Bytown Museum

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Bytown Museum
Musée Bytown
Bytown Logo Blue 2012.jpg
Exterior Bytown Museum Ottawa.jpg
LocationOttawa, Ontario, Canada lower locks of the Rideau Canal at the Ottawa River just below Parliament Hill
DirectorRobin Etherington

The Bytown Museum (French: Musée Bytown) is a museum in Ottawa located on the lower locks of the Rideau Canal at the Ottawa River, just below Parliament Hill. Housed in the Commissariat Building, Ottawa's oldest remaining stone building, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the origins of Bytown and its development and growth into the present city of Ottawa.

Founded in 1917 by the Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa (WCHSO), the Bytown Museum was originally located in the former City Registry Office at 70 Nicholas, across from the Carleton County Gaol. The Museum moved to its current location in 1951 and has operated from the Commissariat since, with the exception of a brief period from 1982-1985, when Parks Canada, the building's landlord, conducted renovations.

Permanent Exhibition[edit]

The museum's permanent exhibition, Where Ottawa Begins, is spread over the second and third floors of the Commissariat Building. The second floor of the museum explores the history of the National Capital Region from the origins of European settlement in the area to the incorporation of Ottawa in 1855. The third floor continues the narrative by examining the development of the city of Ottawa, the social and cultural life of Victorian times, the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee and the burning of the Parliament Buildings, as well as Canada's involvement in international conflicts.

The Temporary Gallery and Community Gallery are located on the second floor. The third floor houses 'A Day in My Life' -- the museum's children's area.

Temporary Exhibition History[edit]

The museum's temporary gallery, located on the second floor, features exhibitions highlighting Ottawa's history, culture, and community. Recent exhibits include:

2009: Justin Wonnacott: Somerset, an exhibition composed of nearly 50 colour photographs from Justin Wonnacott's Somerset Street project, was the museum's first major photography exhibition. The exhibit, curated by Christopher Davidson, was on view from June 6, 2009, to November 30, 2009. A bilingual catalogue accompanied the exhibition.

2009: My Neighbourhood, My Voice, a photovoice project bringing together researchers, community service providers, and a diverse group of local residents to tell the story of what they love best and what they feel needs to change within the neighbourhoods they live. The project, first revealed for one day at Ottawa City Hall in June 2009, was a collaboration between the University of Ottawa, Community Health and Resource Centres, Success By 6, and Arts Ottawa East. The exhibit was on view from December 5, 2009, to April 4, 2010.[1][2]

2010: The exhibition Evocative Objects: Artefacts Unfolding Neighbourhoods explored the meaning of objects, both museum artefacts and ordinary objects, as things that matter as they connect one to the community one lives in. The exhibit included some of Charlotte Whitton's personal journal entries from the Library and Archives Canada collection, ordinary household items from the vast LeBreton Flats collection now in the care of the City of Ottawa, photographs by Tony Fouhse and several of China Doll's accessories. The exhibit, curated by Mike Steinhauer, was on view from May 20, 2010, to September 5, 2010.[3]

2010: On Thursday, June 17, the Bytown Museum hosted live performance art within its temporary and permanent galleries. Sandra Johnston and Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell used live art to respond to and animate the interior of the museum to transform one's perceptions of place. The exhibition, curated by Christine Conley and part of Crossings/Traversées: A Performance Art Exchange and Residency, Ottawa-Belfast, was organized by Galerie SAW Gallery, Ottawa, and Bbeyond Live Art Collective, Belfast, Northern Ireland.[4]

A marble bust of Lady Macdonald by Marshall Wood (1874) was exhibited as part of the Hidden Treasures from the Bytown Museum exhibition in 2011; Photo by Justin Wonnacott.

2010: The Many Guises: Contemporary Self-Portraits exhibition presented self-portraits "through the pairing or juxtaposing of two images" by Ottawa and Gatineau artists namely Rosalie Favell, Chantal Gervais, Marie-Jeanne Musiol, Pedro Isztin, Jeff Thomas and Justin Wonnacott. The exhibit was accompanied by Likeness: Historic Photographs from the Bytown Museum Collection, a display of thirteen portraits dating from 1800 to 1910. Curated by Judith Parker, the exhibit was on view from September 25 to December 31, 2010. A bilingual catalogue accompanied the exhibition.[5]

2011: The exhibition Hidden Treasures from the Bytown Museum presented some 40 artefacts from the museum's permanent collection of Canadian art and historical artefacts. The exhibit included lithographs by Cornelius Krieghoff, a marble bust by Marshall Wood, drawings by Goodridge Roberts, and photographs by Daniel Alexander McLaughlin, Wm Notman & Son, and Alfred G. Pittaway. To Peter Simpson, the "highlight of the show" was an etching by a 19-year-old Winslow Homer, the artist's first known work, of the Rideau Falls.[6] The exhibition, on view from June 23 to October 2, 2011, was accompanied by an illustrated bilingual catalogue with texts by Janet Carlile, Charlotte Gray, Lilly Koltun, Steven C. McNeil, Judith Parker, Mike Steinhauer, Rosemarie L. Tovell, and René Villeneuve.[7]

2011: Following the museum's first collections-based artist residency, in the winter of 2011, Cindy Stelmackowich: Dearly Departed opened to critical acclaim later that year.[8][9][10] Ottawa artist Cindy Stelmackowich examined the emotionally charged language of 19th century memorial, mourning and bereavement objects in a series of digital prints and sculptural works. Stelmackowich's contemporary art were presented alongside a selection of historic mourning artefacts from the Bytown Museum.[11][12] "Dearly Departed," writes Paul Gessell, "is a brilliant way of educating visitors about the past by simultaneously marrying the past with the present."[8] The exhibit, curated by Judith Parker, was on view from October 19, 2011, to January 8, 2012. A bilingual exhibition catalogue accompanied the exhibition.

Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest (2011)
Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest (2011)

2012: Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest, an exploration of the role of trees in Ottawa's urban history. This exhibit, a collaboration with Carleton University and curated by Joanna Dean and William Knight, was on view from January 24 to May 27, 2012.[13]

2012: Rebranding Bytown, an artist-in-residence exhibition done in collaboration with Michèle Provost. Rebranding Bytown critiqued "the necessary and sometimes incongruous role played by marketing and commerce in the operation of a local history museum."[14]

2013: Mexico Fantastico, a celebration of Ottawa's Mexican Community. The exhibit, a collaboration with the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa, opened to mixed reviews.[15][16]

2014: Ottawa Answers the Call: The Capital and the Great War, which explored the role of both Ottawa and its ordinary citizens in the First World War.[17]

2015: Hidden in Plain Site: Ottawa's History in the Background, a collection of highly magnified historical photos that exposed hidden details of the past.[18]

2016: Forged in Fire: The Building and Burning of Parliament, an account of the burning of the Parliament Buildings.

2017: Bytown Museum: A Century of Community, a history of both Ottawa and the Museum itself through 100 artifacts from the Museum's vast collection.[19]


The Commissariat Building[edit]

View from the Bytown Museum: Entrance Bay in Fall
View from the Bytown Museum: Entrance Bay in Fall

The Commissariat Building, a Classified Federal Heritage Building, is an imposing three-storey structure located on the west side of the locks at the Ottawa Lockstation on the Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Commissariat, constructed by the prominent Montreal contractor Thomas MacKay in 1827, is the oldest remaining stone building in Ottawa.[20][21]

A plaque, located today on the main floor of the building near the museum entrance, states the following: "This structure, the oldest existing stone building in Ottawa, was used as a storehouse, office and treasury during the construction of the Rideau Canal (1826-32) under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, R.E. Its superb masonry and solid construction are typical of the stonework done by Scottish masons along the Rideau Canal and, at a later date, on private homes in eastern Ontario. In 1854, the building was turned over to the Canadian government and, until 1951, was used successively by various departments concerned with the maintenance of the canal."[22] The plaque was originally erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board (known today as the Ontario Heritage Trust).[23]

The Rideau Canal Workers' Celtic Cross Memorial, erected by the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committee, was unveiled on June 27, 2004, at the first lock on the Rideau Canal. This Celtic cross memorial pays tribute to some 1,000 workers and their families who lost their lives, and the many more who were injured during the construction of the Rideau Canal between 1826-32.[24] The inscription reads: "In Memory of 1000 workers & their families who died building this canal 1826 - 1832."[25]

The Bytown Museum[edit]

1906 Loan Exhibition held at the National Art Gallery, Ottawa (Cover of exhibit catalogue; published in 1907)

The museum first opened as the 'Bytown Historical Museum' in 1917 in the former City Registry Office at 70 Nicholas Street, Ottawa. The Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa (WCHSO), a group of some 30 women whose objective it was to advance the study of Canadian history and literature, had amassed a collection of artefacts and were in need of a more permanent home. Founded in 1898, the WCHSO had presented and prepared papers on the history of Ottawa and organized two exhibitions entitled Loan Exhibition. The first exhibit, held in 1899 at 116 Sparks Street, included a tint stone lithograph City of Ottawa, Canada West (c. 1859) by Stent and Laver Architects and three photo-based engravings (1862) by Elihu Spencer depicting the construction of the Parliament and the Departmental Buildings. The second exhibition, held in 1906 at the National Art Gallery (today the National Gallery of Canada) located on the second floor of the Victoria Hall on O'Connor Street,[26] exhibited what was then believed to have been Samuel de Champlain's very own astrolabe (today in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History).[27] Mayor Harold Fisher declared the building to be officially open at four o'clock on October 25, 1917. The building was used for meetings and as "a museum for relics and souvenirs."[28][29]

Many Ottawa figures contributed to the refurbishing of the space for the WCHSO: Thomas Ahearn provided appliances, J.R. Booth redid the floors, and the governor of the gaol sent inmates across the street to paint and decorate the interior. The museum was housed in the Registry Building from 1917-1954. In 1951, the women secured the lease to the Commissariat and began the long process of preparing the building for the collection and the move itself. By 1954, the move was complete.

When the Commissariat was closed from 1982-85 by Parks Canada for restoration work, the museum was temporarily relocated to Wellington St. The Historical Society of Ottawa (HSO) was responsible for the management of the museum until 2003, when a Board of Directors was established and the museum was registered as a not-for-profit charitable organization.


Years Director
2003–2008 Christina Tessier[30]
2009–2011 Mike Steinhauer[31][32]
2012– Robin Etherington


See also[edit]


  1. ^[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ "Voicing your 'hood" (vol.48, #18). The Charlatan. March 19, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  3. ^ "Evocative Objects: Artefacts Unfolding Neighbourhood / Presented at the Bytown Museum until September 5, 2010". Art PR Wire. May 5, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  4. ^ "Crossings @ SAW Gallery". Canada Council for the Arts. Ontario Arts Council. June 17, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  5. ^ "Exhibitions". akimbo. September 24, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  6. ^ Simpson, Peter (June 22, 2011). "Hidden gems from early Ottawa". Ottawa Citizen.
  7. ^ "Hidden Treasures from the Bytown Museum". June 23, 2011. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  8. ^ a b Gessell, Paul (November 14, 2011). "Artful Blogger: The Bytown Museum hosts a Crafty-creepy Hairy Workshop on Saturday, Nov. 19". Ottawa Magazine. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  9. ^ "Cindy Stelmackowich on the Big Beat". October 21, 2011. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  10. ^ Atumbe, Jolie (October 25, 2011). "Dealing with Death, a Hairy Situation". The Charlatan. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  11. ^ "The Bytown Museum announces a new fall exhibition and illustrated bilingual catalogue". Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  12. ^ Parker, Judith. "Cindy Stelmackowich". Bytown Museum_NEWSLETTER_FallWinter2011_WEB_Oct12. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  13. ^[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ "Upcoming Exhibit - Rebranding Bytown". Canadiary Canadian Events. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  15. ^ Gessell, Paul. "Artful Blogger: Bytown Museum's Mexican exhibition must be causing dear Colonel By to spin in his grave". Ottawa Magazine. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  16. ^ Fejzić, Sanita (August 13, 2013). "Latin vibes and sunsets at the Bytown Museum". Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  17. ^ "Bytown Museum - Ottawa Answers the Call: The Capital and the Great War". Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  18. ^ "Hidden in Plain Sight - Bytown Museum | Ottawa Arts Council". Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  19. ^ "Temporary Gallery - Bytown Museum". Bytown Museum. Retrieved 2017-01-12.
  20. ^ "Commissariat Building". Canada's Historic Places. The Canadian Register. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  21. ^ "Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada". Canada's Historic Places. The Canadian Register. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  22. ^ "Commissariat Building 1827". Ontario's Historical Plaques. Alan L Brown. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  23. ^ "Commissariat Building 1827, The". Ontario Heritage Trust. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  24. ^ Ottawa & District Labour Council (2006). "Rideau Canal Workers Celtic Cross Memorial" (Pamphlet).
  25. ^ "Celtic Cross - Ottawa". Rideau Canal World Heritage Site. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  26. ^ "Our History: Pre 1900". National Gallery of Canada. National Gallery of Canada. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  27. ^ "Champlain's Astrolabe". The Virtual Museum of Franco-Ontarian Heritage. Ontario Museum Association. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  28. ^ Steinhauer, Mike (2011). "History of the Collection". Hidden Treasures form the Bytown Museum: 12–18.
  29. ^ Gunn, Constance. "The Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Constructing Public Memory and Preserving History in a Changing City, 1898-1932" (PDF). Carleton University. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  30. ^ "Issue No. 123" (PDF). The Historical Society of Ottawa. p. 8. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  31. ^[permanent dead link]
  32. ^ Nease, Kristy (24 August 2011). "Bytown Museum director takes new post". Ottawa Citizen.
  • Campbell, Vera (1986), Bytown Museum treasures. Bytown pamphlet series, Ottawa, Ontario: The Historical Society of Ottawa
  • Serré, Robert (2011). Bytown At Your Fingertips. Ottawa: Bytown Museum. ISBN 978-0-9812860-4-4.
  • Steinhauer, Mike (2011). "History of the Collection". Hidden Treasures from the Bytown Museum. Ottawa: Bytown Museum. ISBN 978-0-9812860-6-8.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 45°25′33″N 75°41′52″W / 45.425809°N 75.697764°W / 45.425809; -75.697764