Early on a cloudless September morning, I stare at the grey building on the riverbank. Long and low, it hugs the earth, half buried in the landscape, but the eastern end sweeps skyward towards the Peace Tower. It’s no accident in design. The roof ends in a high fin with tiny windows: in Morse code these spell out “Lest we forget” and “N’oublions jamais.” The visible building is the tip of the iceberg — below ground are half a million artifacts in the collections and conservation rooms, archives and libraries, and research facilities.
Forty years have passed since my obsession with museums began. I’ve spent hours in many — some tiny one-roomers in villages, others filling houses in prosperous towns. A few with peeling paint and rickety steps were filled with treasures; but others were modern architectural marvels in nations’ capitals, airy and inviting. Several in Ottawa are like this, but my favourites are the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau and the Canadian War Museum on the banks of the Ottawa River just west of downtown. Both are bold and beautiful even from afar.
I filled a whole day at the Canadian War Museum last year, an exploration I had promised myself since its award-winning new home opened.
Alone, I climb a twisting ramp up to the sloping green roof, which today looks like a hay field. From the lookout, I can clearly see Parliament Hill and hear only the wind in the trees. I pause and consider the museum’s mandate: Educate. Preserve. Remember. Below my feet lies Canada’s military heritage, a reminder of past sacrifices and victories dating from before the Europeans arrived. Horrific and celebratory. Fear-inducing and courageous.
The Canadian War Museum has been collecting and preserving our military stories since 1880, but this is its first custom-built home, opened in 2005 on its 125th anniversary and the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. It’s hugely popular, attracting a million visitors annually. And I’m thrilled to be one of them.
I’m dwarfed in the museum’s entrance hall. The interior is stark, austere. Riveted steel girders and walls of rough concrete come at me from all angles; floors slope in different directions. I’m off balance here and unsure of the concept. Soon, I discover how well the architecture works. The wonky walls don’t distract. For the two thousand paintings that hang here, some of which are huge and iconic, they’re a perfect backdrop. The sombre grey complements the subject of war.
I enter the Experience Galleries, five permanent exhibitions that meander back and forth carrying me from First Nations internecine warfare through to the “Violent Peace” that is devoted to Canada’s land, sea and air missions since 1945. I am immediately swept up in the emotion of warfare.
The displays are candid and moving; I’m spared neither the miseries nor the brutality. Each artifact is accompanied by the human story that surrounds it so that every piece in the collection becomes intensely personal. My senses are bombarded as I view multimedia displays, handle uniforms and guns, and march into a trench from WW1 where I flinch to the crump of heavy artillery and screams.
I come upon a homemade pocket teddybear that a 10-year-old daughter gave to her father to “keep him safe” when he left for the front. I read a letter in a childish hand from his son, then learn the bear was found in their dad’s pocket after he was killed and later returned to the family. I cry, something I’ve never done before in a museum. And I wasn’t the only one.
The Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour is an equally powerful expression of how Canadians remember and honour those who serve and have served in our armed forces. The exhibits here tell us our stories from well before Confederation to contemporary anniversaries. Taking centre stage is the original model of the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
Canada’s coming of age at Vimy is commemorated in Regeneration Hall, a narrow, angular gallery inside the soaring fin of the roof. It contains some of the original plaster casts created by Walter Allward, the sculptor of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial that commemorates the dead of WWI in France. No explanations are given — the magnificent carvings speak eloquently of the horror and pain of war. The soaring east window perfectly frames the Peace Tower sending a strong message of hope for a better future.
Soon, I’m in a vast space amidst tanks, aircraft, cannon, military vehicles of all kinds, and naval weaponry. This is the LeBreton Gallery, where the “big stuff” is displayed, and military history buffs gather to ooh and aah. Above my head, suspended from the ceiling, is a CF-101B Voodoo fighter jet from the Cold War; alongside me is a torpedo, probably carried by Canada’s first submarines, CC1 and CC2, in 1914; and behind me, lying silent but sinister, is a German midget submarine donated by Farley Mowatt. A battered jeep from the Canadian mission in Kosovo attracts me the most. Its five bullet holes in the windshield demonstrate just how dangerous UN peacekeeping can be. I’m relieved to discover that this story ended with the jeep’s occupants unharmed.
I save the best for last — this is Memorial Hall, hidden deep in the heart of the museum. I enter through a narrow twisting corridor whose tall walls press in on me and then open into a bare room with a small window high in one wall. The space is a cross between a dungeon and a Cistercian abbey. It’s no accident. On the wall opposite the window is the only artifact, the focal point. It’s a headstone from WWI with blood-red poppies tucked in its crevices.
Every November 11 at exactly 1100 hours, the sun streams through the high window and strikes the stone. Remembrance Day services are held here annually, of course, but official invitations are needed to attend. My brother-in-law was lucky last year and told me the experience was one of the most moving of his life. For me, just being alone in that sacred space is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
The new Canadian War Museum has made a supreme effort to balance historical facts and hard data with our emotional, heroic, and often distressing stories. That it succeeds in weaving the military and political overviews with the human connection in our heritage is masterly. I leave feeling I have met the individuals represented and have experienced a living archive. It’s no accident.
IF YOU GO:
* Visit warmuseum.ca for everything you need to know.
* Entry is free for everyone on Canada Day, Remembrance Day and on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; also, free every day for serving and veteran members of the Canadian and Commonwealth Armed Forces. Otherwise admission is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors.
* Guided tours available.
* Fully accessible for visitors with mobility challenges.
* Good restaurant and a gift shop that has a large selection of military history books.
APRIL 2014 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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