This old-timey museum on Cape Breton Island got a 21st-century upgrade

Highland Village Museum’s $5.3-million renovation updates its marquee building to a contemporary, Scandi-esque design
Isabel B. Slone
Highland_Village_Exterior 7 copy

During the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, landowners forced roughly 70,000 Scots from their homes to make space for more profitable (sheep-farming) tenants. Many evicted residents crossed the Atlantic and resettled on modern-day Cape Breton Island, displacing the Mi’kmaq from their own ancestral home, known to them as Unama’ki. The Highland Village Museum, located in quaint Iona, has told the story of these back-to-back displacements since 1962. The museum’s re-enactors, clad in billowing tunics and scratchy-looking aprons, spin wool, tend hearth and break out into songs about the region’s early Gaelic settlers for more than 26,000 school kids and holidaying history buffs every year.

READ: Just outside of Edmonton, the striking Diwan Pavilion is a feat of Islamic architecture

In 2022, the museum got a modern glow-up, thanks to $4.3 million in government funding and $1 million in museum donations. Gone are the tiny foyer, dated video screen and information panels. Highland Village’s marquee building has been reborn as a contemporary, Scandi-esque centre designed by the Halifax-based architects at Abbott Brown. The firm blended rustic features with sustainable materials and building methods that would be entirely foreign to a Gael.

The three buildings that make up the museum are in the foreground. They have tall, pointed roofs and few windows. In the background, the sky is blue and the ocean lies beyond.

The structure was assembled using passive-house principles, a United Nations–approved, climate-friendly construction standard that strategically arranges insulation to reduce heating and cooling costs. As a result, the museum is two and a half times more energy efficient than National Building Code minimums. Its outer cladding is made from hardy eastern cedar from New Brunswick, which can easily withstand the harsh Maritime climate.

RELATED: Polar bear hunts, pageants and other images from a new photo book about Atlantic Canada

Inside, visitors pass through exhibits via a series of connecting ramps. A middle passage joining the entrance and the community event space is a reimagined Scottish blackhouse. In the Highlands, that was a sturdy stone dwelling with a grassy roof. Abbott Brown’s version, however, is turned inside out, with spruce battens on the outside and vegetal-looking acoustic panelling crafted from wood fibres within.

An interior shot of the museum. The left ceiling is angled on a slope, while the right wall goes up straight. Modern art made of sheet metal is in the foreground. In the backgroud, a woman in 19th-century dress walks by.

Highland Village’s old-meets-new aesthetic reaches outside the museum’s walls, too. After passing several other faithful replicas—a school, a general store and a blacksmith shop—there’s an auditorium designed to host blowout cèilidhs, the Gaelic word for party. Every summer, a music festival draws families from around the island. Not a traditional tunic in sight.