Hall. The walls of the hub are rounded and seem to flow, creating a sense of the swirling waters of the nearby Chaudiere Falls in the Ottawa River, the site of much indigenous and, later, settler history. Together, the passageway and the hub create a physical sensation of movement, as if the entire structure can be brought to life by the mere pedestrian motions of the visitor.

The history found in the hall begins with the creation story of the Algonquin people, and an animated map that shows the slow retreat of the ice sheet that 15,000 years ago covered what would be Canada. As the ice melts the land itself ebbs and flows, emerging out of the water in some parts and disappearing in others (Prince Edward Island was chopped out of New Brunswick only 6,500 years ago).

With 15 millennia to cover, the pace moves quickly, through fossils (a tooth from a beaver that must have been big enough to dam the St. Lawrence), to arrowheads, tools, weapons and pieces of art. A diorama brings to life Piikani “buffalo runners” who would stampede herds of bison over a cliff at the place known as Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, in Southern Alberta. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, though the fall from the cliff top, once 20 metres, is now closer to 10 due to the immense pile of buffalo bones at its foot.

The first rooms of the exhibition are the exclusive domain of the first peoples, sensibly enough, as they were the only people here, but there is no segregation of “Native” and “European” histories in the later rooms.

“It’s a full, comprehensive integration of that storyline from start to finish,” says museum CEO Mark O’Neill. “I do think that’s a radical departure.”

The storylines are intertwined and unflinching — some viewers may find parts of it be blunt  and even upsetting. Such is history, warts and all, from the disease and destruction brought by the first settlers, to the explosion of Acadians, to the sanctioned tragedy of residential schools, and the official suppression of the rights of women and LGBTQ Canadians.

Later artifacts range from the sad to the celebrated: from a soapstone sculpture of a Mountie shooting Inuit sled dogs (artist unknown, but possibly still alive) to Randy Bachman’s guitar. There’s a journal of Champlain’s exploration of Canada, and a portrait of Thomas D’Arcy McGee that the member of Parliament never saw, as he was assassinated on Sparks Street two days before it was to be revealed, on his birthday.

Guitar played by Randy Bachman, of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, while recording hits such as These Eyes and Takin’ Care of Business. Photo: Canadian Museum of History

Some artifacts, intentionally or otherwise, show what Canadians share even as they are different. A long, white dress is emblazoned with red maple leafs, stitched there by a young Marjorie Gehl, who wore it to official functions with her father, a Canadian diplomat in New Orleans. Nearby is a far more ornate outfit, the powwow regalia that Mi’kmaq dancer Amanda Larocque took two years to make, and then wore as part of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

In these fabrics, these beads, these threads, a nation yet young and often divided is bound by the undeniable beauty created by the hands of two young women who never met.

The new Canadian History Hall opens on July 1, the nation’s 150th birthday. (ARTSFILE has more images here.)

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.