In the shadow of dramatic Cascade and Rundle mountains, the distinctive architecture of the Banff Park Museum and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies perfectly complement their natural surroundings. And once you step inside these buildings, an indoor Rockies adventure begins.
Perched prominently on the north bank of the Bow River beside the iconic bridge that extends Banff Avenue across the glacier-fed waterway, Banff Park Museum was constructed of Douglas fir logs in 1903. All around the outside of this National Historic Site of Canada, the logs display a decorative X motif, an expression of the government of the day’s desire to visually brand its buildings.
Stepping inside, you learn about the fascinating natural and human history that’s unfolded in Canada’s oldest national park. I was quite intrigued to know Banff’s Central Park actually housed a zoo with caged animals. It was shut down in 1937. Some of those animals were stuffed and are now displayed in the museum for visitors to learn valuable contemporary lessons about the wildlife that inhabit the park.
Representing an impressive time capsule from the early 1900s, the museum’s hundreds of exhibits haven’t been added to since 1914, but still represent many of the birds and flowering plants found within park boundaries. The oldest taxidermic specimen in the museum, a red breasted merganser, dates back to 1860. It’s the handiwork of taxidermist Harlan Smith, a highly skilled craftsman whose ideas and practices were well ahead of his time.
Historic Love Story
One thing that always inspires me about the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is how it blossomed from a great love story. Peter Whyte was born in Banff in 1905, the son of a pioneer merchant. Born in 1906, Catharine was a debutante from a wealthy Massachusetts family. They met as art students in Boston, married and settled in Banff.
Together, they explored the mountains extensively. From their log studio they painted how they felt about their beautiful world, often in the company of Canada’s greatest artists of the day, including Group of Seven members. After Peter died in 1966, Catharine devoted herself to her mountain community, and steered the creation of the museum to celebrate and offer reflection upon the unique culture shaped by the Rockies landscape.
In a remarkable testament to Catharine’s vision and devotion, the Whyte Museum today includes permanent and feature exhibits, a library and unparalleled archives. In addition to artwork by some of Canada’s most celebrated and respected mountain artists, Peter and Catharine’s fine paintings are displayed as well.
From pioneer photographer Byron Harmon’s stunning film footage and lantern slides of his 1924 expedition to the Columbia Icefield, to the contemporary Through the Lens photography program that immerses local high school students in the creative process of digital and traditional photography, the Whyte’s exhibits never cease to amaze, captivate and inspire me.
The museum also has seven heritage residences in Banff, including the home Catharine shared with Peter, which are open for tours. Visiting them always feels like a special invitation to experience the very soul of Banff.