After being closed for more than two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ottawa’s Bytown Museum finally reopened last week, just days before the annual holiday that celebrates its namesake.
The museum, located next to the Rideau Canal locks off Parliament Hill, is named after Colonel John By, the British military engineer who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal and founded Bytown, which would eventually become the city of Ottawa. Because of his contributions, the August civic holiday, which falls on August 1 this year, is known as Colonel By Day in Ottawa.
During its pandemic closure, the museum switched to virtual content, but last week it once again invited visitors to explore the three floors of the Commissariat, Ottawa’s oldest existing stone building.
And Grant Vogl, the museum’s senior manager of collections and exhibits, knew exactly what to do before he opened the doors of Bytown.
In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, he printed a poster for the museum planter who notifies passers-by of the temporary closure of the building.
On July 21, when the museum opened for the first time in more than two years, it was immediately removed.
“The first thing I did was take the key, open the box, remove the sign and put it in the shredder,” Vogl said.
During the first day of in-person services, tour guides were on hand to answer questions about artifacts and retract stories about the building’s colonial history, including how a lost barrel of silver coins caused Rideau Canal workers to obtain double servings of rum from the vault.
“Bringing this piece of opening doors and welcoming people back inside feels great,” said Courtney Gehling, executive director of the Bytown Museum. “We are a community in our hearts and we are here for the community.”
Gehling said staff adapted online programming through multiple phases of the pandemic, as the length of the building closure became clearer.
The museums Zoom Conference Series and the roundtables allowed staff to hear from groups such as the Italian and Somali communities, women museum leaders and Algonquian leaders who spoke about truth and reconciliation in museums, she said.
“[We were] really engaging with the diverse communities of Ottawa to say, ‘What do you need and how can we support you?’” Gehling said. “That was really an amazing experience that came out of the pandemic that maybe wasn’t there beforehand.”
Museum staff have now transferred the online lessons to the museum’s in-person offerings, Gehling said. Part of that was adding QR codes alongside artifacts targeting short videos that describe the specific object, Vogl said.
Vogl is the only current employee who worked for the museum before the start of the pandemic. He said that as everyone prepared to reopen, they trained new summer workers and also trained existing staff on the protocols and scheduling in person.
“Finally landing today is a big deal for us,” Vogl said.
In April 2020, he said he installed a temporal exposition with paintings from the museum’s collection.
“It had been planned for that summer and I thought, ‘Everyone says two weeks, it may not be that, but hopefully by summer everything will be fine and we can reopen,’ and of course everyone knows what happened,” Vogl said. .
Vogl said the virtual tour of the museum covered the temporary galleries, but it’s exciting for visitors to see everything up close.
“For me, seeing an image of an artifact versus standing in front of it are two completely different things,” Vogl said. “You can go to Google and find a picture of almost anything, but if you’re standing in the oldest building, you can see the masonry of the walls and the beams and you can see the artifacts in context.”
Returning to the museum is another learning opportunity for the staff, said Nicholas Litardi, summer guide and architectural history student at Carleton University.
“Working on Ottawa’s oldest building is a pleasure and an honor, seeing how the buildings have changed over the years from the wood frame to the solid stone walls to the vault,” said Litardi. “It is a blessing for my studies.”
Museum staff said they want to challenge the characterization of Ottawa as a tired government city by residents, newcomers and tourists now and in the future.
“We have pretty boisterous roots,” Gehling said. “Bytown was known for being pretty noisy, so the early days of Bytown were by no means sleepy Ottawa.”
The nonprofit museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm Admission is $8 per adult, $5 for seniors and students, $2 for children under 12, and $18 for families. Children under two years enter free.
This story also appears on the Capital Current, the community news site run by Carleton University’s journalism program.