Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Ottawa’s Grand Hall

I was in Ottawa for just under 24 hours, but it made a great impression. Unlike most centres of government consciously established third tier cities, Ottawa has at least one world class museum, along with an easily accessible cultural life, and a great setting on the river from which it takes its name.

First mentions have to go to Vittoria Trattoria, a fast-serving and friendly Italian restaurant near the market and, round the corner, Chateau Lafayette (The Laff), apparently the oldest pub in Ottawa and boasting nightly live music. But the place I most want to go back to is the Canadian Museum of History and its stunning Grand Hall.

Situated on the Quebec bank of the Ottawa river, directly across from Parliament Hill, markontour was drawn to the museum by the giant cedar tree totem poles clearly visible through the 14 metre high windows.

The totems draw the visitor in and down into the Grand Hall and it is notable (because it is unusual) that the main hall of the national museum of this former European colony is focused on First Peoples of Canada’s Pacific worth west coast. Indeed, I didn’t have time to explore further and so my entire experience of Canadian history was of the Native American tribes of the north west coast, an area made habitable about 5,000 years due to warm ocean currents and dense rainforests, providing access to all the means for human life to flourish.

The main exhibition itself is inside a replica row of houses of the Pacific shoreline at the end of the nineteenth century, with a photographic backdrop of the rainforest. I entered via Chief Clelamen’s house, circa 1893, which boast blue and white striped turrets, reminiscent of a medieval marquee.

The quality of artwork is extraordinary, utilising vibrant colour and strongly tied to nature infused with human imagination. Thus, adorning totem poles are variously Thunderbirds, Lightning Snakes, and even Supernatural Codfish. And while the totems were statements of power and, thus, perhaps it is not surprising that they were made ornate, echoing the philosophy of British nineteenth century designer, William Morris, practical function appears not to have been an obstacle to imbuing even the most commonplace objects with beauty. The head-baskets used daily to carry crops are designed with grace, and clubs used to stun seals and fish are shaped and decorated in homage to the fellow animals they are designed to kill. A jet-black, jewel encrusted bowl on display is one of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen.

This artistic focus on nature reflects a First Nation philosophical perspective on the indivisible connection between humanity and the natural, as well as supernatural, worlds. According to oral history, all living things share a common origin. They also have many similar traits: “[a]nimals, birds and fish, as well as some supernatural beings live in villages and family groups, much like their human counterparts. To enter the human realm, these beings put on their cloaks of fur, feathers or scales, and appear as animals, birds or fish.” As many of the beautiful masks on display suggest, “at times, a cloak might slip, revealing a human-like face beneath”.

The survival of First Nation culture has been sorely tested by European colonisation, but there is clearly a major effort to maintain it today, including by “song-keepers”, whose job it is to remember and reinterpret ancient ballads, as well as the contemporary painters and sculptors whose work sits alongside that of their forbears in the gallery. First Nation culture, it appears, is very much a fluid thing, with the dead and living co-existing, much as in Australian aboriginal thinking.

An hour’s lunch break wasn’t nearly long enough to enjoy just one single gallery in this beautiful museum and a day certainly was not sufficient to get to know the city. Ottawa – I need to come back.

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