OTTAWA - The Canadian Museum of Nature stages a grand reopening this week after a six-year, $216-million renovation that transformed the castle-like stone building from a damp and dingy relic into a state-of-the-art repository and showcase for the nation's natural wonders.

While other national museums around the capital are struggling with budget cuts by the Conservative government, the nature museum and its vast collections have been given a new lease on life.

Exhibition space has expanded and new privately funded galleries will open, including a fossil gallery, a blue-water gallery, an earth gallery and the "Animalium," a gallery of live creepy-crawlies like spiders, cockroaches and scorpions.

It also boasts the largest exhibition of stuffed Canadian birds anywhere, some close to 130 years old.

With significantly more of the museum's 10.6-million-piece collection on display, many exhibits -- old and new -- will take a new tack, incorporating environmental and other current issues.

Architecturally, the museum facade has been redesigned with a multi-storey glass "lantern" over the main entrance evoking the century-old building's original front tower -- dismantled long ago -- along with a new boutique and cafe and virtually all-new infrastructure.

Once dubbed Ottawa's "sinking castle" -- it's settled more than a half-metre into the clay beneath it over the last 100 years -- the Tudor-Gothic beaux-arts building has been reinforced with an earthquake-resistant steel "endoskeleton." Cracks have been repaired, windows replaced, new floors laid and old ones restored.

Infrastructure changes include new temperature and humidity controls to ensure preservation of delicate artifacts, as well as a loading dock to bring them in, much to museum staff's excitement.

The loading dock is "probably the most direct visible sign of museum function being made concrete and it's probably the piece that makes museum hearts beat a little faster here," said Joanne DiCosimo, museum president and CEO.

"You have to appreciate that the building was built in large before there were trucks and it never in its original design had shipping-receiving-loading capacity," she said.

"When you have to transport exhibit material to and from a building like this, let alone move it to the fourth floor for exhibit, it's very, very difficult and very, very limiting."

The loading dock already proved its worth when the museum brought in a 20-metre skeleton of a teenaged blue whale to anchor the new blue-water gallery.

The big re-opening comes as other institutions face hard times:

  • The Tories cut the operating budget at the Canadian Museum of Civilization by $4.25 million last year, and the national museum faces further cuts under federal austerity measures this year.
  • With 96 per cent of its collection in mothballs, the Canada Science and Technology Museum has been searching for a new home since 2001, but the Conservatives rejected its last two proposals and it recently hiked admission and membership prices to help cover costs.
  • The National Gallery of Canada, its regular collections once open to free public view, has introduced general-admission charges in the face of budget cuts and soaring costs. It recently eliminated 27 positions as part of major restructuring to trim its budget deficit.

Last month, the Tories allocated $15 million to be distributed among all the institutions as an emergency stopgap to cover day-to-day costs such as heat and lights.

But other expenses, such as salaries, maintenance and special exhibitions -- their lifeblood -- are under-funded or not funded at all. Civilization, a crown corporation, fundraises for all its acquisitions and special exhibitions.

And the museums' problems may only get worse: Civilization, which includes the Canadian War Museum, endured a bitter 86-day strike by members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. It ended in December, setting the stage for talks this spring at several of the region's other institutions, including Nature.

The nature collection is housed in the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, a 1912 design by national architect David Ewart.

The building served as home to the Commons and Senate for four years after fire destroyed Parliament's original Centre Block in 1916. Women's suffrage came to pass within its walls, along with the somewhat less-popular Income Tax Act -- supposedly a temporary measure to fund participation in the First World War -- and conscription.

It was home to multiple museums and institutions: the Geological Survey, the National Gallery, the Museum of Man (now Civilization), and the original Museum of Natural Sciences.

Nature is hosting several semi-private viewings through the week before a parade to accompany its official reopening on Saturday. Related events continue throughout the holiday weekend.

Admission is $25 for families, $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and $6 for children over three years of age. Children three and under get in free.