Canadian Postal Museum to close in overhaul

Redevelopment of the Canadian Museum of Civilization will see an end to the Canadian Postal Museum, but not to postal exhibits and collections. On Oct. 16, Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore announced that the Canadian Museum of Civilization would become the Canadian Museum of History, with the transition to be completed by 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. The First Peoples Hall and the Grand Hall will continue to tell the remarkable history of Canada’s First Peoples and highlight the wealth of their modern-day contributions. The stories of Canada’s First Peoples will also be part of the new gallery, as these stories are an important part of our history and our national identity.

The museum will continue to present international exhibitions from museums around the world that present world history and cultures. The Canadian Children’s Museum will not be affected by this change. Under the redesign, the Canadian Personalities Hall, the Canada Hall, and the Canadian Postal Museum will be combined to create a new, permanent exhibition on Canadian history. Many of the artifacts, collections and stories currently found in these spaces will be re-integrated into the new gallery as they form part of our national story. Museum spokesperson Patricia Lynch elaborated on that transition for Canadian Stamp News. “The Canadian Postal Museum is scheduled to close the second week of November,” she said. At that time the postal items will be re-integrated into the new Canadian History Gallery. The display of stamps will be relocated to a temporary gallery. “We will also be using some of our collection in two travelling exhibits,” Lynch said.

These exhibits will travel across Canada, bringing the museum’s holdings out to Canadians in all parts of the country. None of the items currently held by the museum will be destroyed or sold, she said. But they will be conserved. Few museums, including the Canadian Postal Museum, are able to exhibit all of their collections at one time. Lynch said over the years it is likely that some exhibits change. She also confirmed that all philatelic and postal material would continue to be made available for researchers and would be catalogued. “I believe we have that now,” she said. “There are researchers who specialize or like to use postal material. “The library will be maintained.” Originally founded in 1971, the Canadian Postal Museum became part of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1988 when Canada Post’s holdings were merged with the Museum of Civilization. Since 1997 it has been housed as a permanent space on the second floor of the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings. It is the only museum in Canada dedicated uniquely to mail.

As part of the redevelopment, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is embarking on a cross-Canada tour seeking input from Canadians on what they would like from the new Canadian Museum of History. Mark O’Neill, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, the Crown corporation that operates the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian War Museum, and Virtual Museum of New France, said the new museum is to “focus on the major themes, seminal events, and people that have shaped our national story.” Over the coming weeks, the museum will visit St. John’s, Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal, Gatineau, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Members of the public will be invited to join roundtable sessions and visit interactive kiosks at public venues and events in these cities. The museum will remain open throughout the transition. Work will be done progressively. The spaces will change gradually, remaining accessible to visitors for as long as possible during this transition.

The museum attracts more than 1.2 million visitors each year. At the same time, the museum has announced a significant acquisition, the most comprehensive collection of artifacts and archival material related to the sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland, and is planning an exhibition in 2014 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. The Canadian Pacific Railway ocean liner sank in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski, Que., on May 29, 1914, after being broadsided by a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad. The accident occurred in dense fog in the dark of night just hours after the ship left port in Quebec City. The Empress sank within 15 minutes, killing an estimated 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers and crew. The victims included 134 of the 138 children on board, the majority of passengers in the lower decks, and most of the Salvation Army’s Canadian Staff Band, who were on their way to London. Slightly more than half of the crew of 420 managed to survive. “The sinking of the Empress of Ireland was a Canadian tragedy of truly titanic proportions,” O’Neill said. “While most Canadians know the story of the Titanic, not many have heard of the Empress, in large part because the disaster was overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War just two months later.

“The Empress of Ireland collection and the exhibition we are organizing will help us better understand the tragic fate of the ship and appreciate its important legacy as a Canadian vessel that brought tens of thousands of immigrants to our shores,” O’Neill said. “The Empress and the poignant stories of its passengers represent a dramatic moment in Canadian history, one worth preserving for future generations.” In its eight years of operation, the Empress carried thousands of people across the Atlantic between Liverpool and Quebec City, many of them travellers on their way to a new life on the Canadian Prairies or in a big city such as Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg or Vancouver. The wreck, which lies along Canada’s most important and historic navigation corridor, was recently designated a National Historic Site.

The Empress of Ireland collection comprises more than 400 items, including the ship’s fog bell, compass and other navigational instruments, as well as portholes, dining-room furniture, light fixtures, dishware, utensils and personal items like a silver pocket watch and a hat box. There are also two ship models of the Empress, and archival materials such as historic photos, newspapers and personal papers, including an eight-year-old survivor’s memoir recalling her harrowing rescue. The Museum of Civilization acquired the artifacts from private collector Philippe Beaudry for a combination of purchase and a gift tax receipt. The collection, whose value is estimated at more than $3 million, has been designated as one of “outstanding significance and national importance” by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board.

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