Royal Canadian Geographical Society maps a new future in a shiny new location

John Geiger is leading the Royal Canadian Geographical Society into a brighter future in a new location. Photo: Peter Robb

The former Canada and the World pavilion was always a building with a breathtaking view and no occupant. It is on Sussex Drive right beside Rideau Falls, overlooking the Ottawa River and the Gatineau River and Hills. It is, as John Geiger says, sitting on a great piece of geography.

Fnally, however, the beautiful building in need of meaning has a tenant with a purpose.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society assumed operational control of the space last year and this past summer has moved in fully and completely.

For the “venerable” society, founded in 1929, this venue is just what the doctor ordered, said Geiger, who is the CEO of the society.

After spending a decade in a strip mall at 1155 Lola St. in Overbrook, the new location gives the society an opportunity to do what it was started to do: spread the word about the human and physical geography that make up this country. The society publishes the Canadian Geographic magazine (in English and in French) along with a travel magazine.

The new home of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at 50 Sussex Dr. Photo: Peter Robb

In recent years, they have raised their profile with projects such as a contest to name a national bird for Canada. The magazine is a formidable base with about 140,000 subscribers. And there are about 1,000 Fellows of the society including the writer Margaret Atwood and the well-known actor Paul Gross.

But the pavilion gives the society a chance to tell stories in a different way, Geiger said in an interview. In addition to the magazines, the society supports expeditions and makes research grants available.

And a major part of their work these days, Geiger said, is education.

“It has exploded in past five years. There is a huge appetite for information about Canada and about geography. We find that teachers are crying out for material. They seem desperate to be equipped to teach something they believe is very important.”

The society has  four teachers on staff who help develop curriculum materials that tell relevant stories about such things as residential schools.

But Lola Street was not the best possible location.

“We were in a strip mall next to a welding supply outfitter and a sports organization,” he said.

“It seemed like there was room for a bigger vision for us. When you look at the Royal Geographical Society in London, England, and the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. which is two blocks from the White House, they have wonderful venues that have public facees. They have exhibition spaces.

“We felt we wanted to do the same sort of thing. Canada, is, if nothing else, geography. We felt we had a great story to tell, we just needed a place to tell it.

“And this space just cried out for a tenant that had a national purpose and mandate.”

So the society pitched the Harper government and the National Capital Commission and the rest is er … geography history.

They worked closely with the NCC to imagine “what the building is and how it should be used. As part of that we will host free exhibitions,” he said.

In so doing they society is not setting itself up in competition to the museums in the capital.

“We see ourselves as very much complementary. Ottawa is one of great museum cities in world. We didn’t think we would be another museum and that is not what we are. We do want people to visit. We do want people to understand who we are and what we are up to. And we want them to experience subjects that are relevant to them and their world.”

There are three shows on this summer: Compass by Hilde Lambrechts, which is an art installation located on the grounds of 50 Sussex Dr.; Explore, which showcases works by the contemporary Canadian artist Chris Cran and Lessons from the Arctic, which displays artifacts connected to the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen.

“Everything we do is going to be consistent with our organization. For example, Lessons from the Arctic tells a very important story of how the Inuit communicated their knowledge and survival techniques to a European explorer who was very assiduous in recording and learning. He was open to the lessons of the Inuit and applied them in his journey to the South Pole. Amundsen would not had success he had without those lessons,” Geiger said.

“It’s a Canadian story, a Norwegian story and an Inuit story. It’s a story that has world ramifications. So it’s a natural great story for us to tell. It’s an example of the kind of story we can do well.”

The Cran exhibition is even more closely connected to the society and what it does.

“He has taken 10 figures of exploration in Canada, all of whom are associated with us.”

Included in the portraits are the founder of the society Charles Camssell, J.B. Tyrrell, and Arthur Philemon Coleman, who explored the Rocky Mountains. There are modern people as well such as Wade Davis and Roberta Bondar.

These are Canadians who have done important things but people may not know their names.

As far as Geiger is concerned that’s a gap that the society wants to fill.

“There has been a great emphasis placed on the early European explorers such as Cartier and Champlain. But a lot of the most significant meat and potatoes work that has been done in Canada has been done by organizations such as the Geological Survey of Canada, the Canadian Space Agency and by the Canadian Coast Guard.

“All the people portrayed in the exhibit are Canadian explorers. They have done really important and significant research on things like ice or geology.

“We want to shift the conversation to focus more on the work of people like Camssell and Tyrrell who made enormous contributions but are not well known.

When Camsell founded the society the goal was “to be popular by nature.” It was never meant to be elitist or solely academic. It was meant to communicate information about Canada to Canadians. It was to be Canada’s answer to the National Geographic magazine.

The 1920s in Canada was a period of nationalist sentiment. Artists and thinkers were considering the meaning of a Canadian identity. Included in the list of fellows of the society were people such as A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven and Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin.

It involved francophones too with the great Marius Barbeau, who is considered the founder of Canadian anthropology and Joseph-Elzear Bernier, who Geiger calls the greatest polar explorer.

Going forward the society will present exhibitions every summer and during the fall and winter they will host a lecture series in their 300-seat amphitheatre, along with other events. The pavilion is also available for outside events when the society is not using it.

This coming season will feature four, maybe five lectures but it will starting with a talk given by Michael Palin, the actor, comedian and explorer, in October. Palin is a former president of the Royal Geographical Society.

The building itself has an interesting path. It was built to showcase the country to visiting dignitaries by the Jean Chretien government. It is set on top of a former lab of the National Research Council, the remains of which are exposed in the underground part of the building where the society’s offices and Reading Room are located.

For Geiger, his connection to the society begins with his grandfather William Gilchrist, who was the chairman of Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. and president of Northern Transportation Co. Ltd. Gilchrist received the society’s Massey Medal in 1975.

Geiger himself was encouraged to play a role in the early 2000s. The former journalist had written books on Franklin. A colleague of his grandfather suggested he join and he did. He worked his way up the ranks as a volunteer ending up as president of the society.

In 2007-8, the society went through a financial crisis that threatened its existence. It survived thanks to the leadership of then-CEO Andre Prefontaine, who would hand the reins to Geiger.

The society has survived and now is poised to thrive in a building no one wanted.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.