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21st century enlightenment at the Museum of Nature
January 03, 2010 | Maria Cook | Ottawa Citizen

‘When Canada’s Parliament decided to build the Victoria Memorial Museum building in 1901, the task of creating a design fell to the federal government’s chief architect David Ewart.

This was Canada’s first national museum and Ewart designed the entry experience to express the purpose of the new institution: enlightenment and learning.

When the building opened in 1912, visitors entered a dimly lit Gothic vestibule with stone vaulting and stone walls and then moved through into a naturally lit atrium “which was lofty and which represented enlightenment,” explains Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky.

“The light-filled hall represents the pursuit of knowledge,” he says. “This was the visitor experience envisioned by Ewart.”

Ewart’s vision has been fulfilled once again, as part of a five-year rehabilitation and expansion that comes to an end in January.

The museum plans a grand re-opening in May, fittingly set for the Victoria Day weekend.

The $216-million federally funded project has renewed the historic features of the building, including mosaic floors, marble stair treads and wainscotting, and stonework.

It has also brought the castle-like structure up to modern standards with new mechanical and electrical systems, large elevators and a steel “skeleton” in the stone walls to protect against earthquake damage.

A new east wing will welcome groups with amenities such as a café, coat check, lockers and lunch area.

But the most striking addition is a soaring contemporary glass “lantern” over the main entrance.

“It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of the historic building with the modern intervention,” says Maureen Dougan, the museum’s chief operating officer.

Three architecture firms tackled the project in a joint venture. Padolsky was responsible for heritage restoration and and project management; Bruce Kuwabara, of Toronto, was the lead designer; and a Quebec City firm prepared the construction documents.’

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