New ‘immersive’ exhibit gives visitors a virtual peek inside Parliament

The Library of Parliament has launched a new virtual tour of Parliament Hill to give visitors a glimpse of the Commons and Senate chambers while they’re being renovated.

A trip to Parliament is an essential stop for many visitors to Canada’s capital. But far fewer people have had the opportunity since December 2018, when the historic home of the House of Commons and Senate closed for a decade of extensive renovations.

Even members of Parliament elected since 2019 have only ever worked in the temporary House of Commons chamber located next door in West Block.

Now, the Library of Parliament is hoping to give the public a feel for the building and its chambers with a new exhibit called “Parliament: The Immersive Experience.”

A new downtown Ottawa exhibit called ‘Parliament: The Immersive Experience’ gives the public a virtual tour of Centre Block while the building undergoes a decade-long renovation. (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

“We knew there’d be a whole generation of Canadians and visitors to Canada that may never have a chance to walk through those doors into Centre Block, such a historic building in Canada’s history,” said Renee Asselin, a senior project officer with the Library of Parliament.

“It’s an opportunity for Canadians to connect with Parliament … [with] why it’s important in our lives, and to understand that there are things that happen in those buildings that affect us on a day-to-day basis.”

The first stop on the tour is a museum-style room with dioramas and interactive displays exploring the role of Canada’s Parliament and its history. Curators say they hope it will prepare visitors for the second half of the exhibit — when they’re taken into a large, dark room with 360-degrees of video projection for a virtual tour of Centre Block.

The recognizable limestone arches from the Hall of Honour appear in front of visitors to a new virtual tour of Parliament Hill's Centre Block.
The limestone arches of the Hall of Honour appear in front of visitors to a new virtual tour of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block. (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

The tour takes visitors through the limestone arches from the Hall of Honour and past the Library of Canada — with its majestic white marble statue of Queen Victoria — the Senate and the House of Commons, all positioned just as they are in the real world.

While the narrated video tour highlights the stunning architectural details, it also touches on some of the darker events and issues parliamentarians have grappled through the decades — including two world wars, the Chinese head tax and residential schools.

“A lot of the subject matter is perhaps not as majestic as the experience itself, but [it] still forms Canada’s history,” Asselin said. “It’s important that we continue to discuss those things and bring them to the forefront to allow us to continue to speak about them and ensure that our history is represented in [the] way that it occurred over the years.

A person's hands are shown holding a smartphone taking a photo of a new virtual experience of Parliament Hill.
The Library of Canada estimates the cost of this new exhibition at $2.8 million and says it can accommodate up to 200,000 people each year (Christian Patry/CBC News)

The Library of Canada pegs the cost of this new exhibition at $2.8 million and says it can accommodate up to 200,000 people each year — still short of the approximately 350,000 visitors Parliament received yearly before Centre Block closed to the public.

Guided tours of the Senate Building and the current House of Commons in West Block are still offered, but only on days Parliament isn’t sitting.

As with the guided tours on the Hill, visitors book free tickets for the immersive experience in either French or English. The video portion also operates with sign language and closed captioning.

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