When Canada's national museum on the Ottawa River opened

Located on the Ottawa River in the capital region, the building that houses what is now known as the Canadian Museum of History began welcoming visitors on June 29, 1989.

Architect Douglas Cardinal wanted Canadian Museum of Civilization to be a 'people's space'

Opening day for the Canadian Museum of Civilization

33 years ago
Duration 2:22
A young visitor is impressed by architect Douglas Cardinal's "twirly" building on the banks of the Ottawa River.

When it opened on June 29, 1989, the Canadian Museum of Civilization — both the building and the name — were brand new.

The national institution, which was renamed the Canadian Museum of History in 2013, was situated on the Ottawa River in what was then Hull, Que., across from Parliament Hill.

The museum held a collection "rich in Canada's cultural and historical heritage," said reporter Anna Maria Tremonti for that night's The National

And the new building was designed to house the artifacts belonging to what until then had been known as the Museum of Man in Ottawa. 

The building's design was the vision of Alberta-born architect Douglas Cardinal.

'A joyful space'

Architect Douglas Cardinal is seen inside the museum with totem poles from the permanent collection. (The National/CBC Archives)

"He wanted a building that grew out of the land, carved by the water and the wind," said host Peter Mansbridge. 

Cardinal himself was present at the ceremony that officially opened the museum before visitors flooded in to see it. 

"I wanted it ... to be a people's space, where we all could share our cultures," he said. "I wanted it to be a joyful space."

The museum occupied a spot on the Ottawa River in Hull, Que., across from Parliament Hill and The National Gallery of Canada. (The National/CBC Archives)

Tremonti described Cardinal as "the Alberta Métis who was once told he'd never make it as an architect" and said the architectural establishment had once "scoffed" at his design.

"Today, there was nothing but praise for his work," she said, noting the project's final cost had escalated from $80 million to more than triple that. 

Brian Mulroney, then the prime minister, described the museum as a "miracle on the banks of the Ottawa River."

'The outside is all twirly'

"I'm sort of all confused about what it's going to look like," said a young boy on opening day at the museum. (The National/CBC Archives)

A young visitor was one of many keen to get a glimpse inside the building.

"I'm sort of all confused about what it's going to look like," said the enthusiastic boy, wearing a green plaid shirt.

"The outside is all twirly, but I'm wondering if the inside is just going to be flat walls," he said, gesturing expressively.

After the ceremony, the public was welcomed in to get a look at some of the exhibits.

"Visitors are encouraged to touch, and play, and even pull strings," said Tremonti, as the camera showed groups of children in the interactive, hands-on exhibits.   

At the time, there were three years to go before the museum was completely ready, and just half of the displays were available for viewing.

"But that didn't seem to bother anyone, as the day's celebrations stretched into the night," summed up Tremonti as fireworks lit up the night.