Foundations of Construction: Canadian museum inbued with Indigenous symbolism

Museum of History
Completed in 1989, the dramatic Canadian Museum of Civilization was the vision of Indigenous architect Douglas J. Cardinal. It is now the Canadian Museum of History. Photographer Jeff Thomas/Library and Archives Canada. ID no.3664710. Retrieved from

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

“Our buildings must be part of nature, must flow out of the land,” said Indigenous architect Douglas J. Cardinal, according to Canadian Museum of History. (CMH) “The landscape must weave in and out of them so that, even in the harshness of winter, we are not deprived of our closeness with nature.” Cardinal infused his native philosophy into the Canadian Museum of Civilization, completed in 1989, now called Canadian Museum of History.

Designing an extraordinary, earth-toned building with curves and undulating lines, Cardinal’s architectural work culminated in “one of the most unusual aboriginal buildings in the country,” said Quebec Heritage Web. (QHW) Constructing the museum in two sections, the four floors compose the exhibition gallery wing, and the curatorial wing is home to over 5,000,000 artifacts. The museum is a trove of First Nations and Canadian treasures.

The first of eight children of Joseph Cardinal and Frances Margaret Rache, Douglas Cardinal was born in Calgary in 1934, and grew up in Red Deer, Alberta. His father was game warden with Siksika (Blackfoot) heritage; his mother was born into a Métis clan. Attending St. Joseph’s Convent Residential School, the creative boy “was immersed in literature, and the fine arts of drawing and music,” noted Joan Alc and Branka Baic-bender in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Attending the architecture program at University of British Columbia, Cardinal completed his training at Texas School of Architecture, graduating with honours in 1963. The student combined his training with “his experience of the terrain of Western Canada, in particular the Plains and Alberta’s Badlands, in the development of the curvilinear massing that is a signatory feature of his buildings.” Focussing on nature, sustainability, and ecology, Cardinal’s appealing designs attracted an abundance of projects and a wealth of awards.

Most of the architect’s early projects were based in western Canada. Cardinal’s architectural company was an early adopter of Computer Aided Drafting and Design technology (CADD) to complete drawings. “By 1981, he was identified as a world pioneer and leader of CADD, and his firm was selected by the federal government as a demonstration site to test and advance Canadian CADD technology,” said Alc and Baic-bender.

Recognizing Cardinal’s immense skill, the government hired him in 1983 to design the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Strategically located in Hull, now Gatineau, Quebec, the awe-inspiring building is opposite the Parliament Buildings on the Ottawa River. In 2013, the museum’s mandate was expanded, and the building renamed Canadian Museum of History.

Expressing symbolism throughout, the architect imbued the building with circular designs. Honouring the region’s history, Cardinal designed “a sculptural monument to the distinctive landscape that faced the first people to come to Canada, in the epoch when the Ice Age glaciers were receding,” said CMH. The site retained the ancient stream, “echoed in the watercourse flowing down between the two wings.” The curatorial wing was designed with dramatic curves, symbolizing “an image of the outcropping bedrock of the Canadian Shield.”

In 1984, construction began on the approximately 100,000-sq. m. museum. The entrance design was breathtaking. Featuring a curving glass wall measuring 112m x 15m, the spacious Grand Hall resembled a canoe in its outline. Visitors were immediately introduced to “43 enormous totem poles (the largest indoor collection in the world) that soar high overhead the entire length of the gallery,” stated QHW. The totems represent six Indigenous clans from British Columbia. More Indigenous history is found in the First People’s Hall, opened in 2003.

About 56,000 cu. m. of cement and 7,300 tonnes of steel were used for construction. Rather than Cardinal’s favoured material of brick for exteriors, he selected Tyndall limestone for the façade, quarried in Manitoba. The stone is easily carved and yet durable, and expands on another period of history—“the embedded fossils provide an element of visual surprise in the sculpture,” described CMH.

Nearly 90 tonnes of copper covered the exhibition wing roof and the expansive domes. “The dome that sits atop the IMAX theatre is 23 m in diameter and weighs 8,6 tonnes,” said Pierre Pontbriand and Eli Yarhi in The Canadian Encyclopedia. The IMAX theatre seats 295 viewers. Another live-performance theatre in the museum seats 500.

Construction was difficult. The initial budget of approximately $80 million did not stretch far enough, the 1986 deadline for completion was too short, and labour disputes caused delays. All options were considered but rejected, including leaving part unfinished or lowering standards. Cardinal was considered a complex man who insisted his projects be completed to high standards.

Transferring the struggling project to the Department of Public Works, a thorough review determined that construction was underfunded. Increasing the budget, the beautiful Canadian Museum of Civilization was completed in 1989.

Immersed in Canadian history, over one million visitors enjoy the museum annually, delighting in Douglas Cardinal’s spectacular architecture, the picturesque site, and the engaging exhibitions.

© 2023 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.Suggested Image:


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