Monday, 28 March 2016




I completed a 4-year undergraduate degree and a 2015 summer internship in Ottawa; some of my favourite memories were made in the capital and I’ve developed a strong attachment for it. Therefore, when contributing editor Leah Moncada said she wanted to head north for a couple days to visit an exhibition she worked on during her own internship, I jumped at the chance. Little did we know at the time that “a couple days” would really mean “26 hours.” We ended up arriving in Ottawa on a Thursday around 4:30pm and were on a train again the following day at 6:30pm.

It was a quick trip, but to no one’s surprise (at least, those folks who know us well), we managed to fit in 3 national museums. Granted, we did not go through every gallery and exhibition in these institutions. We travelled with a specific set of exhibitions in mind. I will be rating these exhibitions on a series of characteristics that they all share on a 5-star scale, so please join me in reliving our ambitious museum tour of the capital!

A view of Parliament on the misty night we walked to the Canadian Museum of History. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Canadian Museum of History – “Vikings” December 3, 2015 – April 17, 2016

Layout: ★★★ - The layout of “Vikings” was determined by a set of colour-coded themes, which seemed great in theory and started off strong. However, they were not executed well overall and seemed to disintegrate as one moved through the exhibition.

Ambiance: ★★★★★ - Whoever came up with the lighting, sound, and colour palette for “Vikings” deserves a raise. It was dimly lit in the exhibition space with various sounds of Viking life blending together and pinpricks of light, bringing to mind a longhouse with sun shining in through various spots. I’m all in favour of this kind of immersive experience.

Interpretive Text: ★★ - Too. Much. Text. Between the doubling of French and English and the fact that the English was too long to begin with, you would be in there for hours if you wanted to read all of the text. Repetition in text also occurred frequently, which was slightly frustrating.

Objects / Artworks: ★★★★ - The artefacts chosen for the exhibition were quite excellent and represented the huge variety in the Viking experience well. The most breathtaking display was that of a longboat’s rivets suspended in mid-air to give the shape of the ship they once held together.

Interactive Elements: ★★★★★ - There was animal skins to touch, at least three games to play, a Viking table to sit at, rope to feel, a reproduction sword to lift, and more. Fantastic.

Accessibility: ★★ - Some of the text panels were very low to the ground. Coupled with somewhat small text, this made reading sometimes difficult. Certain areas also created bottlenecks that made it tricky for those with mobility devices to move freely.

Overall Execution of Core Theme: ★★★ - As a half-Scandinavian person, I appreciated the exhibition’s strong efforts to demystify Vikings. However, I did not enjoy the overload of information and the questionable layout.

Nearly all of the rivets from 1 longship were strung together to form its shape. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Canadian War Museum – “World War Women” October 23, 2015 – April 3, 2016

Layout: ★★★★ This exhibition also used a layout driven by colour-coded themes, but “World War Women” (“WWW”) actually used these colours for the paint and text panels, which clearly delineated different areas. I did get a little lost at one point as to where to go next due to the twisting paths.

Ambiance: ★★★★ - The main sound track was a series of wistful songs played on a record, but inside various areas, there were pockets of sounds suited to the themes. In this bright exhibition, you saw women’s faces, heard their voices, and noticed their memorabilia everywhere.

Interpretive Text: ★★★★★ - In stark contrast to “Vikings,” “WWW” had the most perfect length of text I’ve ever encountered. So much was said with very few words. Shorter paragraphs and sentences did not take away from the visitor’s learning experience, but rather enhanced it.

Objects / Artworks: ★★★★★ - A round of applause for the exhibition developers who gathered all of the objects and stories attached to every single one for “WWW!” There was at least 1 artefact for every role women had during the World Wars, and I was incredibly impressed.

Interactive Elements: ★★ - Here’s where “WWW” fell short. There were three interactives, and two were response-wall based that required writing. The third was a knitting table with an interpreter present, but for those of us who can’t knit, it was intimidating.

Accessibility: ★★★★ - The size of text was great in most areas, cases were at a good height, and seating was scattered throughout the space. However, some corners might have been tough for wheelchairs, and certain panels had an annoying sheen that made them hard to read.

Overall Execution of Core Theme: ★★★★ - I was really pleased by the wide representation of the roles women had and the powerful weight of the personal stories the exhibition tells.

One area of WWW demonstrated the impact of propaganda during the World Wars. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

National Gallery of Canada – “Human Scale” March 11 – April 10, 2016

Layout: ★★★★ - The temporary exhibition space on the first floor used for “Human Scale” sports cavernous rooms and alcoves, perfect for to-scale and larger-than life depictions of the human body. I was startled by what I saw as I turned a corner twice, which I actually liked!

Ambiance: ★★★★★ - Overall, the sparse backdrop of pale walls and wood floors allowed the complex and sometimes uncomfortable feelings the works produce to take center stage.

Interpretive Text: ★★ - I am not a contemporary art expert, but I know enough to recognize when there is a disconnection between interpretive text and the works at hand. It didn’t happen for every piece, but I was shaking my head at half of what was written on the walls.

Objects / Artworks: ★★★★ - “Human Scale” contains just 8 sculptures spread out across a large floor plan, but they are each so jarring and thought-provoking that any more and the exhibition would be overwhelming.

Interactive Elements: ★ - Other than the ability to walk 360 degrees around the majority of the pieces, there was no other way to engage with the artwork, unless you count a video in one room depicting one of the artists at work.

Accessibility: ★★★ - There was lots of room to move around in the exhibition, and space to park mobility devices in the video room. However, the understated style and small size of the text panels made it hard for a number of people to read them at once.

Overall Execution of Core Theme: ★★★★★ - Although this is by no means a perfect show, the way in which it forces viewers to confront and renegotiate their ideas about the human body by presenting it on various scales was unexpectedly brilliant and will stick with me for a long time.

One of the massive representations of an infant in "Human Scale", with Leah for scale. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Have you seen any of these exhibitions yet? If so, do you agree / disagree with my ratings? Please share your thoughts and comments below!


  1. Lovely work! I hope the weather was OK getting between the CMH, the NGC and the CWM. In the summer, that would make a gorgeous walking itinerary.

    The sculpture depicted just above is Ron Mueck's 2003 "Head of a Baby" and is a bit of a celebrity at the NGC, such as Claes Oldenburg's "Hamburger" at the AGO. Ron Mueck had a show a few years back at the NGC that was absolutely breathtaking. Take a look at some of his reality-defying artworks here:

    I hope to have a chance to see these exhibitions! It sounds like you had a great time, congrats on the Ottawa "tour" de force!

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Stephanie! Ottawa truly does have magnificent scenery if the weather cooperates and you wish to walk between museums downtown. We lucked out with lots of sun after a bit of mist initially. Wow, that sure does appear to be a stunning show - thank you for sharing that link. I would have liked to see more of Mueck's work in "Human Scale," but I think it would have been too overwhelming coupled with the other pieces.

  3. A non-museum person friend just went to see Vikings and I grilled her for info: she brought up a lot of your points (especially about the bottlenecks), but also unexpectedly had an issue with the artefacts' authenticity. I was like, "tell me more!" and she said that she couldn't be sure if some stuff was reproduction or real (bringing up the 'is a reproduction an artefact' discussion). And that the emphasis on the gravesites and contextualizing the objects as grave goods was cool/weird because it felt wrong to be having them in the museum.
    I'm (fingers crossed) going to Ottawa in May, so I'll have to block off some time to see it for myself!

  4. That is incredibly interesting to hear the perspective of someone from outside the field on the exhibition. Grilling friends for information can lead to more in-depth and nuanced critiques than you get from guest books or visitor feedback forms. I do agree with her observation of the emphasis on the grave in many aspects of the exhibition. It created a strange tension between the ovewhelming desire to look and the equally powerful feeling that the act was taboo by virtue of the objects having been exhumed from a grave. It made me wonder what exhibitionary techniques make people comfortable / uncomfortable with the display of bodies and grave goods.

    I'm afraid you will have missed the exhibition if you wait until May as it's only open until April 17. If you can't make it, let me know and I can share some more photographs of it with you!