Museum renovations more than just a facelift

By Michael Malone

The Museum of Nature is getting a new skeleton—a steel exo-skeleton which will prevent the building from buckling.

It’s all part of a renovation project, started in 2002, which will revitalize the site for tourists. The grand opening is slated for 2010.

“With this renovation, we’re doing the IKEA thing,” says marketing and communications cirector Liz McCrea. “We’re trying to get organized to make the most use of our limited space.”

Built in 1911, the museum has been plagued with serious structural problems.

It is built on top of shifting soil and must be heavily reinforced to meet modern building codes.

“We’re doing a lot of work on the structural side . . . if we have an earthquake, the soil here turns to Jell-O,” says McCrae. “The building has been sinking ever since it was built.”

The nature museum, officially the Victoria and Albert Memorial Museum, has been designated the third most important heritage site in Canada after the Parliament Building and the Parliamentary Library.

This complicates the renovations as all changes to the facade must be carefully weighed.

“We’re dealing with a lot of asbestos here,” says conservator Diana Komejan.

Asbestos, a carcinogenic type of insulation, is found in the plaster which forms the basis of snow scenes. While not a public health risk, Komejan says a team of experts must remove the asbestos before the exhibits can be handled.

The difficult work is complicated by the age of the building and size of the exhibits.

Enormous murals that bring animal dioramas to life are simply too big to fit down hallways and through doors unless they’re carefully cut apart and re-assembled later.

Many of the murals were painted by well-known Canadian artists and are nearly 50 years old.

Artifacts from the closed west wing are currently stored elsewhere in the museum or at a collections warehouse in Gatineau. Once the west wing is finished, everything must be shuffled again for the closure of the east wing.

Constantly moving the collection while staying open to the public has been difficult for the museum staff. “All of this, it’s like reinventing the wheel,” says Komejan.

Dan Smythe, the museum’s senior media relations officer, says the renovation will allow more artifacts to be seen.

“We’ve got a huge amount of our material collected at our facility in Gatineau,” he says. With the new building, curators hope to cycle more of the collection through the downtown site and into public view.

The Centretown streetscape will also undergo a significant change. “We’re working with a company in Toronto to redevelop McLeod Street. into a promenade,” says McCrea.

By 2009, there will be a large boulevard between Elgin and O’Connor streets, with more greenspace along the roadway and parkland for area residents.

Though some parts of the museum are in disarray, McCrea says she’s confident that current visitors will still be satisfied. “We’re bringing in a show called “Fatal Attractions,” about ‘frolic’ in the animal kingdom,” she says.

The show, opening May 1, is a joint effort between the Canadian Museum of Nature and a group of European museums.

“It’s been a challenge to keep things interesting, but I think we’re doing a good job and our attendance figures have remained very encouraging,” she says.